Death Did Not Part Him From Beloved Doctorate

On the afternoon of December 3 last year, my brother-in-law John Spencer was tapping away at his dissertation when the telephone rang and his thesis adviser at New York University, Daniel Walkowitz, said, “I have very bad news, it’s about Greg.” Gregory Raynor, John’s closest buddy in grad school, had died suddenly of an asthma attack in his apartment in the West Village. John collapsed, and two days later found himself doing an unreal earthly task, dropping a shovelful of dirt onto his friend’s casket. In Mr. Raynor’s Jewish tradition, that’s a mitzva ; you’re doing for someone what they can’t do for themselves. The gravediggers had an easy day that day-300 young, able people turned out to wish the gregarious Mr. Raynor goodbye.

The next day, John attended shiva at Mr. Raynor’s in-laws’ home in New Jersey and Mr. Raynor’s pregnant widow, Lauren, took him aside. “What about the dissertation?” she said.

Mr. Raynor had died three months short of the birth of his daughter, but almost as importantly to him, three months short of the submission of his thesis to N.Y.U.’s History Department.

A very clear-thinking, strong woman who works in the financial industry, Ms. Raynor made it her mission to get her husband his degree. His dissertation, on the Ford Foundation’s social activism, was the biggest project of his life. It had consumed him for 10 years; it was his story. She was going to find a way to publish it, either at N.Y.U. or elsewhere if the school didn’t come through. But she couldn’t deal with the giant piles of paper in her apartment.

John knew the work. He and Greg Raynor had spent hundreds of hours discussing their related projects. “I’m going to do what I can,” he told her.

When news got around my family of John’s new job, there was to say the least some murmuring. He’s been a grad student for six or seven or 200 years now, however long grad students are grad students. He in-line skates to campus while my sister works long hours in the Empire State Building bringing home the bacon. It was easy to understand the widow’s devotion but it wasn’t John’s problem. Let the dead bury the dead, I felt. Someone else in my family said, a sheepskin wasn’t going to help Greg in heaven.

I took my sister aside to say what a dangerous matter it was. She said she was concerned but she trusted him.

By then John had gotten the keys to his friend’s apartment and walked into the undisturbed space where Greg Raynor had fallen. Stacks of paper and books were everywhere. A page, the last thing Greg Raynor had produced, stuck like a tongue out of the printer. John got to his hands and knees and began organizing the material. Looking for the latest drafts of chapters. Figuring out what should go to storage.

Soon I saw those stacks of paper all over the bed and floor of his apartment and wondered how long this psychic drama was going to continue. I didn’t say anything to John; he was acting with the cold purpose of someone who knows that what he’s doing is the right thing. I came to learn that he and Greg Raynor were soulmates. They’d both been athletes in high school, and good-looking B.M.O.C.’s in college. They shared a slightly jaundiced view of academic life-Greg had worked on a political campaign and as a television producer, John helping teachers in city high school. And they were both fascinated by the interaction of 60′s activism in the boardroom and streets (John’s dissertation is on the slain educator Marcus Foster).

But the relationship wasn’t equal. Greg was two or three years ahead of John, and although he’d sometimes stumbled, failing his comprehensive exam the first time around, for instance, the setbacks had never dented his tenacious good humor, and he enjoyed acting as mentor to my more sober, methodical brother-in-law. He pushed John through low moments. His favorite word was “substantial.” He was a grand, garrulous friend who spurred John’s ambition.

Suddenly that friend needed John’s help to cross the goal line. They had long collaborated intellectually-now this unfinished job felt like John’s unique privilege and responsibility. Besides, my sister told me, he thought it was doable.

He wasn’t alone. Mr. Walkowitz, a labor scholar, is well-known at N.Y.U. as a professor devoted to his students. He’d been close to Greg, and took over the job of handling the bureaucracy. Ms. Raynor had enough to do dealing with the birth of her daughter, Sara, and helping friends create a Web site that celebrated her husband (Raynorshine.com even imagines Mr. Raynor’s heaven, a golf course outside Manhattan, with the Rocky Mountains in the background).

But Mr. Walkowitz could make no promises. It wasn’t clear what legal or regulatory processes stood in the way of a dead person getting a doctorate. Mr. Walkowitz’s central question was: Is there a manuscript? A draft Greg had given him a year or so before hadn’t made it, but more currently, he had published in a book a long chapter about the Ford Foundation’s active role in the war on poverty. Mr. Walkowitz saw that it was important, vital work.

