This morning I was honored to be able to speak at the memorial service for my former college professor. Most professors are people that you know for a semester or two, then they are out of your life. My relationship with Dr. Knowles spanned twenty-five years. He spoke at my wedding. His mentoring and teaching lasted long after our classes together were done.
If I look back on my life since I met him, I am awestruck by the direct impact that he has had on major decisions, beliefs and mindsets that I have. While I was his student, long conversations about academics, life and everything in between were a constant. One of the great loves of his life was the story of Don Quijote. Regardless the subject, he could find a way to work the Quijote into the conversation. His generosity allowed me to study in Ecuador for a winter semester when I could not afford it. After he retired, my yearly visits to his home in North Carolina became a mental litmus test for me to figure out whether or not I was progressing. He never really gave much input into my personal life. It was the feeling of telling him what I was doing. The sensation that I had as I described my life to someone that I respected was the input that I needed. As distance, children and life made our visits less frequent, we talked on the phone, through email or letters. About a year ago, I got the sense that I did not have much time left with my mentor. So I pushed for us to get together but life got in the way. So I was too late.
After a day of spending time with his family and friends, it was obvious that he had a similar effect on everyone that he touched. This man, who loved the story of a knight who saw the world differently, had helped so many people experience the world differently through his association. On the drive home, it hit me. We are all fighting windmills!
In probably his most famous adventure, Don Quijote sees windmills in the distance. Through his adventure focused mind, he thinks that they are giants flailing their arms. He attacks and gets himself caught in the mill’s sail. In the end he is turned upside down in a heap with his squire explaining the error of his ways to him. The undeterred Quijote tells his squire that a wizard had changed the giants to windmills.
The modern human condition in many parts of the world is all about making giants out of windmills. Once a person has enough food to eat, water to drink and shelter from danger; humans create the scenarios to make their lives meaningful. All that Don Quijote did was take an existence that was extremely normal and turned it into something spectacular because he chose to see the world differently. At a certain point we all make decisions about the world that we live in. It can be a world full of wonderful adventures to be shared with other distinguished people on their own personal quest. Or it can be filled with the mundane elements that seem more and more drab as they continuously repeat through the years.
The question is not whether or not we are fighting windmills. The windmills are all around us waiting to be fought. Almost every task in this world could be characterized as foolish when put in the proper context. So it is not whether we do it, it is how that we do it. We have a choice every day, which windmills will we focus on and how fervently we will fight. I was so extremely fortunate that Dr. Knowles chose to fight the battle of educating young minds with a joy and passion that it was infectious. At all times, the possibility existed that he was going to be ridiculed and branded a fool for his constant belief in the abilities of young people but I’m glad to say that his campaign was a success. A life well lived, finding and fighting windmills that most other people never saw. Don Juan Canoles, you will missed!
With the greatest respect and love,