Colby Bicentennial Seal 1964-2013


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Final Rhapsody for Ed Witham


Traditionally, memorial tributes combine a sense of loss with warm personal remembrance; death remains abstract; and the final months or weeks or days are not discussed. I mean to discuss them, briefly, because they testify to an old friend’s quiet courage.

When it became obvious to [Professor Ed Witham] that his illness was terminal, he began to make rare but deliberate references to his condition. He did so utterly without self-pity. Euphemisms were forbidden; his few references were to “my cancer.” He could, and did, joke about everything from insurance company paperwork to medical jargon. Just before he was hospitalized, he visited my wife and me to hear a special concert on TV. It was a good evening. Ed was feeling relatively well, and the music, both in performance and selection, pleased him, until “Rhapsody in Blue” was announced. In six years as a French horn player in a Navy band, he had too much of “band arrangements” of this piece. Dramatically–eyes raised in mock disbelief that a conductor could visit this upon him–he grinned and said: “You know, there’s much to be said for being dead, and not to the least is that you will never, ever have to listen to ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ again.”


–Letter to Colby Alumnus, 1981

from Professor Colin E. MacKay

Professor of English