In Memoriam: Daniel Newell Pendergrass (1963-2007)
Danny, my cousin, was an English professor at American University in Dubai, United Arab Emirates when he died on January 28, 2007 from a heart attack. We think that he died in his sleep. He is a former resident of Alabama (where he grew up) and to my knowledge was smart enough to cheer for Auburn. He served in the Peace Corps in the early 90s, teaching high school on a 2 square mile island in Micronesia. After completing his service, he taught English in South Korea; earned a Master’s degree in English; and moved to Turkey, where he taught at Koc University in Istanbul. In 2004 he moved on to American University, which is where God determined his story was finished. Sadly, it is not clear if he was a believer, though I hope and trust that God has done what He has deemed right where Danny is concerned.
Most of my memories of Danny (which is what we called him back in the day) come from holidays and family get-togethers at the home of my late great-grandmother (my Granddaddy’s mother). I was very little when I knew him, and what I remember is, along with my cousin Charley (who is the same age as I), being excited at the opportunity to “play with the big boys.” Being around Danny and his brother Marc made us feel like big boys, and they never disabused us of that notion. I vividly remember Charley and I climbing the tree next to Great-Gran Newell’s driveway while Marc and Danny looked on; Danny chasing us around the yard; Danny teasing us about our presents at Christmas, or tossing a football before Thanksgiving dinner. After Great-Gran passed away, that particular set of get-togethers ceased, and it would be a long time before I saw Danny again.
I next saw him after he had returned from South Korea. When I saw him, I was a junior at Carson-Newman College. His mother, my Aunt Jessie, had been battling cancer, and if I recall correctly, was nearing the end of that battle. My grandmother threw a family party for the express purpose of showing Aunt Jessie a good time. At the time, you might say my head was stuffed somewhere not very nice (I call this my “young and stupid” phase). I was stuck in a disastrous relationship and for whatever reason could not think outside the little box I had been confined to. To this day I really regret not taking the time to talk with Danny more at that party, especially since I would not see him ever again after Aunt Jessie passed away.
The reason for that regret is because Danny had what most writers spend a lifetime trying to develop. He had the gift of being able to capture in written words the things he saw and experienced. He was a poet, and an extremely gifted one. Being somewhat of a writer and poet myself, I really wish I had talked with him about the writing craft, about our struggles, inspirations, and successes. It would have been an exhilarating discussion and I am sure I would have left the party with fresh inspiration for writing and preaching. It is a grave sin that I did not take advantage of such fellowship.
In the intervening time between his Peace Corps service and South Korea, he had sent home letters containing the most vivid and wonderful stories I have ever read. In particular, I remember his mother coming over to my grandmother’s house and sharing one such letter about a deep-sea fishing trip gone awry. “The Shark Story,” as I have called it ever since, remains my all-time favorite story ever. Hopefully one day I can procure an account of it and post it here to be enjoyed.
Danny was a published author. Several of his poems were published in literary journals and around the Internet. He also published his first book, 23 Istanbul Karabitsi, in 2006. I will soon procure this book, read it, and give it a treasured place on my bookshelf.
God used Danny to impact everyone he met on his travels. In the wake of his death, many of his students and friends shared memories with Marc about how he impacted their lives, and their stories were truly moving. Danny’s work has taught me the value of looking for those moments in life that truly capture the glory of God. It was this – his gift – that makes his memory cherished and my heart heavy. Oh, how we will miss our brother and cousin!
I will close this post by leaving you with a selection from his works that I found at the memorial, one that vividly illustrates the gift God gave to him.
Where the soul leaps before thought can follow,
The form uncluttered, the incomplete circle hollow,
With each to his own and in all things nature,
All the same if the selection lacks nomenclature,
But with a kind eye, pointing to the natural,
Seeking out from our world any sign of the rational,
A common and yet an uncommon scene,
Which from whence a clue we might possibly glean;
A landscape seen through an internal eye,
Virtue uncorrupted, passing on the fly,
The rare and coveted perfect example!
As such when I found this classic sample:
When, at Hadarpasha, through a tinted window pane,
I exchanged puzzled glances with a kind crane.