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Saturday, June 22, 2024 — Houston, TX

Professor leaves long legacy of kindness

By Sarah Cook     11/13/08 6:00pm

Over the past week, I heard all the amazing things that Hispanic Studies Professor James Castañeda accomplished in his lifetime. They read like the accomplishments of not one great man, but of five or six. Some of the highlights include playing for the Baltimore Orioles, Cordele and Real Madrid, being decorated by King Juan Carlos I for his scholarly contributions to studies of Spain and spending 47 years as a professor at Rice. That's probably more than twice your age, and is almost half of the time that Rice has been around. In addition, he also served 21 years as a Rice baseball coach and 15 years as a Rice golf coach, during which the team attended the NCAA tournament three years in a row. He also published five books, numerous articles, 52 book reviews and accepted over 80 speaking engagements, and he worked with countless committees that helped push Rice forward both academically and athletically. Do you see why it is almost impossible to imagine what Rice University would be like without him?

The list of his accolades is unbelievable. Yet when I think about Castañeda, all of these things seem to fall away and are overshadowed by my memory of the kind, witty, caring man that he was every day to everyone around him. He was always quick with a compliment, a joke, a proverb or a signature smile which seemed to push against the edges of his cheeks. It almost seemed as if his smile couldn't hold all of the joy he had. I passed his office several times a day this semester, but he made sure to say hello and to ask how I was doing every time he saw me.

My first Christmas home from college, when my family asked about my finals, I probably should have groaned about my massive biology final or the hand cramps I still felt from filling blue book upon blue book. The first story I told, though, wasn't about a test at all. It wasn't even about a crazy night out with friends. I looked at my family sitting across the table, bowls of Captain Crunch between us, and told them about the amazing dinner Professor Castañeda invited us to. I had heard stories about friendships between students and professors, whether it was chatting over a beer at Valhalla or through the professor's office hours into dinner. As a first semester freshman, this idea of a professor as a friend seemed completely alien to me. I thought of professors as constantly speaking from a metaphorical pulpit, separated from me by an uncrossable gap in years and wisdom.

When Castañeda, who had calmly guided me through a semester of my mediocre Spanish skills, invited our class to dinner, I found myself accepting without question. He seemed so excited about it, and I, too, was excited to break the monotony of cramped classrooms and harsh library lights. When we arrived at the restaurant, a small building tucked behind a residential street, the table was set with sangria, soda and delicious tapas. I sat near Castañeda. He talked to everyone, never asking questions about how they had liked his course or if they were working on their final papers. Instead, he turned to me and asked, "What are you doing for Christmas, Sarah?", grinning from ear to ear. The rest of the evening was filled with delicious paella and a sweet older couple dancing salsa and singing for us from the small stage by the table. It all sort of blends together as enjoyable evenings often do, but I'll never forget how kind he was that night and how genuinely joyful he seemed to be spending the evening with us.

His concern and interest in us was never isolated to those end of semester dinners, though they do mark highlights in each semester I was fortunate enough to attend. After each test, he would give the recipients of the highest scores posters or maps of Spain from his personal collection. Earlier this semester, when everyone found themselves with an impossible amount of post-hurricane work, Castañeda found the time to shoot me an encouraging e-mail after I had slept through one of his afternoon classes. Instead of responding with indifference or even questioning how much work I had taken on, he wrote words of encouragement and offered help if I ever needed it. It was a much needed boost of support which showed me, yet again, that he was a man just as concerned with pushing us to be better as he was with cheering on who we were.

That first Christmas break, sitting at the table with my family, they asked me what a professor who would give such a great end-of-semester gift to his students was like. I didn't say he was a great scholar (though he was). I didn't say he was a great professor (though he certainly was that, too). Instead, I replied, "He's just so nice. You know, the kind of man you wish were your grandfather."

Sarah Cook is a Wiess College junior.

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