H. Don Cameron

1934 - 2021

            Born on August 8, 1934 in Pontiac, Michigan, Howard Don Cameron would spend almost his entire academic life at the University of Michigan, a life that spanned over a quarter of this institution’s history. It began with undergraduate studies here in mathematics that gave way to Classics after his sophomore year under the inspiring teaching of Frank Copley. He received his A.B. in 1956 and moved to Princeton for graduate school, where he completed his M.A. in 1958. After a semester in the doctoral program, he went home over Christmas break and was offered an instructorship at Michigan, to start the following year. Following three intervening summers of work on his dissertation, he received his Ph.D. in 1962. In two more years he would be made assistant professor, then associate professor in 1967, and finally professor in 1978. He taught for over three more decades before retiring at the end of 2010. But he continued to come to his office daily and mentor students until declining health made that no longer possible.

            Of central importance to Don were the twin joys of amassing an eclectic body of knowledge that was as broad as it was deep, and sharing both the knowledge and the joy as an inseparable whole, like the two halves of Aristophanes’ mythical proto-humans before they were rent asunder. The number of subjects that Don knew in great depth seemed endless, and attached to each one of them was a raft of often humorous anecdotes about people and events. He carried his learning lightly, yet also with a certain aplomb; he fooled no one when he called himself “a bear with very little brain,” and there was no missing his profound erudition. There are those who say that knowledge is power; but for Don, knowledge was something much more important: fun. And the pursuit of knowledge was even funner (a solecism he would have chuckled at), and fun was meant to be enjoyed liberally with any and all. Of all the colleagues with whom I have shared my ideas or discoveries, Don was the only one who greeted one of them with a roar of laughter—of delight at the discovery and at the thought-process as I finished outlining it for him and came to the punchline. Of course, there are many among us academics who find it fun to know things and teach them to others, but few of us also have the background in performance (he was a seasoned singer and actor on stage) combined with preternatural gifts of wit leavened with avuncular charm to turn the act of sharing knowledge into something mesmerizing that sticks in the mind for years rather than remaining an ephemeral flash of light that presently fades. The dozens of his former students, some going back decades, who returned to campus to surprise him on his final day teaching Great Books in 2010—a program he had famously taught in since the 1960s and became the head of in 1983—attest to the lasting impact of his ability to share knowledge and wisdom in life-enriching ways.

            A scholar’s CV provides an entree into their interests and areas of expertise, but often cannot broker more than a superficial acquaintance with the person. This is mostly true of Don’s œuvre too, but not entirely. On the one hand, his early and still-cited monograph on Aeschylus (Studies on the Seven Against Thebes of Aeschylus, 1971), his articles on Greek and Roman drama, and his masterful student commentary on the first book of Thucydides’ history (2003) showcase his gifts as a learned, perceptive, and original reader of Classical literature and an expert exegete to students of the workings of Greek syntax; but the wizard still stands mostly behind the curtain—aside from occasional revealing glimpses, as when he calls a particularly gnarly sentence in Thucydides a “lollapalooza” or refers to a traditional yet obfuscatory explanation of the Greek middle voice as “bafflegab.” We can peel back another layer when we add the even more numerous published articles from his other career as a zoologist and specialist in arachnids, cladistics, and biological nomenclature (a career that garnered him a curatorship at the Museum of Zoology in 1974). But it is his one monograph-length work in that discipline that stands apart and that, in my opinion, offers the best picture of the man for those who never knew him: An Etymological Dictionary of North American Spider Genus Names from 2005.

            A great many of the things Don truly cared about and much of what made him tick can be found in one way or another in this work’s 60-odd pages. Hidden behind the perhaps unpromising title and (probably to many) dry-sounding and abstruse subject is a glittering tapestry of astonishing intellectual-history sleuthing, linguistics, Classics, history, literature, and fondness for understanding personalities past and present—all piggy-backing (or spider-backing) on the central subject of arachnids, which might not be everyone’s cup of tea but which Don deeply loved, and all displaying his tenacity in chasing puzzles to their roots. His research on this occupied him for many years and I saw first-hand how much satisfaction he derived from it. But compiling the Dictionary was not all just about figuring things out. It was a gesture of love and affection to the fields of zoology and taxonomy—fields in which he had international renown—, an appreciation of the importance of names and their histories, and a way of communing with scholars of the past whose lives and minds he had to know intimately to suss out why they assigned the names they did. For many of the names do not have obvious motivations or meanings derived from characteristics of the animals themselves, but are the result of caprice; their origins had to be ferreted out by intensive engagement on Don’s part with surviving records of these scholars’ lives, reading habits, personal interests, travels, and much more. (The affection Don felt for his fellow zoologists went both ways: a species of spider, the sheet weaver Tapinocyba cameroni, was named after him by two prominent arachnologists in 2007.)

