Remembering James Olof Ribb (1946-2006)

In my more resigned moments I figure this thing is going to get me sooner or later — it wasn’t exactly caught in the early stages–but all I really want is what I’ve always wanted even before this happened: some good days (without pain) and the opportunity to put things in order, providing for a minimum of fuss after I’m gone. If I can have that, I’ll be happy. It’s quality, not quantity.

Olof James Ribb died nine years ago today on January 16, 2006 of a very aggressive form of bone cancer. Olof was one of those rare friends of a lifetime that some of us are fortunate enough to have. He was one of the truest people I have ever known, a “man in whom there was no guile,” and one of the most brilliant and honest human beings I have ever known. When I think of sterling impeccable character I think of Olof. All who knew him say the same. He had some rare combination of intelligence, brutal honesty, kindness, keen insight, a quest for truth, and a passionate sense of justice. I miss him immensely and think of him every day.

Two years ago I posted the draft of a manuscript he finished in 1994 but never published: Excerpts: A Collection of Thoughts, Quotations, and Observations. ((I want to thank our dear and mutual friend of Olof–Stephen Estes–for scanning and preparing this original manuscript for posting and Olof’s nephew Erick Mortensen who maintains the web site olofribb.com.)) Olof was exceedingly modest about this work and during his lifetime only shared it with a few friends, though he and I talked about publishing it someday and he seemed quite willing but said it would “need a lot of work.” I invite my readers to delve into this rather remarkable collection of random observations on “People, Books and Ideas, Death, Tradition, Politics, Reason and the Mind, Women, Gender, Sex, Morality, and Superstition,” as well as to browse the web site olofribb.com for the many photos, tributes, and memories of Olof Ribb–especially by his students. The section on “Olof’s Thoughts” is particularly fascinating. Olof was preeminently a linguist, a reader, a thinker–but most of all a teacherpar excellence. He was reluctant to write much formally given his conviction that most of what needed to be said about la condition humaine had already been said far better than he felt he could express things–hence the many quotations in his little book. He was a high school teacher of German and Latin much beloved of students, family, and friends. He could have easily had a Ph.D. and taught at the university level but he felt strongly that high school was the best and most critical place to serve in our culture so he was content with his M.A. in German and Latin. When he won the “Teacher of the Year” award at Western Alamance High School in Burlington, NC, where he was teaching when he died, he commented to a friend who congratulated him, “Thanks, Joy, for your card and congratulations. I certainly bamboozled them!” Olof lived in Greensboro, not far from the UNC campus and spent much time at Chapel Hill as well, both in the libraries and taking post-graduate classes in philosophy, literature, and Classics. Beginning in January, 1973 Olof and I exchanged letters in the good old-fashioned way, three to five page typed single-spaced, mailed back and forth every week to ten days for over 20 years. The last decade or so we turned to e-mail. I have copies of all our correspondence filling several storage boxes.  Those files are among my most precious possessions, next to family pictures and movies. Someday I hope to publish excerpts–mostly his not mine–as this weekly record of his intellectual and spiritual development over the 33 years of our friendship is truly an impressive legacy. Olof made a profound difference in countless thousands of lives over the years. German was Olof’s main academic expertise, though he had learned Italian and Spanish quite well, and was a master of Latin. His great loves were history, philosophy, religion, and literature, though he maintained a curiosity about almost everything, including the latest in science. He had read the complete works of Nietzsche and dozens of others German philosophers and writers, not to mention his deep love of Classics.  Because of his family “roots” he plunged into Swedish with a special passion the last decades of his life. I remember asking him once, since I knew his Germany was so fluent, if his Swedish would compare, and he answered simply “Yes.”  He had become over 20 years as comfortable in Swedish as in English or German. I don’t know of anyone inside or outside my academic field who had followed my work and research on the historical Jesus more avidly than Olof. But he was much more of a dialog partner and a critic than a fan. He had studied the Bible line-by-line in his youth and I have his old worn copy with markings and notations on every page–no exaggeration here. Over the years he read and thought himself “out of Christianity,” and in the end even the more Hebraic “process theism” that I find appealing failed to grip him. In the oddest way his “skepticism” and even “agnosticism” seemed to have more integrity to it than the creedal statements of so many. He was neither contentious nor pretentious, and was perfectly willing to patiently listen to my own expositions but just found himself unconvinced of what he considered to be the naive assumptions of “certainty” in any sort of biblically oriented faith.  I benefited immensely from his input and we differed sharply on some of these issues. Olof read every word of my Jesus Dynasty manuscript along the way and gave me helpful feedback on nearly every page. I still have his MS Word “markup” copies of each chapter, filled with his notes.  He traveled with me to Germany when I was doing the Pantera research in October, 2005, just a few months before he died. We had no idea he was even sick but he complained on that trip of a pain in his shoulder that turned out to be a malignant bone tumor. I mention him in the Acknowledgments of that book that was published in April of 2006. Olof never lived to hold a printed copy of the book in his hands but I flew up to Minneapolis the weekend before he died and showed him the final page proofs which pleased him immensely.

I hope all of you will both enjoy and be stimulated by Olof’s thoughts on this anniversary of his death.