It was with immense sadness that I, along with more than forty of Chris Brookeman’s former colleagues and friends across the world, learnt of his final weeks and death on December 1st, 2016 after a lengthy and brave battle with Parkinson’s Disease. Chris’s wife Hazel wrote moving daily reports which brought together many stories and anecdotes about this remarkable person and his extraordinary contribution to American Studies in Britain over many years.
Chris was instrumental in many BAAS projects as well as being a prolific writer and inspiring lecturer. All those who knew him will have their own stories to tell but here I have tried to say what Chris Brookeman meant to me.
I first met Chris in the late 1970s after he became a leading light in the introduction of the GCSE American Studies and established the American Studies Centre at PCL. At the time I was teaching in an FE college and American Studies became part of our programme. It was clear to me right from the start that here was a person totally committed to seeing an important and relevant (as well as wonderfully stimulating) subject introduced into the curriculum at school and FE level. During those early years I would regularly bring student groups down to London to research in the AS Centre and to be guided in their work or given short lectures by Chris. He also produced and fronted a series of excellent educational videos on American history and culture for this new audience. It was Chris who got me involved with BAAS and set my career on a path that he, in many ways, illuminated for me. He was in fact also one of my referees when I successfully applied for a Fulbright teaching exchange to a college in California in the early 80s; something for which I will be eternally grateful. Some years later Chris was again a driving force and great supporter of my successful attempt to set up a sister organisation to the University of Westminster ASRC in Liverpool.
After the AS Centre and I moved (from the FE college) to Liverpool John Moores University, Chris and I continued to work closely together on publishing ventures, teacher training programmes and conferences both for schools and wider academic audiences. Perhaps the peak of all this was in 1999 when along with Sue Wedlake at the US Embassy, we organised a conference on Muhammad Ali. The idea, as always, was Chris’s, as was the title ‘Muhammad Ali: Living Mythically; The American Hero.’ Chris gave one of the lectures that day and this was at a time when the Parkinson’s was beginning to take its toll on him. Only with a determination and commitment I could never in my imagination muster, Chris gave a masterful presentation, as provocative and rewarding as ever, driven on by an immense determination that had the Parkinson’s disease rolling backwards like one of Ali’s opponents. It took a lot out of Chris that day but it was one I will never forget. And how touching is it that like his American Hero Ali, Chris fought the disease like the great boxer, ducking and weaving so that it could not hit him. I know he was proud of the signed photo he had of Ali and how they had both fought the disease together and now in the same year, they have both left us with strong memories and a smile.
One thing I learned about Chris from an early stage was on which side of him to stand when talking. He was, as many know, partly deaf in one ear following an injury playing rugby. It was a game he ironically described as ” ..a game for hooligans played by gentlemen..” I also knew that at conferences Chris would always find time to introduce me to colleagues who would be able to assist in the work of the AS Centre, or who would make excellent speakers for schools or academic conferences. He saw everyone involved in teaching American Studies, regardless of the academic level, as colleagues. I also spent many a night in university bars during BAAS conferences being regaled with stories that had me rolling in laughter with Chris; his mischievous laugh will be with me for ever.
Thank you Chris, for everything you helped me with, for showing me paths to follow, for introducing me to many interesting folk and steering me away or saving me from a few inveterate bores. Thank you for being an inspiration. Thank you for being a friend.
Ian Ralston is Director of the American Studies Centre at Liverpool John Moores University.
Chris Brookeman never lost sight of the importance of maintaining the teaching of American Studies in schools. The schools networks that he helped develop were unrivalled. In co-operation with BAAS he defended the viability of American Studies in teacher training, and contributed centrally to the establishment of an American Studies GCE, and to an effort to introduce A level American Studies that was eventually derailed only by the government’s sweeping changes to education in the 1980s. A small part of the outreach he achieved was an annual week-long summer term course that brought school pupils from all over London to the Polytechnic of Central London. During Wimbledon fortnight he filled the venerable (and at that time noticeably unrestored) with students and their teachers during the day, and took his guest lecturers home to watch the tennis in the evenings, generating a heady mix of cultural, political and sporting conversation that lasted for days on end.
His enthusiasm was infectious and magnetic. He was not much of a committee person, but his presence at BAAS conferences seemed to be accompanied by a small personal maelstrom wherever he went. He was always pleased to meet you. His friendships were deep, but freely shared. His reach was international, affecting teachers of American Studies in San Francisco and Texas as well as within the confines of Greater London. The links that he and Alan Morrison forged between PCL/Westminster University and the Smithsonian are valued today.
Chris’s energetic support for multidisciplinary American Studies was immensely valuable at a time when the subject was under threat and the community owes much to him. There can have been no better prize for Chris, though, than meeting Hazel through the work in which he invested so much of himself. Chris’s struggle with Parkinson’s started early and lasted for decades. Hazel and her family have maintained and loved him throughout.
Philip Davies is Director of the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.