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Commentary: The Lasting Legacy of Dr. Patricia Anderson

Courtesy photo
Dr. Patricia Anderson

I've been thinking a lot about legacy recently.  A quick Google search gave me the Oxford dictionary definition of a legacy as "an amount of money or property left to someone in a will."  But this wasn't quite what I was looking for.  Material things like money can be useful, but they don't really live on after someone is gone.  So, I kept searching. 

Finally, I found a definition that reflected more of what I was feeling.  Mary Gormandy White, writes that a legacy is “the mark the individual left on the world... It is about the richness of the individual's life, including what that person accomplished and the impact he or she had on people and places.”  What follows are my thoughts on the lasting legacy of Dr. Patricia Anderson, a wonderful anthropologist, friend, and colleague who died just days before her official retirement from Western Illinois University on July 26th of this year.  

Pat is the epitome of what one can do with an education from Western Illinois University.  In 1999 she began teaching full time at Western, the same institution where she earned her BA in Anthropology and MA in Geography.  She went on to receive her PhD from one of the best schools in the nation, the University of Chicago.  Her academic accomplishments included multiple book chapters, scholarly articles, and funding from prestigious institutions like the National Science Foundation and the Tinker and Mellon organizations.  She was the co-editor of the peer-reviewed journal, Anthrozoös, which is published by the International Society for Anthrozoology.  In 2003 she was recognized by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and received the award “Excellence in a New Animals and Society Course” for the development of her wildly popular class, Anthrozoology.    

Despite all of her professional accolades, what I have always admired most about Pat was her deep intellectual curiosity and empathy for others.  She was one of the kindest humans I have ever met, always concerned about the well-being of those around her.  When she led the Archaeological Field School at the Orendorf prehistoric archaeological site in Fulton County, Illinois not only did she teach students how to be professional archaeologists, she also taught them larger life lessons about how to collaborate with each other and rely on and appreciate each other’s strengths.  These are skills we all need regardless of the professions we pursue.  

Teaching was Pat’s passion and she was an outstanding educator.  With each individual student she recognized their potential and nurtured it.  As such, her legacy does not reside in the many books and teaching materials she left behind, but rather in the human potential of each and every life she touched.  In her kind, yet authoritative manner, she showed her students and fellow anthropologists how to be the very best version of ourselves. 

She broadened the scope of my world in ways I had never imagined.  I joined the Department of Sociology & Anthropology not long after Pat did, but as a young academic and mother, I was slow to recognize the importance of her work on human and non-human bonds.  It was only much later as a result of her gentle and tireless encouragement for me to think differently about the way I move in the world, that I finally understood the many lessons she had to offer me.  Her professional and personal insights have forever altered the way in which I view and navigate this thing called life.  She was always teaching, whether it was during a brief encounter on the fourth floor of Morgan Hall or over a glass of wine during one of our annual luncheons reserved only for the women of the department.  If you were willing to learn, there was always something new and meaningful to take note of.  

My fellow anthropologist, Dr. Andrea Alveshere writes so eloquently, “Pat was beloved by all for her kindness, generosity, boundless curiosity, and deep passion for teaching. She had an extraordinary ability to derive profound insights on life and relationships by weaving together observations from her studies of archaeology, indigenous societies, non-human animals, popular culture, and current events.  Through her everyday insights, shared both online and in person, Pat expanded the hearts and horizons of all who knew her.  As a colleague and friend, she inspired me to become a more perceptive teacher and researcher, but also to practice more empathy and mindfulness in my role as a human being and a resident of planet Earth.”  

I hope we don’t let you down Pat.  You certainly set the bar high and we will work hard to honor your bequest.  Thank you for showing us the importance of kindness and curiosity.  We will do our best to honor your teachings and pass them on.  

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.