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