As part of its Homecoming activities, Centre College will hold memorial service Saturday morning for one of the most beloved figures in its almost two hundred year history. Former dean of men and professor of history Max Cavnes died in April in his adopted home state of Vermont.
Max was already legendary when I arrived at Centre in the autumn of 1978. I had heard of him from my sister and brother who preceded me on the Danville campus by about a decade.
While Max took an interest in every Centre student, he was especially welcoming if you knew, as I did, some of the names and colorful personalities from his days as a dean. For those of us who experienced an adversarial relationship with the then-dean of students it was difficult to imagine that someone like Max had ever held such a post.
It was even more amazing that he had pulled it off so successfully and with little, if any, hostility from his charges during such a tumultuous era of American history. He saw it all, from Animal House to Love Story and beyond.
He could, and would, regale us with tales about the stunts “his boys” had pulled. Without criticizing his successors he still managed to contrast his approach to crisis management and problem-solving to their quite different methods.
In class Max had an idiosyncratic teaching style. When lecturing he had a habit of leaving blanks in a sentence and expecting students to fill them in.
Some were easy, like the time he said, “It was like throwing the what out with the what what?” We sat silently for a moment before he rather impatiently responded, “The baby out with the bathwater!”
Max also presumed more knowledge on the part students than we actually possessed. He once described a place as being like “those ravines up near Herkimer, New York,” as if Kentucky teens were intimately acquainted with the topography between Syracuse and Saratoga.
After graduation I took a job in Danville and one day encountered Max on Main Street. He inquired of my plans, and I outlined a path of least resistance premised primarily on proximity to my romantic interest who was still at Centre.
This did not please Max. He was all for love, but still gave me a scolding and sent me away with a very clear understanding that if I did not pursue a more rigorous course it would be a disappointment not only to him, but also to me throughout the rest of my life.
I took Max’s advice (how could one do otherwise?) and ended up in law school in Massachusetts. His wisdom was once again validated when that Centre girl and I got married, which might not have happened if we had not had some time apart.
Max’s adored his wife Doris, and they were a wonderful example for a great many Centre couples. Doris was a formidable person in her own right and together they were an amazing team.
One of Max’s marriage axioms was that when spouses have a fight the one who was right should be the one to apologize. Think about it.
Max and Doris moved to Vermont after they retired and like so many Centre folk my wife and I visited them there multiple times. As soon as we arrived on our first trip they whisked us off to the town firehouse for a community supper that was something straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
A breakfast with them was characteristically Cavnes with whole wheat pancakes or Uncle Sam’s original whole wheat berry flakes combined with whole flaxseeds. Max may have had 0% body fat.
One of our best visits included a ferry ride across the gorgeous waters of Lake Champlain to tour Fort Ticonderoga. I think of Max every time I open the change purse with a cannon on it that I bought at the gift shop.
Max managed better than many of us expected after Doris died, but he had clearly lost the greatest love of his life. He indeed loved dogs and Vermont, but they were distant seconds to Doris, and he missed her so.
He was quite popular at the Wake Robin community where he lived. His name for the most intensive level of care there was “the launching pad” since that was the place from which residents left this life.
Eventually it was his time to end a life so well-lived. One of our last communications was a thank you from him for our having made a gift to Centre in honor of Doris.
So many Centre people have their own special memories of Max. We miss him so and are blessed to have had him in our lives.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com.
This story originally appeared in The Advocate-Messenger on Oct. 2, 2015.
by John David Dyche
October 2, 2015