Public Health, Students

How many former students would attend your celebration of life?

September 23, 2014

Over the weekend, I went to a very inspiring celebration of life for clinical associate professor, Dr. Diane Calleson, who passed away a few weeks ago after an eight-year battle with cancer. The event was at a beautiful, historic church in Hillsborough, N.C., on a gorgeous Carolina-blue day. It was the kind of day Diane would have savored. People, starting with Jerry Calleson, Diane’s husband of many years, told the most wonderful, sometimes reverential and inspiring and often very funny stories about her and how she supported the people around her—family, friends, students, people in community groups—and the ways she stayed in touch with everyone from elementary school friends to students who took her class a number of years ago and, of course, family members. As busy as we all are, it’s so easy to drop the ball on friendships. The stories people told of Diane said that she showed up and stuck by people. I admire that.

What the students said and why it matters

No one in the church could have been unmoved by a group of former students who were sitting in the choir loft. After most people had spoken, one of them stood up and explained they were former students—who several years ago (or more), as undergrads, had taken a class Diane and Dr. Anthony Viera taught. Though they were in tears and clearly overcome with sadness, they talked about how much Diane meant to them, how she supported them, took them for tea and really listened to them in a way no one else in the University had done, wrote letters of reference for them and checked in to see how they were doing well after the class had ended. By doing all this, she engaged, empowered and touched them in ways all of us who are teachers should want to do. There are all sorts of metrics by which to evaluate teaching, but in the end, the presence of these former students was one of the most powerful metrics in documenting Diane Calleson’s impact as a teacher. She not only taught the curriculum well; she also allowed her life to become infused with the lives of her students. Person after person used the word passionate to describe how Diane felt about teaching.

In academia, we often get caught up in issues having to do with the rewards of achievement – such as whether a person is tenure-track, and what rank they have attained. We talk far too little about how our faculty members affect the lives of their students. In the future, I will be a bit more thoughtful in how I think about the people who teach. They are some of the most important people in the university. Barbara


Barbara Rimer


Andrea, thank you so much for writing. I was so moved by what you said about Diane last Saturday and by the drum piece your amazing daughter wrote and played. As one of three sisters, I can begin (and only imagine) how difficult and heart wrenching this loss has been for you. I am sorry we did not get a chance to meet at the church. I still choke up just thinking about Diane and the person she was. Please know that this has caused me to rethink some of the ways I have thought about teaching and our teachers. My thoughts are with you. Barbara



Thank you for taking the time to write about Diane. Your note today made me tear up, because I know how happy Diane would have been to read your kind & thoughtful comments. I miss her so much, but I am determined to carry on her love of teaching & cheering others on! With kindness, Andrea Knight (Diane's sister)

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.