The loss of a dear old friend
I don’t remember exactly when I first met Martin Harry Greenberg, who died on July 2nd after a series of debilitating health problems. Whenever it was, it was a long time ago, maybe in the ’60s, but I do remember the circumstances. I had received a letter from him — the world hadn’t yet got around to emails — inviting me to speak at something called Florida International University, whatever that was. The invitation had come with an offer of a modest honorarium and I had accepted it.
I didn’t do it for the money. I did it for two reasons. These were the years when schools all over the country were beginning to offer courses in science fiction, a development which I approved of and did my best to encourage. And the other and perhaps more important reason was that I really liked talking to college audiences. In six or seven years of speaking at college dates there was only one I wished I had never heard of — and that one was just a couple of days before; I had moved on to the University of Wisconsin, where I had one of my most memorable speaking engagements ever.
I was picked up at the Miami airport by Marty in a car with a Florida International paint job, driven by a slim and youthful-looking young man. There were a couple words of introduction as I got in, but I caught nothing but the name — Joe Olander — being more concentrated on trying to get the car door closed before some speeding taxicab made off with it. The driver had his own priorities, trying to avoid some other taxi’s attempts to remove a fender, so he didn’t take much part in the early parts of the conversation between me and Marty. I approved of the fact that he was concentrating on the task of getting us safely out of the airport.
Then, as we were securely on “Alligator Alley,” the highway across Florida’s southern tip, he began adding, over his shoulder, comments of his own to Marty’s quick course in the history and attributes of FIU.
Marty didn’t seem to mind, or even to think it strange that a car driver should say things like “Marty and I have been scheming for a long time to add a course in science fiction.” That struck me as a bit odd, if praiseworthily democratic on Marty’s part, until a photograph in one of the bits of paper Marty was handing me caught my eye. The photo was of our driver, and the caption under it was, “Vice President of Florida International University, Dr. Joseph D. Olander.”
That put a quite different complexion on some of the things both Dr. Greenberg and Dr. Olander had been saying. I listened quite a lot more attentively as they explained some of the details of what they haad in mind. My speaking invitation, in their plan, was not merely a one-night stand but — they hoped — simply the first step in their campaign for much bigger things. First was to be the addition of a credit course in science fiction to the curriculum, and then perhaps a year or two later — and this made me sit up straight — they planned on hiring a science-fiction author as a Writer-in-Residence at FIU. Unspoken but clearly implied was the item that their number one choice on their list for the job was me.
Well, in the long run nothing came of that plan, but they had tuned in on a private fantasy of my own. A few years earlier, while our family financial condition still needed serious amounts of improvement, I had wistfully thought of being one of those Writer-in-Residence creatures myself. Some hopeful investigating revealed that the prospects were poor. The only school that sounded like they might want to have me was a little one in, I think, Southern California, about which, my friend Jack Williamson said when I applied to him for advice, “The only thing that part of the world had that was worth having was underground, and they pumped it out and sold it long ago.”
Well, if that old wish could finally come true, I thought, it wouldn’t solve any financial problems anyway. It couldn’t. Writing having finally proved to be reasonably profitable, I didn’t have any. Actually I could see that it might even create a few. I might, for instance, be faced with maintaining two households. But, on the other hand, it might well be fun. And Marty Greenberg, a highly admired dean, and Joe Olander, the second highest administrator at the school, were in a good position to make it happen, especially since Florida International already had a Writer-in-Residence, a man whose name I have sadly forgotten but who had written a couple of bestsellers. His term had another year or so to run, but then it would be possible, they planned, to have me replace him.
Well, that didn’t happen, though. My first talk went over quite well, and so Joe and Marty began sounding the waters to find support for the second stage of their plans. They kept me well informed of how things were going, and it did seem to be taking a long time, but I was in no particular hurry.
I had formed the habit of dropping in on FIU whenever I chanced to be in the neighborhood and so, a year or so later, when I had been out of the country for a few weeks I was again in Florida. I drove myself to the campus in my rental car. When Marty came out to meet me his face was glum.
“Bad news?” I asked,
“You could say so,” he agreed. “Or good, depending on who you’re talking to.”
“You’re being worrisomely cryptic,” I old him.
He nodded. “That’s because our plans are all messed up now. Joe’s had an offer he couldn’t turn down. It’s the presidency of a little West Coast college in Washington state. And I— Well there’s nothing on paper, but I think I’m going to get a bid from the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay. And, Fred, if it comes through, I’m going to accept it.”
I said right away, “Of course you will! You’ve got a family to support— ”
He held up his hand. “It isn’t the money. It’s the climate. We’re snow and ice people, Fred. We don’t do well with all the sunshine all year long, not to mention the humidity.” Then he looked at his watch. “Joe wants to see you, too,” he said “Then we’d like to take you to dinner.”
“Sounds good,” I said, and made room for him to get into my car.
Joe was waiting for us in the entrance to the administration building. I let him give directions, we wound up at a very nice seafood restaurant, where I got a chance to indulge my passion for fried oysters one more time. I told them what I’d been doing in, mostly, the Soviet Union and Poland. And Joe and Marty talked about what they hoped for from their new jobs.
And then when we got to the coffee Marty said, “Let’s do it,” and Joe said, “My very thought,” and he reached down into his attaché case and brought out an American Beauty rose, in its little globe of water, and what looked like a small jewelry case.
“Open it,” said Marty. I did. What came out of the little box was a little bronze bust of a man. I frowned at it.
“Who’s this?” I asked.
Joe sniffed. “You don’t recognize our patron saint? You’ve just been awarded the Herbert, the award of the H.G. Wells Society of Southern Florida, given to you by the unanimous vote of all the members — that is, of both Martin and me — for meritorious service in the cause of science fiction.”
“Hip-hip,” said Marty, “and Hooray!” said Joe, and that is the story how I came to have the first and only Herbert ever awarded by the H.G. Wells Society of Southern Florida.