“Well, what would my answer give you?”
A simple question. Peering across the table with hands clasped forward around his mug of tea, Don Rothman was sitting in the office he called his own after his retirement, where he so often met students, friends, faculty, family and anyone else who might enjoy good conversation: a back table at Lulu Carpenter’s.
By answering a question with a question, he prompted me to probe deeper into my self, to choose my own path. The more I learned about him, the more I understood that whether you have spent a minute or a year with Don Rothman, there is a high likelihood he has left his mark on you, one you may not soon forget.
Don Rothman, Senior Lecturer Emeritus in Writing, died in his sleep on Nov. 28 at the age of 67. Born on Sept. 14, 1945, Rothman grew up in Brooklyn, New York. After high school, he attended the University of Michigan and U.C. Berkeley, studying English and philosophy.
Rothman began his teaching career at Merritt College in Oakland, Calif. Soon after, Rothman was hired by Oakes’ founding provost Herman Blake in 1973, a year after the seventh college of UC Santa Cruz began. As a 28-year-old lecturer, he was instrumental in helping create the Oakes College core course, and went on to teach writing classes for 34 years before his retirement in 2007. He also served as acting provost of Oakes twice and maintained an important presence on many academic senate committees.
He was married to his wife, Diana, for 38 years, and raised two children: Dov, who went to UC Berkeley, and Naomi, who went to UC Davis.
Rothman empowered students by helping them explore who they are, by helping create a writing program in which personal experiences were validated and where literacy and writing became a vehicle for social and personal change.
“It called on people to write about things in their daily lives, and so in a way it was very experiential,” said colleague and friend Conn Hallinan. “It was anchored very much in the idea that one of the absolutely crucial ingredients to democracy is literacy and the ability to express oneself through writing.”
Shortly after coming to Oakes, Rothman founded the Central California Writing Project (CCWP), a summer program where K-12 and community college teachers of writing from Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties come together to spend the summer at UCSC in seminars, developing curriculum ideas and strategies to be effective writing teachers. He taught with the CCWP for nearly three decades.
Chancellor George Blumenthal said because of Rothman’s continuing teacher mentorship, his impact was enormous, extending to students of teachers he previously taught.
“He had a tremendous impact on the school … In a sense, his thoughts about writing didn’t just affect the lives of hundreds of teachers, they affected the lives of thousands of students, so his influence really extended far and wide,” Blumenthal said.
Family friend Matt Skenazy knew Rothman since he was five, eventually taking Rothman’s Beauty and Justice class as a UCSC student. He said in an email it was remarkable to him how similar Rothman was in whatever situation he was in, throughout the time he knew him.
“Whether it was around a dinner table with other professors, in a classroom with freshmen and sophomores, or on the sidewalk downtown, Don was always thoughtful, attentive and curious,” Skenazy said. “He was able to ask the right questions and help you think about the broader implications of whatever line of thought you were following.”
Senior lecturer emerita in writing Carol Freeman spoke similarly.
“He was always able to make one think more deeply and broadly than one might have done without him,” Freeman said. “The questions Don asked made one have to stop and think, and that sort of encapsulates how he met the world.”
Leslie Lopez, one of the core course faculty of Oakes College, said Rothman was always helpful, whether it was volunteering, giving advice to new teachers, or even simply bringing an optimistic presence wherever he went.
“He kept on giving back,” Lopez said. “And I think, in many, many ways we really need that sense of wonder and that sense of bottomless freshness that he brought day after day. Every freshman class was new for him and a new surprise and a new source of joy.”
After retiring in 2007, Rothman maintained a strong presence within the UCSC and Santa Cruz communities. He was a longtime supporter of Shakespeare Santa Cruz, for many years serving on the group’s board of directors, staying involved past retirement. In 2010, he delivered the Oakes commencement address and core class plenary, as well as speaking at the College Eight plenary over the last two years.
Hallinan said losing Rothman was like losing a lightbulb, a bulb that simply could not be replaced.
“We really lost a fighter,” he said. “And lord knows we need people to fight — for quality education, for sanity, in Santa Cruz, in California, in the country and in the world, and there’s just a hole in the line now. And you can’t get just anybody that you can just shove in there. There’s just a hole in the line.”
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations for the Dreamer’s Fund, which supports undocumented students, or to Shakespeare Santa Cruz. Donations should be made payable to the UC Santa Cruz Foundation, with a note to the fund being supported, and sent to University Relations,
Attn: Kathy Rouhier, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz, CA 95064.