Ithaca, N.Y. — Tears followed laughter at the memorial service on Saturday for M.H. “Mike” Abrams, the Cornell University professor and literary critic who died in April at age 102.
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Family members and colleagues shared stories of their friend and mentor, and some of Abrams’ favorite songs were played by local jazz artists.
More than 200 people attended the service held by Kendal at Ithaca, the retirement community where Abrams lived. “This is the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen here,” said one Kendal resident.
Abrams’ daughters, Judy Abrams and Jane Brennan, recounted family memories, including a summer where Abrams decided the family would go swimming every sunny day. Their mother, Ruth, would prepare a picnic and drive the girls to Goldwin Smith Hall, where they would honk the car for Abrams to join them for a swim at Buttermilk or Taughannock Falls.
Judy Abrams ended by saying, “Dad will be missed for his smile, good humor, amazing storytelling, and ability to accentuate the positive,” commencing a performance of the Johnny Mercer song, “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.”
(Abrams reading “To Autumn,” by John Keats, at his cottage at Kendal, Aug. 4, 2014. Photo by Gina Campbell.)
Next, the jazz ensemble played “Sunny Side of the Street,” and nearly everyone in the audience sang along.
Sherman Kelly, Abrams’ son-in-law, said that, on overcast days, even a slight part in the clouds would lead Abrams to sing “Blue Skies,” by Irving Berlin. “He had a beautiful voice,” said Kelly, “he was able to see the silver lining in every cloud.”
Abrams is well known for his extensive academic contributions, including serving as the general editor for the first seven editions of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, as well as for his individual works, such as A Glossary of Literary Terms, and The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition.
Saturday’s memorial, however, focused more on the personal attributes of Abrams. “He was gentle, full of dignity, and had a lot of grace,” his granddaughter, Sarah Brennan, said in a video from San Francisco.
Abrams was known not only for his kindness and academic accomplishments, but also his devotion to Cornell sports. The director of Cornell athletics, Andy Noel, said at the service that Abrams, with maybe one or two exceptions, “never missed a home football game for 65 years.”
In 2010, the Cornell men’s basketball team made it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Basketball Tournament for just the second time. Noel presented Abrams with a game ball used in the tournament, and said Abrams “emanated sheer delight. That is how I will always remember him.”
Last to speak was Roger Gilbert, current chair of the English Department at Cornell. He called Abrams “the finest reader of poetry I’ve ever known,” and showed a picture of Abrams reading a poem on the porch of his cottage at Kendal, saying, “this is what the love of poetry looks like at its purest.”
Gilbert spoke largely of Abrams’ ability to link old and new. “Mike embodies the conjunction ‘and.’ He was a human connector, a bridger of gaps. He bridged [Cornell’s] past and present, and bridged generations of faculty.”
At the very end, a clip was played from an Abrams lecture at Cornell called “The Fourth Dimension of a Poem.”
After reading several poems, Abrams said to the Cornell crowd, “Thank you all for being such an attentive audience,” resulting in applause from the audience in the video as well as those at the service.