In Memoriam: Jim Garrett

Yesterday I went to a memorial service for my friend Jim Garrett, whom I first met back in 1991, when I was setting up a new writing center at Cal State L.A. Jim was a computer programmer who had decided to study literature. He had enrolled in the M.A. program and the English Department had just instituted a requirement that new Teaching Assistants had to work in the writing center for one quarter before teaching. The center was brand new and I had just ordered 10 Apple Macintosh SE-30s and 10 IBM PCs for student use. I was a DOS PC person, but the SE-30s were delivered first. When Jim walked in, he found me puzzling over how to set up the unfamiliar Macs. He introduced himself and immediately began unboxing computers, setting them up, and teaching me how to use them.

Our friendship began at that moment. He was technically my employee at that point, but I was already learning from him. A few months later he found me having no luck trying to figure out how to create a student-tracking database in Dbase. He offered to write a program for me. When he brought the first version in, he sat for an hour watching the staff at the front desk use it. Then he told me, “They don’t use it the way I thought they would. I have to redesign it.” For most programmers, that would be a training issue, but not for Jim. He wanted it to work the way the staff worked. Eventually, that program not only tracked students, but scheduled tutors, did payroll, and generated dozens of reports. We used it for more than a decade.

All of this was typical of Jim. When he saw someone trying to solve a problem, he pitched in. And he brought immense problem-solving skill and considerable knowledge to every scenario. As near as I could tell, he was interested in everything. He had the problem-solving skill of an engineer and the soul of a poet. He could be practical, mathematical, theoretical, and whimsical, sometimes in the same moment. If he didn’t know how to do something, he would learn. If you asked him how to do something, he would more than likely do it for you.

Jim was a mathematically thinking computer programmer who became a Wordsworth scholar. For him, there was no contradiction in that. His thought was not easy to compartmentalize. If you thought you had exhausted the possibilities of something, Jim was sure to have a different take, a new perspective, a useful insight.

All this problem-solving kept Jim very busy, especially when he became chair of the English Department at Cal State L.A., a place with a tremendous number of problems to solve, many of which were off-the-charts intractable and full of Catch 22 traps. Jim continued to act as if data and well-founded arguments would ameliorate things in the long run. He kept trying even when his own particularly rational, genius-inflected approach did not win the day. Though Jim’s approach was always rational and straightforward, he understood human foibles, allowed for them, and took every person he met seriously.

No matter how busy Jim was, he always made time for family and friends. Whatever conversation you started with him, he was always right there. He never seemed to be bored, distracted, or to deflect any concern. He listened carefully, and always seemed to know something about the topic. Whenever I met Jim, no matter how things were going for me, I always smiled. Part of it was his smile, but part of it was simply his stance toward the world. You felt that things were going to be ok.

I considered Jim to be one of my best friends, but at the memorial service I realized that Jim had a huge number of people who considered him a best friend. He always made whoever he was talking with feel special.  Jim was one of those people who make you think that maybe the human race is not so bad after all. I realize now that there are certain kinds of problems that make me think, “I’ll ask Jim about this. He is sure to have some insight.” I still have those questions, but now I can’t ask Jim. We will all miss him so much.