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  Lionel Basney 1946 - 1999

Lionel Basney-poet, husband, father and English professor-passed away on August 21, 1999. While on vacation with his family in Wilmington, N.C., Professor Basney was swimming in the ocean and was pulled under. He was then taken to a hospital, where he remained in a coma until the time of this death five days later.

The following tribute was written by his colleagues in the English department, Susan Felch and John Netland, and delivered at his memorial service.

It is a daunting task to stand here, representing my colleagues in the English Department, as we honor Lionel Basney. The words which we summon-plain in their prosaic sincerity-are a paltry substitute for the elegant simplicity with which Lionel could make words dance. But in these few words, we celebrate the life of our colleague.

Lionel was a man of many gifts, central among which was the gift of living life deliberately, choosing his words and his actions with care. He was committed to God's creation, to the natural rhythms of life-and so he chose to live in a rural community, to tend his own garden, to patronize small, family shops, to use-or refuse to use-technology judiciously.

Had he been so inclined, he could easily have attained the professional rewards reserved for academic superstars, but conventional standards of success never seemed to impress Lionel much. Far more important to him was his family: They were, he wrote, "the center of which [his] writing and thinking [were] the periphery" (Earth-Careful 8).

To live deliberately also implies the capacity to deliberate. No voice was more respected in department meetings than Lionel's. Time and again, he would pick the moment in our discussions when the issues seemed hopelessly muddled, and in the economy of a few sentences would sort things out for us. Characteristically, however, Lionel would minimize his role, often prefacing the most incisive comments with apologies like "I'm just thinking aloud here," or "this may seem horribly incoherent." Perhaps he did not realize just how much we respected him, how dependent we were on his wise counsel.

Lionel spoke eloquently, even passionately, about the moral imperatives of caring for God's creation, yet he never imposed his convictions on others. Always mediating and tempering his principled deliberateness was his gift of generosity, which overlooked the flaws and foolishness of others. He was generous with his time, supporting emergent writers in his classes, at countless poetry readings, and during our Festival of Faith and Writing.

Colleagues also appreciated his many small acts of kindness. I dare say most of us at some point found one of his characteristic 4 x 6-inch recycled scraps of paper in our mailboxes, bearing a type-written sentence or two in response to something we had written. Always affirming, even when suggesting alternative ideas, these notes revealed a worth far beyond the advice itself-they revealed the presence of a reader who had paid us the compliment of treating our words as if they mattered.

For words and their ability to convey meaning indeed mattered to Lionel. As Donald Hall noted, his was "a poetry of learning and of experience at the same time . . . a poetry that embodies ideas, finally in the service of conviction and statement, but thoroughly by means of the poetic line and image" (Tenure Letter). To express that embodiment, the joining of word and world, was Lionel's lifelong passion. He put it this way: "The world will never present itself to be handled and exhausted by language. . . . But the world is not empty. . . . The word . . . is a call: its function is to call us to our own attention; its place is in the world, where we are. . . . Our only freedom is to mean something beyond the sign, something about ourselves we would otherwise have lost or neglected to tell or hidden out of fear. . . ." (Grief, 469)

But finding those words was not always easy for Lionel, who wondered with disquieting honesty whether his words would find a reader. "What I am fighting is words. I am fighting to get through. There is an absence to be filled, the opening between you and me" ("Grief" 470). In "The Snow Plough Man" he questioned the entire enterprise of "Writing":

. writing another day

to no listeners,

speaking to no readers.

But Lionel did have listeners, readers-among colleagues, students, friends, and family. And he continues to grow larger in our memories as we reflect on his words and his faith.

In his Lenten Meditations, Lionel wrote: "We move in small, repetitive, cumulative patterns-learning to make a habit of what we do well, and repenting, again and again, what we do badly" (Feb. 21). What Lionel did well, what he made a habit of doing, was to live deliberately and generously and to invite us, through his elegant and precise language, to do the same, living in anticipation of the Shalom for which we long. At the conclusion of his Meditations, Lionel wrote, " When I hear the morning train I imagine that it is calling for the town that used to be there. So we live as believers, thinking of the place we started from, Eden, the home we can't get back to. . . . So we dream of the place we are traveling toward, Bunyan's Celestial City, the new Jerusalem. . . . There will be a day when the train will call, and it will be answered with a shout of welcome from the community of God's love, whole again, restored."

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