Lasting Lessons

Mary Shiraef 11OX 13C reflects on one of her most influential Emory professors

Randall Strahan
Emory Photo Video

I was sitting by myself in an overcrowded cafe in Vietnam when I learned the news. I covered my face in my hands and began to cry.

Just ten days earlier, I’d asked Professor Randall Strahan for a recommendation letter to a graduate program.“Your reference letter has been submitted,” my gmail account informed me with a ding, only five hours later.

I thought his almost immediate response was kind, although uncharacteristic. I didn’t give it much thought until I found out that he had only days left to live. Although young and seemingly healthy, Professor Strahan was diagnosed in May with bladder cancer, which sadly had taken an unexpected turn for the worse.

I pulled myself together to write him a letter, but before I left the cafe, or even finished my letter for that matter, I learned that Professor Strahan had passed away the day before— an unforgiving reminder that time is of the essence.

Following are excerpts from that letter, which never reached its intended recipient.

Dear Professor Strahan,

Alexis de Tocqueville says that a part of being human is containing an innate desire for immortality. The world is dichotomous, though, he says, because we all desire immortality, but none can achieve it. The world is further dichotomous in that someone as healthy, kindhearted, and astute as yourself can meet mortality well before your time.

With this letter, I want to express how I came to respect you deeply as a person. In those dreadfully long, but intellectually unparalleled Monday-only seminars, you excited in me a desire to be, at the risk of sounding cliche, just like you.

For three straight hours every Monday, you allowed me to discuss political ideas, my favorite activity in the world. I treasure that time.

I also cherish the way in which you spoke about your family. You mentioned them regularly, with such love, such pride . . . I remember you mentioning Andrea and her senior thesis. You spoke with the confidence and pride any daughter wishes to hear from her father. Not having a father of my own for most of my life, people like you provide me happiness and hope.

I always appreciated your attentiveness, as well as your frankness. During your office hours, you would listen carefully to a list of options for my plans next year, then reply candidly, “All right, now I am going to rank those from Mary’s best idea to Mary’s worst idea.” Your insight was valuable and will be greatly missed.

You helped me piece apart Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, an eight-hundred-page book that provided me invaluable insight into my country, the world, and myself. Because of your class, I continued to study Tocqueville, presented and published my first conference paper, and plan to study Tocqueville for the duration of my career.

If more were like you, there would have been little purpose in reading Tocqueville at all. You upended Tocqueville’s critiques of democracy by being learned, unselfish, active in local politics, appreciative of the classics, contemplative of things that are not material, and careful to avoid generalizations. At the same time, you incorporated the positive elements of democracy, such as treating people equally, emphasizing efficiency, valuing the sweetness of family, and understanding the practical side of politics. Basically, if Tocqueville selected an example of his ideal democratic person, it could be you.

I am disappointed that your current project on Tocqueville’s research methods will not be completed. If I am permitted, I will read and use your unfinished piece in hopes that your work is not lost.

What is certain to live on, however, is the enduring impact you made on me and on many of your students.

You will be severely missed.

Mary Shiraef

Editor's Note: Randall Strahan, an exemplary scholar and professor of political science who joined Emory in 1985, died on January 16, 2014. In March, Shiraef was accepted to the graduate program at Oxford University, the program for which Strahan had recommended her.

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