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Cecil (on fame)

Better to be a king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime. —Rupert Pupkin

As long as we’re talking about binary worlds, it seems to me that fame and failure are closely related ideas: without the former, you are the latter, by a contemporary understanding of the word (though it probably doesn’t work the other way). But if fame means being a Kardashian, count me out; I’ve learned to live with failure thanks to Cecil Elliott.

Fame hit me square in the face last night while watching “Chelsey Lately” and her coverage of the latest Kardashian melodrama. I weighed in on FaceBook© on Kris Kardashian and Bruce Jenner going splitsville, but of course that’s exactly what they hope for. It’s the old admonition for Broadway reviewers: “I don’t care what you say about my performance. Just spell my fucking name right.” Bad publicity is still publicity. It isn’t what you say, it’s that you say it.

But fame, if we achieve it at all, is fleeting. Remember Andy Warhol saying in 1968—the Summer of our Discontent—that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Have you had yours?


Given Cecil Elliott’s take on success (see earlier blog entry) you might imagine he had something to say on the topic of fame. You’d be right. Elliott called it “The Five-Minute Movie”.

We were having coffee in the Break Room, that unattractive space at the end of the long faculty corridor in the campus shoe box we occupied in the 70s, when department secretary Marlys Anderson suddenly appeared in the doorway. She stood there, framed by its institutional beige-ness until we had each turned to acknowledge her presence. “Well,” she said with import, “they called again about that.” Elliott’s brow furrowed. “Marlys, I need antecedents for those pronouns.”

Conversations with Marly frequently began in the middle. She had an endearing habit of beginning many of her conversations with you long before she actually saw you. This one had begun a few minutes earlier at her desk, following a brief telephone conversation about an unpaid invoice. So, in reply to Cecil’s request, “they” and “that” were given identities and he resolved the situation forthwith. Marly turned to make a return phone call and Elliott turned back to me and our coffee: “That would certainly make a great five-minute movie.”

The five-minute movie concept came up again and again, usually with regard to something about which far too much had been made. I’m absolutely certain he would see the current Tea-publican budget tantrum as worthy of a five-minute movie, rather than the multi-month melodrama it continues to be.

Congressman Ted Yoho is a “Five-Minute Movie”. So is Congressman Paul Broun. I only wish we could say the same for Michele Bachmann. Any more footage spent on her is a waste of film.

And I know this one thing: Elliott, flaming Liberal that he was, would agree.

PS: Marlys June (née Powers) Anderson [1928–2010] can be found in the cemetery at Canaan Moravian Church in rural Cass County, North Dakota. I was pleased to represent our department at her funeral and privileged to be a pall bearer, at the request of her daughter Lori. Marly covered my ass metaphorically for many years. I could carry hers for a few minutes. But we’re still not close to being even.

Cecil (on ornithology)

It’s possible to be around someone for years, to live with them for decades in fact, and still not know them very well. That is, not fully understand the way their mind works. I knew Cecil Elliott for twenty years but wonder now whether I knew him at all.

Elliott’s ability to identify an issue, a problem, was quick and usually spot on. He arrived at NDSU mid-year, for example, in the middle of a three-day January blizzard that trapped him in his North Broadway apartment with a partial fifth of rum and a can of minced clams. He always hoped for a cookbook that worked backwards: recipes didn’t send you to the store with a long and complex list of ingredients; the ingredients in your cupboard led to a dish that could be crafted from them. Now there’s probably something on-line for exactly such dilemmas.

If Elliott had chosen medicine, he might be my personal doctor. But his talents would actually far better serve the emergency room. For he had the innate ability to triage a la M.A.S.H.; to immediately assess a crisis, prioritize its elements and address them in an order that would allow optimal resolution of the situation. He arrived at NDSU, for example, after years of our department taking in more and more students with little or no increase in resources—budget, faculty positions or space. Previous chairs hoped for benevolence from above, but it was not forthcoming. Old Main saw nothing but increased efficiency. One can imagine conversations about us: “They did even better this year than last with what we gave them. Let’s see if productivity can increase next year within the status quo!” Cecil immediately saw the pattern in effect by default and proposed selective admissions. If we can’t have increased resources (for whatever reasons), then we have to narrow the entryway and offer the best service within what is available. If the department has survived, succeeded, thrived, it is based on that fundamental strategy.


