It’s not too often you meet someone whom you consider extraordinary. Sometimes you get the opportunity to meet someone whom you greatly admire, a personal hero or national figure for instance. Sometimes you don’t even meet them, per sé; you may hear a speech they deliver, or simply pass them on the street. Sometimes, you’re lucky enough to sit in their lecture hall for a quarter.
My environmental studies professor inspired me. William Freudenburg was a respected leader within his field, working tirelessly toward environmental protection and increasing public knowledge about environmental problems. He didn’t preach his opinions in class, and he didn’t tell us what to think. He didn’t demoralize us with projections of “doom and gloom” for the future, as many environmentalists seem to. Every day, he examined environmental problems from a practical perspective, and delved into the structural factors that have contributed to them. In doing so, he discovered solutions.
My professor spent the last years of his life battling cancer. He acknowledged this on the first day of class, noting that he may have to miss lecture at some point due to medical appointments. At the time, I observed him to be extremely thin, with a cane; he was unable to stand for the entirety of lecture, preferring to sit in a chair at the lectern. It was clear that his disease was terminal, and that it was slowly taking its toll on him, but that’s all any of us knew about it.
Yet, despite this tragedy, my professor continued to teach. He decided to continue teaching for as long as he could, doing what he loved most. I heard it in his voice everyday. At the end of the last two lectures, professor Freudenburg broke down into tears. He cared so deeply about the topics we discussed. He knew that we all have the power to change the world in whatever way we see fit, and he set himself on spreading that message to the world and getting every one of us to see what he saw one class of undergraduates at a time … while there was still time.
He passed away on Dec. 28, merely 3 weeks after he delivered his final lecture. I’m told that he died peacefully, in the company of his family.
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from William Freudenburg, it’s that one person can make a difference. One person can see something that he doesn’t like, or that he thinks can be better, and change it. I haven’t decided what my impact on this world will be yet; I haven’t found my great cause or calling. All I know is that I’ll choose wisely, and I’ll try. I promised an extraordinary man that I would.