            Parenthetically, one of the things that may have appealed to Don about undertaking this work—and this is a bit speculative on my part—was the opportunity it presented to organize and systematize a body of knowledge. Many of the disciplines he was expert in are characterized by orderly systems of rules, algorithms, and principles: mathematics in his youth; the grammars of the Classical and other ancient languages (he talked about how sentences in Greek and Latin need to be “decoded”); the quasi-mathematical sound laws of Indo-European linguistics; the hierarchical ordering and organizing power of taxonomy. And, lest we forget, there was also his intimate familiarity with Robert’s Rules of Order, which allowed him to wear yet another hat as Parliamentarian for the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts for several years.

            Just as there did not seem to be a subject that Don did not know, it could also appear that there was no person on campus that he didn’t know as well. When I was visiting Michigan as a job candidate, he was assigned to take me out to lunch, and both on our walk to the restaurant and on our way back, I cannot remember how many seemingly random people greeted him by name as we passed by. He joked about it, of course, averring in a mock-pompous way that everybody knew him; as I would gradually learn, it actually wasn’t too far from the truth. Our lunch conversation was frequently punctuated by his hearty room-filling laughter, which I was privileged to hear countless times in the years to come. He was among the most social and sociable, as well as solicitous, members of the Department, taking the time every day to perambulate the halls of Angell and drop in on his colleagues, and regularly having meals and going to events with many of us. And his door was always wide open for anyone to drop by in turn; I never once was told it would be better to come back another time.  

            For Don, perhaps the single most important thing he did was teaching. He was awarded multiple teaching prizes at both the institutional and national level, including a Class of 1923 Teaching Award in 1965, the American Philological Association’s Award for Excellence in Teaching at the Collegiate Level in 1987, and an Arthur F. Thurnau professorship in 1992. He drew great energy from teaching. In the large-lecture setting of Great Books, he loved to work the massive crowd, hold the audience in the palm of his hand, open the glories of literature to them; but he was equally enthusiastic about the countless hours he spent in the much quieter setting of one-on-one instruction, reading all manner of texts with students in his office, helping them unravel syntactic riddles, jointly savoring the literary artistry. Teaching also included, importantly, training the graduate students who taught sections of his Great Books courses; as a result, hundreds of young instructors were sent out into the world who were indelibly influenced by, and grateful for, his tutelage. His impact as a teacher would even be felt among the stars, so to speak: in 2006, an erstwhile Great Books student who had become an astronomer called upon him for help in naming a newly discovered Jovian asteroid in the so-called Trojan group, all named after legendary Trojan heroes. In typical learned fashion, Don came up with Rhipeus, one of the more obscure Trojans from the Aeneid whom Dante, in the Paradiso, placed in the sixth sphere of Jupiter.

            Don was fond of breaking into that old World War I ditty, “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag And Smile, Smile, Smile!”, and this song has always popped into mind when I think of him. It immediately evokes the positivity and optimism that he spread and that he would want us to adopt in dealing with life’s adversities. And he experienced quite a few in his last years: increasing health problems gradually eroded his ability to engage in his favorite activities and pursuits, an unfair and undeserved lot that was at times heartbreaking to watch. But he fought valiantly to keep as much going as he could for as long as possible. He kept up with colleagues and friends to the end, swapping ideas and insights and family news with them, even if ultimately only on the phone due to the coronavirus pandemic. He made the best of having to move into the retirement community at Glacier Hills, where he continued his gregarious ways, forging new friendships and enjoying a prestigious status among the other residents, who dubbed him “The Encyclopedia.” I am told that people would shout questions to him in the dining room if they needed particular pieces of factual information in the middle of dinner. He thus remained a teacher, as his beloved Homer put it, εἰς ὅ κ’ ἀϋτμὴ ἐν στήθεσσι μένῃ καί μοι φίλα γούνατ’ ὀρώρῃ (“as long as there is breath in my lungs and my knees have their spring”).

            We will sorely miss Don’s zest for life, his wit and his learning, but he can live on in the model he set for us to follow in constantly expanding his own mind as much as others’, nurturing students, mentoring young colleagues, selflessly giving of himself and his time, and loyally maintaining lifelong friendships.