One afternoon in the break room at the end of the long faculty corridor, we had a conversation about birds. I think Cecil liked our feathered friends, saw them as more than part of our diet, but also felt that science had overly complicated the world of animated flight. “There are really only two kinds of birds,” he said. “Little ones that sing; they’re canaries. And big ones that don’t; they’re ducks.” I’ve never been able to visit the poultry exhibit at the Minnesota State Fair and ignore this ornithological perspective. Whatever species occupies the rank and file of cages arrayed before me, to Elliott it would have been a room full of ducks.

On one of his nearly annual winter retreats to Mexico, his car broke down in a remote village, where the sole mechanic spoke no English. Anxious to convey an accurate assessment of the problem, in faulty Spanish Cecil said, “sings like a canary.” The mechanic smiled,

Problem solved.

Cecil (on success)

Success is not being recognized as an absolute failure by too many people you’re not married to.  —Cecil D. Elliott


One of the wisest people I know died on June 16th, 2003.

At least fifteen years before that day, Cecil and I enjoyied a cocktail at the old Northern Exposure. Before 8 p.m. it was a simple dive bar, but after 8 it turned into a genuine biker bar where kookie academics like us were barely tolerated; the sort of bar where you didn’t risk ordering a manhattan for obvious reasons. I was probably drinking gin-and-tonics; straight bourbon for Professor Elliott. Incidentally, those were days when you could barely find a bar in Fargo or Moorhead where there weren’t architecture students as bar tenders. I suppose that’s one reason for choosing the Northern.

The other draw at the corner of Fourth Avenue North and Tenth Street was directly to the north: a terrific Chinese restaurant—notice I didn’t say buffet—called The Pearl. Elliott and I were such regular fixtures that the owner would call us when favorite menu items were in fresh supply. That night we’d received an alert that a particularly good batch of green beans had arrived, so the 8 o’clock witching hour entailed a simple shuffle across the street. In the meantime, however, I was distressed over something or other—rejection of a conference paper, a grant proposal, etc. I frankly don’t recall.

What I do recall, however, was Elliott’s pish-tush response to expressions of failure. “Failure?” he intoned between cigarette puffs (yes, smoking was still possible then), “Success is not being recognized as an absolute failure by too many people you’re not married to.” Read that sentence again to understand how many qualifications stand between you and failure. By that definition, ninety-eight percent of the planet is successful. Maybe more.

Those of you with origins in the Methodist tradition will recognize something Elliott called “the Epworth League Effect.” You’ve seen it: the stained glass window representing Jesus kneeling at the rock, praying to be relieved of his burden, as a heavenly shaft of light penetrates the night, bringing the answer he’d hoped to avoid. That night at a sleezy Fargo bar I experienced the Epworth League Effect: the acoustic ceiling tiles parted allowing a beam of light to illuminate Cecil. The words issuing from his mouth might just as well have come directly from God. It was a revelation. I understood this as a Moment for the Ages.

Grasping a napkin, scrambling for a pen, I scribbled Cecil’s quote, signed, dated it and put is safely in my wallet. After our Chinese repast and safely home (though still a bit tipsy), I saved the napkin in a file folder for posterity, to whit: “Success? Success is not being recognized as an absolute failure by too many people you’re not married to.”

Those moments—those Elliott moments—happened more often than you might imagine. We all had them now and then; in hindsight, too few and far between.

Oh, and not incidentally, June 16th also happens to be my grandmother’s birthday, another of the wiser people in my experience.

Cecil (on mortality)

Read some of Howard’s columns and my own commentary now and then and you’ll find  people you think you know written into this blog. My dad is here; my mother started to be, but the Agincourt character I wrote turned out to be so likable it couldn’t possibly have been Marge. I actually cast her as a madam and even that didn’t work. Go figure: a lovable madam. Those of you who knew Cecil Elliott will see him in these pages, too. And also some of our relationship, mentor that he was to me and so many others.

These days — on the mend from heart surgery (four months ago on Friday) — I’ve been thinking a lot about the end of life, mine especially. And though the operation last June may have given me more years than I’ll know what to do with, I can’t help wondering how my departure will occur. Cecil spoke of people he had known before coming to Fargo; names that I sometimes recognized. About them he’d just as often remark, “When that son-of-a-bitch dies, no one is going to know in the next county.” That’s the way I’m feeling these days. I know it isn’t true, but I believe it none the less. Kinda like religion.