It was a Saturday morning in June, and I was in my Milan kitchen in pajamas, drinking my tea and savoring the dayafter letdown into normalcy following a Milan Group symposium, when my doorbell rang. There on the landing in a short-sleeved shirt, with a newspaper under his arm and a warm smile on his face, was Rhys Isaac. I was surprised to see him; at the end of conferences scholars, like kids out of school, rush off on their various concerns. It was, too, the first time Rhys had come to Milan: though I had long admired his work, Australia is far away, and it had taken years to come by sufficient funds for his ticket. But his enthusiastic and vivid participation in the discussions had more than fulfilled all the promise of intuition and passion conveyed by his study on Virginia. He had just naturally become an integral part of the Group at once, ranging with civic passion into scholarly territories apparently far from his own with panache and penetration, enlarging the breadth of discussion and offering innovative points of contact between topics and fields.
Now, hand outstretched, he said, “Good morning, Loretta. I was out walking with a few hours before going to Malpensa, and I couldn’t resist dropping by to talk some more.” With that neighborly gesture, Rhys transformed international academic exchange into down-home friendship, and we did indeed sit in the kitchen with cookies and tea, the cats and my husband coming and going, and discuss the elevated and the trivial, research, food, people, and future conference projects for several hours until Rhys had to leave to catch his plane.
Intuitive, unsparing of his time and energy; warm, amusing; interested in things, places, people, and ideas; always up for discussion and always lucid and humane, from that first time Rhys brought a wind from Oz and from intellectual utopia. He was a dear friend and a key part of the Milan Group (and a fervent proponent of its special nature as a circle of friends from various countries, intellectual backgrounds, and what Europeans call scholarly “disciplines”); ethically engaged with large basic questions and as impatient of academic trappings as he was careful of significant detail. Whenever proposals arose to tie the Group to some stable kind of institutional backing that would give funding for conformity to more traditional organization of its activity and its symposia, Rhys always raised his voice for keeping poverty and insecurity with independence. His conviction that despite ups and downs or even sideways slips into a few dead ends, the Group, just because it was anomalous, had significance, has been precious in the last decade. Always at the other end of an e-mail and sure to be seen and heard every two years at the symposia, with Larry Portis, Bill Riches, Sylvia Ullmo, and Ron Hoffman, Rhys was a fixed element in the choice to go ahead with the symposia despite the growing problems of venue and funds. His friendship and his intellectual and moral presence were precious gifts. The winter will be colder now.
Loretta Valtz Mannucci,
University of Milan