John made a half-dozen visits to the apartment, assembling a manuscript. Just about everything was done, the research, the thinking, the writing. But Greg hadn’t put it together and cleaned it up. In many cases, Mr. Walkowitz had made copy-editing marks that merely had to be put in. In a few cases, questions that had been raised had to be removed or simply not answered. In some cases, what Ms. Raynor described as revision was required. John is a more careful writer than the expansive Greg Raynor, and now he had the upper hand in the relationship. Sometimes he’d prune a phrase and hear Greg’s bold voice in his ear: It’s fine, dude, leave it alone!

I see John often, and I think he spent a month on the job. Meantime, Mr. Walkowitz edited the second half of the thesis, Greg’s brother Doug created the bibliography from going through the sources in each section, and two graduate students helped copy edit. They all knew there was a line they couldn’t cross, but didn’t need to. “We weren’t going to put words in Greg’s mouth,” John said.

By March, the manuscript was complete. Titled Engineering Social Reform: The Rise of the Ford Foundation and Cold War Liberalism (1908-1959) , the dissertation included an acknowledgment by Lauren Raynor of those who “enabled Greg to complete his dissertation.” She went on, stirringly, “I write it to thank those same individuals for preserving Greg’s dignity.”

There still remained the big bureaucratic question. Mr. Walkowitz gathered the committee members, John ran around doing all the chores that any grad student has to do to file a work-copyright statements, microfilm submissions, orders of finished copies, and so forth.

As for the N.Y.U. administration, all that can be said is that it behaved with uncommon grace. “What do you do in the face of heartbreak?” says graduate dean Catharine Stimpson. “You want to heal. You can’t bring Greg back, but this was our act of recognition of a gallant life, of gallant survivors. The work was there. It was an easy call.”

On May 2, the History Department held Mr. Raynor’s thesis defense. Generally defenses are tense encounters, the outcome foreordained (you wouldn’t have one if you didn’t know you’d be successful) but the professors determined to get their pound of flesh before shoving the hopeless student out into a savage world. This one was at once tearful and joyful, a gathering of 30 people who admired Greg Raynor and had for years been planning to attend such an event. Danny Walkowitz talked about the doubts Greg had under his bravado and about the important scholarly contribution the work represented. Grand in life, Greg Raynor was grand in death, describing the ways that the rhetoric of the Cold War had shaped the rhetoric of the war on poverty on the Lower East Side.

Then Greg’s father, Joel, rose to speak. A professor of psychology at SUNY Buffalo, he had spent a sleepless terrified night thinking of what to say. Now he cited the tradition of dissertation committees asking a candidate to leave the room while they deliberated yea or nay. The candidate is not in the room, Mr. Raynor observed, gripping the back of a chair. Then he summoned him. “Come here, Greg,” he commanded in a suddenly booming voice. “I want to congratulate you, Dr. Raynor”-and he shook his son’s hand in the air.

The graduation ceremony took place the night of May 8 at Carnegie Hall, and the elder Mr. Raynor did not attend. “That would kill me,” he said by phone. But his daughter-in-law went in the same forthright spirit she brought to pushing the dissertation and starting a Web site and memorial fund. “I’ll be the one in the purple gown,” she said.

I met my sister and brother-in-law under the scaffolding outside the concert hall and we found seats high in the dress boxes among family and friends. The graduates, in their robes, entered and filled the central orchestra section, and they waved excitedly at where they thought their friends were, and their friends waved back and craned their necks and went to the railing to try and see who was who down there. It struck me that the relationship between the two groups was not so different from the relationship between the living and the dead. We’re not all that far apart. The people who worked for Greg Raynor hadn’t done it to heal themselves, or give him a sheepskin in the sky. Doing it had reminded them of the spiritual meaning to be found in mundane work, had allowed a dead person to complete a big mundane job. John had continued to mingle with Greg’s spirit as the two had mingled for years. “When I look at his book on my shelf, I’ll take pride in that the rest of my life,” he said that day, before Lauren Raynor was “hooded” in her husband’s place.

Besides, John said, going through the process might help him get his own thesis done faster. He plans to be hooded at Carnegie Hall a year from now. I’m going to hold him to that.