Peter Hunt Thompson died on May 23, 2013. Since then the Earth has spun on its axis thousands of times, and millions of other people have died, too. Stars have collided, flowers have opened, politicians have grandstanded, babies have been born. In the days and weeks after Peter died, those who loved him wept and tried to find different outcomes in which he didn’t die. Those who loved Peter sent emails, talked, posted, tweeted, made dinner, made love. The world went on.
We moved on.
Clearing out old files, I find a memo from Peter about a problem in a lab in the photography department, a lab now gone, a department now altered. I keep the memo and remember Peter’s unfailing composure, even in fractious faculty meetings. He would take notes, endless notes, and at the end of the usually heated discussions, he would find the one thread on which everyone could agree. I run across a teaching guide written by Peter and discover again how incisively he wrote, so clear, so efficient, yet laced with poetry. His students were lucky. Leafing through a book of essays, I find a folded paper: Peter’s translation of lines written by Rumi. Cutting across a parking lot in the Loop, I smile thinking about the dingy tavern that used to stand in this place where Peter and I and a few others would, over pitchers of cheap beer, hammer out ideas about photography, film, teaching, life, art. I pass a coffee shop and recall his wide grin over a cup of tea as he shares his discovery of a new cool camera app. Ahead of me at the train station, I see a tall, distinguished man with a halo of white hair. I call out, “Peter.” The man keeps going.
A year after Peter died, a former student got in touch with me via Facebook. In the early nineteen nineties, Akito had come from Japan to study photography at Columbia College for two years, then returned home to Toyko. I remember him as a serious, talented, fierce young man, fierce, I suspected, because of his difficulty with verbal communication. In his message, Akito wrote how Peter, a “true” teacher, had been so important to him. Peter always had “a message of encouragement.”
Peter remains in the lives of all those he touched, many of whom he barely knew. At my personal banquet table there is now an empty seat. No one will take Peter’s place. But his memory is alive in me and in others.Lynn Sloan