He lifted me like a Superhero, but showed me how to be a better human #RIP #OttoMaduro #Drew #ThankATeacher

In August of 1993, I arrived on the campus of Drew University for the first time. For many tragic reasons, I didn’t visit the campus before accepting admission to the Theological School. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to study religion. I had never been to New Jersey or NYC and I was running away more than running toward. My momma and daddy came with me, towing all that I owned on a Beverly Hillbilly-looking trailer–complete with bungee chords and a blue tarp. The looks as we drove through the campus foretold a displacement I would carry the entirety of my time at Drew.

I did not fit.

Each year, the Theological school gives two minority scholarships to students from Appalachia to study. This flabbergasted me, as I never thought of myself as a minority. (Since when did poor, white people from the hills warrant special treatment?) My college degrees were completed at a solid, small Christian college in East Tennessee called Carson-Newman, where my daddy attended. There were no women studies’ classes – no diversity in the curriculum at all. I was a top student, but when I got in my classes at Drew, I realized how uneven my education had been. Most of my classmates attended Ivy League schools or were international students. I had a very difficult time keeping up. One Professor asked me in front of an entire class, “How did you get in here?”

In order to take part in classroom readings and discussions, I had to self-teach years of feminist and other marginalized perspectives and philosophies. Academically, I was swamped. New Jersey was also not an inviting place to live. That year, the winter was relentless. I did not own a car and worked from 4am to noon each day at an Irish-owned bakery in Madison, NJ. No one looked me in the eye or made small talk in public. People kept to themselves. It was by far…one of the most lonely, difficult times of my life.

Enter Otto Maduro.

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I don’t remember how we initially became friendly. I hadn’t yet been in one of his courses. Nevertheless, somehow he took a shine to me. He sought me out…simply to be kind. I thought he felt sorry for me. I later learned two things: he did feel profound empathy for me and he seemed to extend this compassion to everyone in his path.

A few days before Christmas in 1993, I was headed home to Nashville on the Greyhound. I left campus on a public bus, terrified because I’d never been to Port Authority before and wasn’t sure of what I was doing. I felt a tap on my shoulder and there was Otto, with a smile as big as his heart. We began to talk and continued as we rode into the City. We hit a traffic snarl and were 45 minutes late when we arrived. He noticed the panic in my eyes and offered to help me find my bus.

Otto carried all my luggage and told me to hold onto his coat as we navigated a frantic pace through the Port Authority. When I arrived at my bus, they had started to pull off and he got the bus to stop. He handed my suitcase to the driver and physically picked me up and put me on the stairs. Kissing my forehead he said, “Kristen, may your journey take you to your people. Feliz Navidad.”

For the next 2 years, I often spent time in Otto’s office. We rarely talked about religion or philosophy. Sometimes politics. Usually, we spoke of music, dance, love, food and all the things in our hearts. I learned of the loss of his son. His childhood. His favorite meal. Why he chose the path he chose. He was a friend to me.

One of the tragic reasons I ran away to Grad school came in the form of a sexual assault from an acquaintance months before I moved. Having been a survivor of domestic violence and sexual abuse before, this event threw me back into a morass of shame. I began to believe that there were no good men. My view of philosophers and theologians was also pretty dim. They loved their denial, distance from the Body and the Ivory Tower way too much for my tastes.

Otto Maduro gave me joy. He restored my faith in men, in scholars, in humans. I like to think I gave him a love for bluegrass and Hank Williams.

Over the years, he and I would check back in with one another fairly often. Last Fall, he asked to see pictures of my children. He emailed me the next day to tell me which of their features looked like me. He asked about my wedding and mentioned that he was proud of me. It meant the world to me.

I got the news that Otto passed yesterday. The grief and gratitude have overwhelmed me. He likely did not know the depth of my respect and affection for him, although I always thanked him each time we spoke.

Yes, he was an international scholar. A passionate activist for justice. Accomplished and brilliant. An amazing Professor — challenging and inspiring.

Perhaps his biggest impact though was his ability to make each person feel that they mattered. He treated all people — no matter their station in life with the same genuine interest and care.

I am deeply grateful to have known him. Rest in peace friend. Today, I listen to salsa and let my tears come.

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About Kristen Chapman Gibbons

Loosely connected facts: Storyteller. Curator of a Better Internet. Lifelong Politico. Social Media Maven. Creativity and Empathy Evangelist. Performer. Creator of Content Worth Sharing. Digital Strategist. Former Social Worker. Decade teaching in Higher Ed. Master's Degree in Theology. Married to an Irishman. 3 darling kiddos. Preacher's kid. Appalachian. Music maker. Music devour-er. ENTP. Bohemian. Geeky. Obsessed with thrift stores and all things vintage. Lover of species.

View all posts by Kristen Chapman Gibbons

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3 Comments on “He lifted me like a Superhero, but showed me how to be a better human #RIP #OttoMaduro #Drew #ThankATeacher”

  1. RodTRDH--@ politicaljesus.com Says:

    Awesome post, KC. Thanks for this!

    Like

    Reply

  2. apronheadlilly Says:

    Sweet and strong!

    Like

    Reply

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