By BY DAVID A. KING, Ph.D. | Published December 31, 2023
In this short earthly life, if you are lucky, or fortunate, or blessed, you meet one or two people who change the course of your journey.
I’ve known more than a few. My dad was one. His mother, my grandmother, was another. My wife and children; there is no doubt.
Yet to meet a teacher, a genuine mentor and guide who embraces the spirit of tradere—tradition—literally handing one another along, that is a rare thing indeed.
I can summon up immediately the names of teachers who influenced my life: Ms. Caylor in the third grade; Mr. Duncan in the eighth grade; Mr. Ken Howell, Ms. Wanda Patterson and Mr. Fred Blankenship in high school. In college, Dr. Mack Smith meant the world to me.
Yet I never had a teacher and mentor who affected my life, and the lives of others, so profoundly as Dr. Victor A. Kramer at Georgia State University.
I met Dr. Kramer—it took me years to gather the courage to call him Victor—in a graduate seminar class on the Modern American Novel in 1990. I was immediately intrigued and impressed by his approach to teaching; rather than lecturing, he drew students into contemplative conversation, and he clearly loved American literature. Most importantly, he made his students love it too.
About a month into the course, I was fired from the only corporate job I ever held. On a Friday afternoon, I was escorted out of the Georgia Pacific Building with two weeks’ pay in lieu of notice, and wondered how in the world I was going to cover living expenses and pay for graduate school. I recalled that earlier that week Dr. Kramer had made an announcement that he needed a graduate research assistant to help with some of his projects. I called his office from a payphone outside the Peachtree Center MARTA station and asked him if he still needed an assistant. He said yes and invited me to come for an interview early the next week.
I got the job, how I’m not sure since I only nodded and smiled. The work had to do with Thomas Merton and monasticism, subjects about which I knew nothing. But I listened—Victor valued good listening—and after the successful interview I went to the Georgia State library and borrowed a copy of Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Storey Mountain.” My life changed forever.
Long time readers of my column know how my work with Dr. Kramer on Merton and the Monastery of the Holy Spirit led to my conversion to Catholicism 30 years ago. No one was more important in my ongoing spiritual development over the past three decades than Victor, who served as my confirmation sponsor and later my sons’ godfather.
Creating a chain of influence
Atlanta Catholics who have been in the archdiocese throughout decades of change have been touched by Victor Kramer’s work in ways many know, but also in ways they might not know. The treasure that is the Monastery of the Holy Spirit would not be quite the same without Victor and his wife Dewey’s constant support and scholarship, including multiple books on the monastery’s history.
Though Victor was an expert in the Harlem Renaissance; Southern literature; Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, and other Catholic writers; and modern American literature, he will always be remembered for his great work on Thomas Merton. Victor was a founding editor of “The Thomas Merton Annual,” and his book “Thomas Merton: Monk and Artist” was among the first important critical appraisals of Merton’s work. Later, he was a crucial figure in the publication of Merton’s journals.
The Georgia Bulletin, for which Victor was a frequent contributor, published a story on him when he won a “Louie Award” for outstanding scholarship from the International Thomas Merton Society in 2005. Victor shared his love of Merton with students and laity all over the archdiocese, and gave numerous retreats that participants still cherish.
Many local Catholics knew Victor through his work as a licensed spiritual director, or through his work as Director of the Aquinas Center for Catholic Studies at Emory, or for his founding of the Catholic Scholar’s Guild. He leaves behind a trove of scholarship about which I could go on and on, but the online obituary for Victor beautifully highlights his accomplishments in both his professional and personal life.
Victor was a brilliant and beautiful man, a teacher like Muriel Spark’s Jean Brodie, who believed education was not about “putting in,” but “taking out.” I can see him now, whether in a classroom or at one of our favorite meeting places, his arms spread over his ever-shifting belly and his hands tucked under his armpits as he listened carefully, his bright and happy laughter following almost every observation he made. I remember his love for telling stories; the kind, sparkling gaze of his eyes as he always listened intently; his warm hugs; his complete lack of pretension; his notetaking whatever the occasion. Victor is the only person I’ve ever known who took notes at lunch or over a beer.
The simple goodness that Victor imparted to others allowed them to follow his example; again, I think of tradere—he created a chain of influence.
Though a public servant in the secular world, Victor never hesitated to witness to his Catholic faith. His faith informed everything he did, and yet he was ecumenical and empathetic to other perspectives always.
He once recounted to me the story of his last day at Georgia State. He eschewed a traditional retirement celebration in favor of simply teaching a last class, cleaning out his great mess of an office, and retreating to the parking garage bowels of the concrete university. As he rode down the elevator in the General Classroom Building on Decatur Street for the last time, a colleague riding along with him acknowledged his retirement and said to him, “But about all this God business; I just don’t know.” Victor did.
Thomas Merton wrote of his own beloved teacher Mark Van Doren that Van Doren’s classes were the best courses he had in college because “[They were] the only place where I ever heard anything really sensible said about any of the things that were really fundamental—life, death, time, love, sorrow, fear, wisdom, suffering, eternity. . .. His balanced and sensitive and clear way of seeing things, at once simple and yet capable of subtlety, being fundamentally scholastic, presented these things in ways that made them live within us, and with a life that was healthy and permanent and productive.” This is exactly what Victor’s teaching, scholarship, and friendship were all about.
Victor and I had a relationship that was very special. In every important moment of my life—wedding, children, baptisms, funerals, accomplishments—he was there. He gave not just generously but abundantly of his time and energy to help mentor me through a successful academic career and a vocation as a husband and father. His life touched mine deeply, and in turn rippled through the lives of my own students and family. I am honored to call him my teacher, my mentor and my friend. I loved him, and I will miss him deeply.
Those of us who have faith know that few things happen by accident. We know that synchronicity and serendipity matter. Most of all, we know that Grace works at unexpected times but often when we most need it. Victor Kramer was a gift, not just to me, but to thousands of others whose lives he touched. I do not exaggerate my feelings when I say that for me, he was a gift from God.
Victor had been in hospice for only a brief period before he died. I prayed for him and his family constantly. On the day that he died, Dec. 1, I was at a retreat at Ignatius House, the Jesuit Retreat Center above the Chattahoochee River. As my wife said, I was right where Victor would have wanted me to be.
Victor always believed in the connection between animals and spirituality. He gave my boys a copy of Eric A. Kimmel and John Winch’s beautiful children’s book “Brother Wolf, Sister Sparrow: Stories About Saints and Animals.” He inscribed it “May you all thrive and move closer toward God in all four levels of love: family, friendship, eros, and agape.”
Knowing from the book that St. Francis of Assisi had preached to the birds, I wasn’t surprised, therefore, when as I sat in the Ignatius House Chapel waiting for Mass to begin, a great blue heron flew slowly, steadily across the panoramic windows behind the altar. If you have ever been to Mass at Ignatius House, you know those large windows that expose a view of only forest, hills and sky. You know the city is out there, but you can’t see it. You know the river is below you, but you can’t hear it. Across the horizon, from east to west, the bird beat its wings. “That is Victor, saying goodbye,” I heard in my head. And I felt it in my soul. “That is Victor, saying goodbye, and that all is well.”
After Mass and lunch, I checked my messages. Victor had died earlier that morning.
Victor Kramer meant so much not only to me, but to people across the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta. His life and legacy are a testament to the gift of our Catholic faith, and our obligation to share that gift with all whose lives we touch, no matter the vocation to which we are called. Now, more than ever, Victor Kramer is “shining like the sun.”
David A. King, Ph.D. is a professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.