Ghost in the machineWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
That was Dennard I saw in Pittsburgh.
Dennard Summers was designed by nature to stand out. He was exceedingly tall, Paul Bunyan tall, with skin as black as Joseph in Paul Simon’s song “Under African Skies.” He was fiercely intelligent, but nature, bitch that she is, denied Dennard the ability to speak or communicate with clarity. He stuttered and stammered and said wildly inappropriate things. He may have been autistic; I do not know. I never asked.
He was a big, lumbering, clumsy boy who did not fit in with any of Libbey High School’s assorted 1985 cliques, not even the clique for those ostracized from all the other cliques. The first time I read John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” about an odd misfit with every conceivable physical disadvantage, I thought of Dennard; the physical descriptions were polar opposites, but the struggles struck me as very similar.
Dennard loved music, I remember that; he was the first to discover and share Prince, Duran Duran and Madonna.
I do not recall ever being cruel to Dennard, but I never reached out to him with much kindness, either.
He receded into my post-high school memory like a cartoon character from a long-forgotten show, one who proved distracting and amusing at the time, but left no lingering impact.
A decade later, as I drove from work to my apartment in Pittsburgh, I thought I saw Dennard on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University.
He still stood out, dwarfing the other pedestrians in a sweater much too big even for him, which boggled my mind; there was enough wool wrapped around his frame to cover a mighty long sofa. He faded from my view within seconds, and I could not quite bring myself to believe we had both ended up in Pittsburgh. I was curious enough to imagine what path brought Dennard to the Steel City, but not curious enough to look him up or try to establish any contact. I meant to, at first, then gradually forgot.
I know it was Dennard I saw that day because his obituary says he died in Pittsburgh in May 2005, in his sleep.
His passing was brought to my attention this week by another Libbey friend I recently reconnected with. A quick Google search revealed his Blade obituary:
“Dennard Summers passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, May 8, 2005, in his Pittsburgh, PA, home just days before his 38th birthday. A native Toledoan, he had resided in Pittsburgh for 15 years. A filmmaker, cartoonist, music critic, and free-lance writer, his current project was co-producing and writing a critically acclaimed television show which airs on a Pittsburgh local access channel. A graduate of Libbey High School, he held both his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in the liberal arts. His brothers, Charles and Joey; stepfather, Leonard Hayden; his maternal grandparents, and a host of aunts and uncles preceded Dennard in death.”
A filmmaker, cartoonist and music critic? A master’s degree? Two brothers who died before him? I learned more about Dennard in that paragraph, more than a year after his death, than I ever knew about him in the three years I took classes with him.
And I feel exceptionally guilty about that. I feel ashamed.
Google had more surprises for me. Dennard was known as SteelCity Boy, an alter ego he used in TV and radio work. TV and radio! Dennard! There are pages, scores of pages, loaded with testimonials from people who knew Dennard or were touched by his work. He parlayed his love for music and media into a larger-than-life personality in the one place that could not punish him for his corporeal prison: the Internet. It makes perfect sense. You can’t judge a gigantic book by its cover when you can’t see the cover.
Dennard is everywhere online, on Web sites he ran and contributed to (one of them is an art collection of “invisible women,” which also makes perfect sense. I’m sure invisible is how women made him feel). He has scraps of autobiography scattered all across the World Wide Web.
He lives on, in a format that may never surrender him. Several of his entries have live e-mail links, and I sent a goodbye to three or four of them. I did not apologize to him, because I did not do anything to injure him, but I did express regret that I missed out on his vibrant contributions.
I understand this also strikes a chord with my own thoughts of mortality. Will that be my legacy in 50 years, scores of columns in cyberspace that grow less relevant and more cryptic with every passing hour?
One of the message boards Dennard contributed to contains this message: “I hope that Dennard’s doing well in a better place … a place full of pop-culture and great music mixes.”
Amen. Rest in peace, Dennard.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press. He may be contacted at (419) 241-1700 or by e-mail at email@example.com.