I have no more right to write a remembrance of Ron Dicenzo than anyone else who knew him. I only venture to do so because he shared many stories of his life with me that I would prefer were kept alive, and because I consider him a great friend. When I attended Oberlin in the late 80’s it was possible to be great friends with a professor without invoking any electronic demons like Facebook, if you had the courage and the will.
Ron wouldn’t have used Facebook anyway. He didn’t even have an answering machine until the late 90’s. He lived in a rustic three-story house filled with more beautiful antiques than you’d fine in some shops, and the only technology he allowed himself besides the phone and the stove was a TV and a VCR.
I first heard about Ron the way everyone else did, by reputation. His classes were the proverbial stuff of legend. Even though I didn’t need the credits, I attended his two courses on Japanese History, among the most well attended on campus, to see for myself.
He did not disappoint. He knew Japanese history better than any book, comprehensively, integrally, and he illuminated the threads that ran through the subject like a magician: Hade, Shibui, Tokugawa Ieyasu. The lectures and their beautiful slideshows were so well crafted that even having read nothing on the subject for twenty-five years I still recall key points from them.
Yet he was casual, conversational. He wore flannel shirts bought from the now-vanished army-navy store in town. He endeared everyone with his mannerism of ending every other sentence with the syllable, “nuh?”
Although I was a little cowed by his celebrity, I made the effort to get to know him. “Hi, my name is Adam,” I said. “That’s a good name!” he answered. I was surprised he remembered it. I shouldn’t have been. He remembered absolutely everyone’s name. If you took a class with him and spoke to him at all, he knew your name.
He then surprised me by allowing me to have intelligent conversations with him. He spoke to me not as a condescending or even a patronizing professor. He invited me to dinner at his house. He came to dinner at our house. He was at ease.
I was in awe. He showed me the English garden he cultivated behind his house, the most elaborate labyrinth you could find on such a small footprint, a treasure of topiary hidden from the street and the neighbors behind high hedges. Statues, goldfish ponds, the Garden of the Four Winds, each part was like something out of a storybook, and it was never finished.
The only time he was ever less than friendly to me was when I once asked if he could teach me how to garden, that perhaps I could help him. The wall came down…he got very uncomfortable and changed the subject. Later he apologized to me, obviously embarrassed, and confided that gardening was, for him, too special and too important to be shared.
A year after I left college I found myself in crisis. I felt I had to run away. The only place I could think of to go was Oberlin.
Ron invited me to stay at his home. He said he was having an operation and could use a little help. So for a week I was able to spend time in a beautiful, quiet old house, recover from my crisis, and get to know this fascinating man.
I learned a lot more about him then, as we conversed over dinner each night. Not everything that interested him involved Japan: he loved the TV show Taxi, and country music. He introduced me to the films of Akira Kurosawa, and we watched a few of them together.
He told me a number of stories about his life. He had been a Catholic, an alter boy in a Lithuanian community, and one time he and another alter boy had replaced the holy water with vodka. The priest did not discover this until the middle of the service, at which point he whispered a foul name at them.
Although a student of religion, he was himself no longer observant. As a young man he had studied as a Jesuit. He was “enlightened” by a Jesuit Priest who suggested that what they were studying was “all bullsh*t.”
As he showed me around his house, we went through a neglected room on the top floor, full of odds and ends. Among them was a small, ornate piece of paper which, when I asked, he offhandedly said was his Zen Certificate for Flower Arranging. I was astounded and gratified that he could so truly embody the nature of his achievement by minimizing his own importance.
He had attained both this and the Zen Certificate for Tea Ceremony as an expatriate in Japan, where he had fallen in with a young woman who agreed to teach him flower arranging, reluctantly at first. He demonstrated no great ability for the discipline at first, but over time the woman began to get a sense that he might be able to do well in it after all. His association with her eventually led him to a Zen monastery where he took up residence.
He seems to have greatly treasured his stay at the monastery. The Head Priest took a wry interest in him and encouraged him in his studies, albeit not always in a straightforward way. Ron spoke respectfully of the Head Priest as someone with a humorous outlook on his presence there, watching the outsider try to imbibe this very rarified Japanese way of life.
Ron recounted a day where he woke up, looked out his window and saw the cherry blossoms. “All of a sudden I knew that I was either going to leave or stay forever,” he told me. He went to visit the Head Priest who, immediately upon seeing him, remarked without preamble, “So, you’re leaving us now?”
The Priest must have sensed that Ron had seeds of something in him that only would grow beyond the monastery walls. And indeed, thousands of students reaped the benefit of Ron’s decision. He came to Oberlin, OH to become one of the most beloved professors on campus.
Ron remained single throughout his life. Though he recounted having had occasional intimate romantic relationships, he never married, claiming he did not believe in “tangling alliances.” When I knew him, his most important relationship was with his dog.
He had a number of dogs over the years, and each one was special to him. In his classes he sometimes talked of conferring with the dog about whether there should be a final exam. Frequently (though not always!) the dog convinced him to cancel it.
I saw him a number of times over the years, gathering the pieces of his story that I could catch. No doubt there are many others, shared with other friends, that I did not hear. I made a special trip back to Oberlin to celebrate his retirement and to revisit his garden, and I hoped the best for him in his well-deserved next stage of life.
He had said he intended to purchase a house and some land, perhaps in Vermont, and create a bed-and-breakfast. He would like, he said, to have his former students come visit frequently. But this did not come to pass, and he spent his remaining years at the house, collecting his antiques and tending to his garden.
The years after retirement were not necessarily kind to him. He battled ill health, failing eyesight and depression, but found solace and comfort in his friends from the faculty and the visits of his former students. Throughout his challenges, he remained a friend, and that is how I am allowing myself to remember him.
He taught me Japanese history, certainly. But his story, and his company, continue to teach me today. They teach me about humility, humanity, even frailty.
This man, one of my heroes, a Zen master in the true sense of the word, was in the end as much of a vulnerable human as I was. And there is something in that, a hidden certificate, a refusal at any pretense to be otherwise. He was not interested in being revered or respected or deferred to.
He was interested in being visited. He was interested in his garden and his dog. He was interested in knowing your name.