Updated Nov. 6 at 11:30 a.m. to include the details of a memorial sponsored by the Writing and Rhetoric department.
Writing and Rhetoric Professor Paul Casey was a tall person. And not only in height, according to Julie Prebel, a fellow professor in the department.
“When he was there, you knew he was there,” Prebel said. “He wasn’t shy about his views or keeping them from some people. Maybe that is why he touched a lot of students, too.”
So when Casey passed away following a motorcycle accident Friday, it came as a painful shock to the Occidental community. Both Prebel and former students described hearing the news as surreal.
“It’s shocking,” Prebel said. “It just seems not possible in some way.”
Though Casey was not teaching at Occidental this semester, he often taught Cultural Studies Program (CSP) courses and intermediate writing classes, in addition to advising students as a writing specialist for the Center for Academic Excellence. According to Prebel, the course material often focused on rhetorical discourse in documental film — his specialty.
But Casey’s academic career was just a small fragment of an extraordinary and multifaceted life. In the 1980s, he was heavily involved in the punk rock music scene, even touring as a guitarist with The Adolescents, a well known Southern California-based band. He started his own band, Subculture, and played for groups such as the Circle Jerks, Prebel said. In addition, he was prominently involved in the surf and motocycle communities. It was these groups that gave him the moniker “Tall Paul.”
In 2004, Casey received his Ph.D. in writing and rhetoric from Bowling Green State University, according to an email sent Monday to the Occidental community by Director of Communications James Tranquada. Prebel said that Casey had published articles on visual rhetoric and had recently presented work at conferences on the rhetoric of drag. Additionally, he was working on a longer project analyzing popular culture through the lens of famous rhetorician Kenneth Burke.
“I think that — he and I talked about this — he always had an avid interest in reading and, again, this kind of long-standing interest in examining the cultural environment around him,” Prebel said. “That’s kind of one of the … foundational beliefs for [punk] — to push back and question certain cultural assumptions and the way culture operated. And I think that because he had that interest already, and he was already living that life in many ways, pushing back against those cultural norms, going into a writing and rhetoric program is not that big of a leap.”
This critical analysis of popular culture was something that Casey emphasized in his coursework, according to his Writing and Rhetoric colleague.
“I think he approached pop culture and cultural studies in general with his sense of radicalness,” Prebel said. “That’s just who he was as a person.”
Students from his Documentary Discourse CSP last semester agree that Casey brought an exceptional frankness to the classroom. Rosie Yasukochi (sophomore) added that she felt Casey was always interested in his students and sincerely passionate about the material.
When Yasukochi thought back on the course, one moment in particular — when the class was watching a “rockumentary” on a famous artist — epitomized Casey’s teaching style for her.
“He got super into it, he would stop the move every 15 minutes to be like, ‘Did you guys see that?!’” Yasukochi said. “And it was really nice to see him get so excited about what he was teaching. I think if I had to say anything, he was always super excited about what he was trying to tell us.”
Keenan Leary (sophomore) remembers an instance in which Casey came to class looking “shell-shocked” and told the students that one of his young sons had just fallen from the handles of the monkey bars. The event impressed upon Leary how much Casey cared about his wife, two sons and daughter.
“He’s definitely a guy that’s very trusting with his students, very willing to open up, and I respected him a lot for that,” Leary said. “It made me think he was a much more genuine professor as well.”
Without Casey, the Writing and Rhetoric department is now reduced to two full-time tenure track faculty members, Prebel and Professor Thomas Burkdall, as well as non-tenure track professors Robert Sipchen and Lisa Tremain. Casey’s passing follows the death of Writing and Rhetoric Professor Deborah Martinson in April 2014.
“It’s just a huge loss,” Prebel said. “To be honest, I feel sort of numb, I think we all sort of feel that way. It just feels unfathomable that tragedy could strike us twice like this in such a short span of time, and it just feels terrible.”
In his email Monday, Tranquada said that the details of Casey’s memorial will be announced to the Occidental community. Leary said that he is considering gathering students from his CSP to remember their professor as a class.
Leary, too, said that he will think back on his time in Casey’s class when he re-watches the documentaries from the course. And perhaps, in the memories and lessons the Occidental community learned from the musician turned professor, Casey’s legacy will live on.
“Still to this day, my friends from that class and I joke about him all the time … about the days in which Casey used to roll up late, come in just huffing and puffing and start up class,” Leary said. “He was just a great guy.”
The Writing and Rhetoric department will be sponsoring an event Nov. 12 to honor Casey’s memory. It will begin with a reception at 5 p.m. on Mosher Patio and include an open mic from 5:30 to 6 p.m. in Mosher 1, followed by a screening of the movie “Decline of Western Civilization” from 6–8 p.m. All are invited.