for Russell Johnson
I heard the Professor died today.
That guy knew everything
about weather, electronics,
the anthropology of headhunters,
rock bands, magicians. He even knew
entomology—parsed out what to do
when a spider the size of a Morris Mini
took a shine to Gilligan, held him in a cave.
I’d hoped he’d live forever, like that radio,
powered only by coconuts, tuned always
to surf music, but frequently interrupted
with what news an island requires.
I kind of feel for the guy—
so much read and committed
to memory, tenure clock ticking,
yet somehow, in hundreds of classrooms,
thousands of hours, he never studied
marine navigation, hydronautics, basic
oceanography—certainly not shipbuilding,
although somewhere along the way
he learned to fashion a golf cart.
We know this about the Professor:
he was handsome, always pressed, always
kind, even to the incompetent sailor
who landed him there, all the while
blaming his buddy. Maybe like me
he got into his profession for summers
off. It feels impossible to get to the tropics
with a three-course load, committees
making you crazy, everyone needing a letter
of rec. The guy only wanted
a three-hour tour, but something
happened—a scientist understands this,
and knows, providentially, how to build
a dry hut, to string a hammock.
Throw in a movie star making pie
and a picture begins to emerge
of a son-of-a-bitch who just might be
the smartest guy ever to spend
the rest of his days fishing a lagoon.
A conversation about Gilligan’s Island usually takes the form of “Mary Ann versus Ginger.” For me, there was only one person on the island: the Professor, my first love. He was handsome and fit and smart and patient, and from the earliest point of my life of attraction, I understood the value of someone who could do things, make things, make things work. When the actor who played the Professor died on January 16, I felt his loss. He was, in a sense, my first boyfriend. (He was also arguably the best, at least in my early years.) Allow me to point out an inaccuracy in the poem: the character was no professor, although as a university faculty member myself, I played with the idea that he and I had this in common. The Professor was actually a high school teacher who hailed from (like me!) Ohio.