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Professor’s memory honored at service

Donald Nieman started to describe yesterday the call, which came just over two weeks ago, when he learned University Professor Fujiya Kawashima had died.

Standing at the podium, the dean of the college of arts and sciences could barely get through his first sentence before starting to choke up.

“The news was absolutely incomprehensible,” Nieman said, wiping away tears.

Nieman spoke yesterday at a memorial service held for Kawashima that gave well over 150 students and faculty the chance to say goodbye to a professor who, in the words of one student, “taught us to appreciate beauty in places we never would have looked.”

Kawashima, a history professor and director of the Asian Studies program, died March 5 of acute leukemia, after a 34 year career at the University. He was 67.

“Fuji was an excellent model” for how to live life, Nieman said in an interview after the service. “What he did here changed the lives of students.”

“I can’t believe that I’m not going to walk over to Williams Hall and not have [him] pop out of his office,” he said.

The service was organized by colleagues of Kawashima that wanted to give students and faculty, most of which were out of town for break, a second chance to remember the professor.

“For 23 years, he was my mentor, sensei, my colleague, and one of my best friends,” said Akiko Kawano Jones, a German, Russian and East Asian languages lecturer. Kawashima “gave me the energy to work at school, [and] passion to work for the Asian Studies program,” she said.

Kawashima death came less than a week after he first began to feel ill, and just two days after being diagnosed, Jones said.

The sudden death played heavily on the minds of many that attended.

“This is pretty hard to deal with,” said Kris Zeller, a junior, who was Kawashima’s advisee her freshman year. “I couldn’t process it when I heard.”

“It was just so hard to believe he’s gone,” she said.

Stephen Chang, associate professor and chair of the geology department, came to BGSU around the same time as Kawashima.

“I saw him days before he passed away,” Chang said. “I didn’t know [about] any physical problem or illness whatsoever.”

As he spoke, Chang glanced up at the slide show playing on a screen in front of the room.

“He has kind of a kid’s grin on his face, kind of like, ‘ah, I got myself a sports car!'” Chang said, laughing.

Student Union employees were seen pulling out extra chairs well past the service’s 11:30 a.m. starting time as mourners continued to pour into the multipurpose room, some eventually forced to stand in back.

There were no shortage of tears as colleagues and current and former students spoke about Kawashima’s love of art, pottery and Asian history and culture.

A series of his paintings lined the front of the stage, and one of the last drawings he did for Jones graced the front of the service’s program.

“He was always very keen on making us think for ourselves, asking us questions that have no clear answer,” said Deborah Ehrick, a senior and Asian Studies major.

In another eulogy, Justin Wilson, another senior in Asian Studies, called himself “very fortunate” to have worked with Kawashima.

“He was the epitome of what I had always imagined a professor would be,” Wilson said.

Sitting in her office later that afternoon, Jones pondered a moment before describing the “total shock” surrounding Kawashima’s death.

“I wish somebody had told me this is just a bad dream,” she said. “I wish he were here to see how much we all loved him, respected him.”

Kawashima was never one to seek fame, Jones said, and frequently turned to him for votes of confidence in her decisions as a teacher.

“We didn’t have to say everything,” she said, “we understood each other.”

J.J., Kawashima’s wife, attended the ceremony and was appreciative of the students who spoke of his impact on their lives.

“That is good consolation, I think, that they spoke of how they felt about Fuji,” she said.

Nieman also praised the students’ “eloquent and deeply felt” speeches.

They “really reflected the real impact that he had on students,” he said.

Kawashima emigrated to the United States from Japan in 1964 as a Fulbright Scholar. He spent the next six years studying at Harvard University before he began teaching at the University – his first ever job.

After returning to Japan for two years in 1972, he returned to BGSU and never looked back.

“In a world that is very selfish,” Nieman said, “he was the most unselfish person I’ve ever known.”

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