Sunday, July 30, 2006

My Friend, Josie Fowler

On July 23rd 2006, my good friend from graduate school, Josie Fowler, died of cancer.

I met her in the early 1990s, having first heard about her from my advisor, who had been on the admissions committee when she applied. I got the impression that she was someone to pay attention to. And she was. When she came to grad school, she was in her thirties, already had a master's degree in historic preservation and had written a novel. I wanted to be her friend pretty much immediately, and sought her out.
We had one class together, one in immigration history, and little did either of us know at that time that by the end of her time in grad school that she would become one of the most innovative scholars in the history of US immigrants. She started out a dissertation project that would compare the history of Gays and Lesbians and Asian-Americans in the Communist Party of the USA, primarily in California. Since I had done a lot of research on the CPUSA as an undergrad, and was doing my own dissertation on the history of the American left, we were natural research allies and library buddies.
Josie was diagnosed with breast cancer early in her graduate school career, and continued in school despite a double mastectomy and intensive chemo-therapy. I well remember talking with her all through the time of her treatments and gave her my TV to watch during recovery time. She lived with another friend of mine, and through tbe years we would see each other at parties if we weren't both in the library. She talked me through a million dumb relationships with guys in and out of grad-school, and I talked her through some prelim worries and problems with grad school "hoop jumping." Eventually, she went to Russia for six months and was one of the few American scholars, and one of the only ones on the left, to read pieces of the Russian comintern records of American communists. Occasionally, we exchanged emails while she was there. At one point, I seem to remember that she was sleeping on a cot in the hallway of some dreadful rooming house. While there she assembled her own excellent archive of Japanese and Chinese American communist materials, all of which will be donated to an American library.
Back in Minneapolis, she first planned to write her dissertation as a historical play with an academic introduction, and indeed, she wrote the entire thing. However, she changed her mind, and wrote what her advisor said to me was one of the most "traditional" (in the best way) historical dissertations, involving meticulous archival research.
On the way there, she proofread a chapter of my dissertation for me, and when I defended it, she came, and joined me and friends for bowling and beers afterward. After I left graduate school, Josie was one of a very small number of people with whom I remained in regular contact. She came to New York on a fellowship at Barnard and I was lucky to spend time with her while she was in the city. One of the best times, she came to my birthday party, and I got to introduce her to a famous labor historian and activist whom I know. Later that year, she told me that her cancer had metastasized. This was devastating news, and I read a little and learned that the survival rate of stage four breast cancer was not very high, however treatments are always improving, and Josie was someone who would make sure that she got the best treatment available. She was always confident and maintained a good sense of humor about her treatments.
The next time I saw her was in New York City. She had just finished her dissertation, a two volume tour-de-force history of Asian American communism titled, “To be Red and ‘Oriental’: The Experiences of Japanese and Chinese Immigrant Communists in the American and International Communist Movements, 1919-1934," but had to defend it from bed because she had broken her foot in a fall. She broke it because the chemo-therapy had given her osteoperosis, and she had tripped on a cobblestone while on her way to lunch with Peter Kwong, the famous Asian-American labor historian, who took her to great Chinese restaurants. I was amazed when Josie told me that while she was in the hospital with the broken foot, she had made friends with her hospital-room-mate and they had written part of a musical comedy about American medicine together. I think one of the songs was "Nurse, where's my bed-pan?"
Of course, as she was a labor activist and lefty, the musical involved the bad working conditions of the nurses along with the pangs of the patients. If there's a manuscript of this somewhere, I would love to see it.
She spent almost a year back in Minnesota, teaching at Macalester, where she was a huge success, and also taught at Metro State Community College, where she just loved the students. It was her favorite teaching job. That year, however, she was forced to leave teaching and focus her attention on her health. She moved to Boston, where she lived until her death last week. During those last two years of her life, Josie got a book contract with Rutgers, and last week, before she died, she finished it. I last saw her on July 14th. What she was most concerned about in our conversations was the state of the world she was leaving behind. She was hungry to stay in touch with current events, and told me that she was frustrated with the state of cancer research in the US. "All they are interested in is drugs," she said, and they do very little research into the evironmental causes.
An activist to the end, her plans for her own remembrance include asking people to donate to some organizations that do more research on environmental causes of cancer. When I find out which specific organizations she listed in her plans I will post their names here.
As an academic and as a friend, she has left a big mark on the world, a bigger one than many who are here for longer do. She said she lived a full life, and she was right. I am just angry that it ended so soon, and I will miss her terribly. And yet, I know that she already gave me so much. She said to me before I left, "you have a good life." She was absolutely, I realized then, one of the most truly generous people I've ever known


Anonymous said...

I just read your story about your friend Josie. She was a remarkable woman and the loss for you, her family, and others who knew her must be awful. Her courage and humor throughout this long and deadly illness are inspiring. I believe that she'll remain in your memory as a rare and unforgettable friend.
It's hard to imagine that one could write a dissertation in the form of a play and then toss it and move on to achieve what she did. I plan to read her book when it comes out -- and I've got to admit I'm very curious about how she was able to write her "first" dissertation in the form of a play. Have you ever seen it or parts of it?

reb said...

Thanks. She really was remarkable. A mutual friend told me recently that he thought there might have been a reading of the play done at Macalester while she was there. It sounds familiar, but I don't completely remember. She kept all her papers in very good order, so I'm sure that there is a copy of it around somewhere, along with her other writings.

reb said...

