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Dr. Michael Ego, 1950-2019 Some life lessons from student of life

February 3, 2019

It’s Super Bowl Sunday, and I can’t stop thinking about baseball.

Dr. Michael Ego, who died Sunday, Jan. 27, was such a Dodgers loyalist that he flew to Los Angeles for the 2017 World Series opener; he was also such a dedicated educator that he took a redeye fight back to teach his class at the University of Connecticut’s Stamford campus the next day.

We got to know each other not just through his op-eds, but through his research into baseball as therapy for Alzheimer’s patients. Last summer, he invited me to speak to students in a summer course about how stages of life can shape writing.

“The course is an overview of life span — from conception to death,” he explained. “It doesn’t matter which life phase you select.”

I selected all of them. I talked about how we keep the company of our past selves; that I sometimes need to summon who I was as a boy, as a college student, as a father, depending on the situation.

It didn’t occur to me until Saturday, during a memorial service for Ego at the campus, how deftly he balanced his own identities.

Like the couple hundred others in the UConn lobby, I was thunderstruck by his sudden death at age 68. Only days before, he emailed revisions to a couple of op-eds.

In “How does food determine who is an American?” he reflects on a life lesson he has carried since packing it in his Howdy Doody lunch box in grade school in Los Angeles.

He unwrapped his “rice ball (musubi) — that was centered with dry fish dipped in soy sauce, in front of my classmates. They confronted me with their PBJ sandwiches and said, ‘When are you going to start eating American food?’ ”

The op-ed jumps around his life while raising provocative questions, tapping into his cultural identity as an Asian American, and demonstrating the rewards of being teacher and student.

He sent the first draft at 1:47 a.m., Dec. 27.

A second draft arrived at 2:02 a.m.

He refined it over the next seven minutes so it would not be time-sensitive.

“You can put it on the shelf for some time in 2019,” he wrote.

A new version arrived Jan. 13. He pulled a different piece two days before his death.

Michael’s opinion was always evolving as he weighed other perspectives. I sometimes hustled his op-eds into print before he could change his mind. Memorable columns included ones he wrote about his father, a California native who was incarcerated as part of the shameful internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

We met when Michael took the helm of the Stamford campus 14 years ago. He spoke that day of creating a shuttle, realigning the academic focus and the dream of building dormitories. He stepped down five years later to focus on teaching but put the wheels in motion for everything he spoke of to become reality. One initiative, the University Pals Program to introduce eighth-graders to college, is worthy of a revival.

He shared his Alzheimer’s research in Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, at symposiums on aging, and in Scotland.

I saw it in action at the River House Adult Day Center in Cos Cob, and during a New York Mets game at Citi Field, where he brought five members of his biweekly classes on a sultry summer afternoon in 2017. Though his challenge was to quantify his theory, the faces and voices of his charges were proof of the benefits of the national pastime.

Ego, as colleagues and students noted during Saturday’s celebration, did not live up to the noun and Latin versions of his name. It was never about himself. As we left Citi Field that day, I realized I’d failed to lure him into discussing what he hoped to accomplish.

His expression and the catch in his voice said more than his revealing words. “The satisfaction is seeing people with this terrible disease enjoying themselves and laughing,” he said. “Even if it’s for a short period of time.”

River House Executive Director Donna Spellman said Thursday’s session went on as scheduled as a tribute to Ego and the program will continue in his memory.

The podium Saturday served as home plate and the crowd formed a V, the shape of a ballfield.

The two hours set aside for eulogies elapsed when moderator Tom Chiappetta called for a seventh-inning stretch, led a Dodgers’ rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and invited comments from the bleachers.

By the time Michael’s four children took the final swings, he had been deemed “humanist,” “idealist,” “pioneer,” “quirky” and “mensch.” It was just shy of 21/2 hours, the amount of time a game should last. Everyone went home with a faux baseball card of Ego (“Favorite Snacks: Salted Peanuts, Tillimook Cheese, Dried Ika, Dodger Dogs, Sashami, Cheerios, Snickers”).

It feels right that there’s still a Michael Ego op-ed or two to publish in the days to come. The man deserved extra innings.

jbreunig@stamfordadvocate.com

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