If you read down this page, you'll be able to read an abstract of an article that she published two years ago in the Journal, "International Labor and Working Class History."

Anonymous said...

Dear Rebecca: thank you for posting this picture and remembrance of Josie. I visited her in Cambridge 2 days after your visit, and she was home, and still beaming from her visit with you. I was very moved by her ferocious spirit, and by her eloquence and quiet pride about her book. "The book saved my life," she said. Yes. And it will have such a life for many scholars and students. Thank you for providing a context for the writing of her book.

I have a copy of Josie's first dissertation, I'm pretty sure -- she gave me a copy to read because I'm in Macalester's theater department. I'll look for it.

I'll be glad to receive the information about which causes she'd like us to donate to on her behalf.

Much love to you, Rebecca, and solidarity --

Beth Cleary

reb said...

thanks so much, Beth. I heard about her visit with you too, and about how much you meant to her over the years.

Anonymous said...

Hi Rebecca--This is lovely tribute to Josie's life and her passions. Thank you so much.

She was a very generous soul with a big, terrific laugh that always seemed to me to contradict her slight build--just something I remember.

And, if my memory serves, her dissertation actually began as a novel before it was a play. I recall her saying that it was practically all dialogue, so a play seemed to make sense. Well, I guess it did for a while, and then it didn't.

I'll be sure to look for her book in the future.

Thanks again for letting other people know about who Josie was.

catherine orr

reb said...

thanks folks for your comments. I keep having other memories of Josie that I should have put in, one in particular: during two weeks she had off from Chemotherapy about a year +1/2 ago, she came to do research in the library in NY. The two of us were both down in the basement of Bobst library, busily churning the comintern microfilm for about three straight days. I saw something related to her work and asked, "have you seen this thing that's in delo 4276 (or something)?" For the uninformed, there are about 500 reels of film in this collection, each with two or more delos each. "Oh, delo 4276," she said, as if she were talking about a recent movie, "I've seen that one."
I could go on and on.

Duchess said...

Josie had a wonderful laugh, a quick wit, and an incisive mind. I was fortunate to know her, and her passing is a concrete reminder that we should all try to live with as much meaning as Josie did.

Duchess Harris

reb said...

thanks Duchess. It's good to see you here.

Anonymous said...

Your memories of Josie make so much sense to me, in the way that I found myself reading and all along thinking, "yeah, she was just like that." And I think the thing that was so hard to describe about Josie is that she had such a strong sense of the big picture, and yet, she could be so consumed by the individual moment. She lived with both these types of awareness at the same time, and I think this is what made her an intense person. She had a rare ability to be aware, and you knew that when you talked to her, you had to be very focused and listen hard.
Anyway, I am still getting used to the idea of her passing. This was good to read.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to have stumbled on this lovely tribute to Josie, whom I only got to know a short while before leaving the Twin Cities. I remember her as others have described her here: so intelligent, so talented, so very committed to all she did. I also will remember her extreme gentleness of spirit. I once attended a play with Josie during which she unself-consciously vocalized her worry for the characters as some ominous set of circumstances unfolded onstage. That others in the audience had been feeling the same tension was clear by the smiles that suddenly appeared on the faces of those seated nearby. That little moment recalls for me some of what I admired most about Josie: her ability to be in-the-moment, her overflowing empathy, and her unfettered instinct to speak out for those in trouble or distress.
-mary strunk

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Rebecca, for these remarks, which come as a real salve. When I think of Josie, I think of someone who is still in motion, still full of motion, someone who is heading off in so many directions, so full of humor and intelligence, so gentle and, in the best way, so serious. I don't expect that to change. She still had more to say, more curiosity, more argument and fight, more traveling. She died before her time. That prankish, sidelong, and thoroughly conspiratorial smile she would sometimes give: I don't know how to imagine that as a thing of the past.

Adam Sitze

reb said...

Thanks Adam and Mary. It's nice to see, as the weeks go by that more and more people were so inspired by Josie. Where are you guys at these days? If you're at the American studies meeting in Oakland in the Fall, there will be a brief memorial at the U. of M. reception.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Rebecca. Mary Strunk forwarded your beautiful post. I will be in Oakland and look forward to paying tribute to Josie as a dept.

Joyce Mariano

Anonymous said...

Having heard about Josie's death after I left the Twin Cities and the company of so many people who knew her, it was hard to grieve the loss and celebrate the life. Your posting, Rebecca, the comments from so many other who were touched by Josie, have provided a much needed outlet. It makes me happy to read how many people recognized her unique spark, humor and intelligence. Your words really captured her. Thanks.

Kate Kane

reb said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bear Left said...

I'm not sure if you were the lead speaker at the memorial for Josie at the U of Minnesota reception at ASA this past weekend, but she sounded like a truly extraordinary person. I happened to wander in because someone told me to meet them at the reception. I couldn't stay for the whole time, but I was quite moved by what I heard, not even knowing word one about Josie beforehand. I'm definitely going to look into her work, and I can't begin to imagine what you're missing. Wishing you the best in healing, & in carrying on with her in your heart.

Holly Buzzell said...

So sad to remember this time where one of your friend are no longer around for you to see them. I remember the time where I asked her if she had any advice for my phd dissertation writing and just laugh at me because she said that phd have a thesis while dissertations are for masters. She said I might been living in the other part of the globe to have a phd dissertation.