Friends, family, and former students gathered last week to celebrate the life of USF English professor Tracy Seeley, who died of breast cancer this past summer. The memorial, which took place on Sept. 14, provided closure for many colleagues who were unable to attend the service that was held after Seeley’s death on July 7.
Although the effect of Seeley’s death has recently been felt among the USF community, her passing comes as no surprise to those who knew her, and those who followed her online. Seeley, who had published a memoir, chronicled her illness in the months leading up to her death. She set up a blog to keep interested parties informed and updated about her progressing condition, and communicated with friends and family through the comments.
“As many of you already know, I’ve been living with breast cancer since 2002,” began her first blog post, published on Jan. 22, 2014. Known as an impassioned writer, Seeley wrote 1,130 words in that first announcement, in which she talked about her medical journey up to that point and the difficulties she would be facing in the coming months, and, she hoped, years. “I will be on chemo now, as they say, for the duration,” she said in the post. From that entry on, she shared the ups and downs of her illness and day-to-day life with positivity and humor.
July 26, 2015 – “Frederick and I will celebrate our 12th anniversary in August, and in our MOST important news, my grandson Levon arrived in December, and I swoon on a weekly basis. He’s a sweet, joyful baby, with his mama’s eyebrows, an impish grin and his first two teeth.”
Sept. 30, 2015 – “Just got the news on my recent CT scan, and it’s not good. One of my liver tumors has grown again, so I’ll have to switch to a new chemo regimen […] I’m still processing the news, but I’ve already had a good cry, and now I’ll pick myself up, eat some chocolate, and forge ahead.”
April 22, 2016 – “I saw my oncologist yesterday, and according to the scans, the cancer hasn’t shrunk much in the past two months, but it hasn’t grown either. So it’s clearly responding to the new chemo, and my liver definitely feels better. This is all good news. Not thrilling, but good. I’ll take it.”
On July 8, Seeley’s husband Frederick Marx announced on the blog that Seeley had passed. “Tracy died peacefully at home this morning (July 7) at 4:27 am. I was by her side whispering soft prayers. She went knowing she was deeply loved,” wrote Marx.
At the memorial service last week in Fromm Hall, Marx spoke about the love that Seeley had for USF. “Nothing, I believe, would have meant more to her than this place. This was her home. This was the home of her love for learning. This was the home of her love for reading. This was the home of her love for teaching and of growing young people into their greatest potential selves,” said Marx. “I always say we have two families: we have our family of origin and our family of choice, and you, are her family of choice,” he said.
For this reason Marx chose to spread his portion of her ashes at the USF Community Garden, where Seeley spent a lot of time caring for her plot of land. Marx struggled, however, in finding the perfect place to lay her to rest since she had grown fond of all the locations she had lived in as a child and visited as an adult. Her experiences on the road led to her authoring a memoir titled My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas. According to her Amazon biography, “by last count, she’d claimed 26 different addresses, half of those before she was nine.”
“Nothing called to me and said here, it needs to be here. Until three weeks after she died, I woke up one morning and thought,’Duh, USF,’ it needs to be here,” said Marx. “It made so much sense the more I thought about it: she loved growing things that fed people, she was a great believer in urban gardens, and she wanted every urban lot turned into a garden.”
Marx said the gesture had to be followed by a more physical and lasting memorial for Seeley, so the decision was made to include a tree and a bench in place of Seeley’s plot in the community garden. “To my thinking this poetic tableau is perfectly befitting of a lover of British literature, which Tracy of course was. The bench, by the tree, in the garden,” said Marx.
The bench will carry a plaque commemorating Seeley. He said, “It will read something like, “For Tracy Seeley, beloved English professor, advocate of students, sower of words, young voices, and gardens, lover of life.” Marx said the memorial would be a place for colleagues and former students to commune with Seeley’s spirit, but also for himself. “I wanted it for me. I wanted it for selfish reasons, because I want a place where I can go and do the same, and I can think of no better place than that garden on this beautiful campus,” said Marx who also believes Seeley stopped looking for that elusive home she always desired. “I think it’s time now to change the notion of Tracy never having found a home,” Marx said, choking up.“This was it, this was it.”
Speaking as a friend and colleague to Seeley, Dean Rader, chair of the English Department, expressed just how much she would be missed from the community she called would later deem home. “Students in Professor Seeley’s class experienced first hand her love of literature, her high bar of expectation, and her commitment to teaching literature and writing. But, what students may not have known or seen is how Professor Seeley enhanced the teaching and writing communities at USF by bringing faculty from different schools and departments together,” said Rader. “Whether it was a symposium on environment and place, starting faculty writing groups or helping to found the Center for Teaching Excellence. Her influence is impossible to map but utterly vast and wide-ranging. Who knows how many teachers she helped? More than we can imagine. She will be missed.”
The Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) is a testament to Seeley’s work on campus, collaborating with colleagues, Rhonda Magee and Mathew Mitchell, in establishing the program which they went on to direct together.
“[At any job] you work at the same place, doing kind of the same thing, and even though we have wonderful positions, it gets a little stale over time. Then there was a magical moment, 6 years ago, where the provost at the time called us in […] and she asked us to create this new thing that ended being called The Center for Teaching excellence,” said Mitchell, who added “I just remember that she reinvigorated me with the joy of creating something new, that we didn’t know what we’d look like.”
“I have to say I think it was challenging for me at first working with Tracy, I think our styles are very different […] but on another level I now feel like we are soul joined,” said Magee.
From everyone here at The Foghorn, we would like to send our most sincere and deepest condolences to Seeley’s family, friends, and colleagues. We would also like to leave you with a quote from Seeley about bravery and metaphors of battle.
“As a culture, we’ve wrapped cancer up in a lot of heroic rhetoric, perhaps a way of trying to tame our fears. However, I’ve always rejected the language of “battle” and “heroism,” “warriors” and “bravery” when it comes to cancer. People who die of cancer die because they had a disease and the medicine wasn’t adequate to treat it, not because they “lost a battle” or didn’t fight hard enough to win. And cancer patients aren’t any more brave than the rest of you. In the dark of the night, mortality makes us all feel small and afraid. What’s really there instead of bravery: fear, grief, peace, rage…the whole smorgasbord of what it means to be human.”
HEADER PHOTO COURTESY OF FREDERICK MARX
FOOTER PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVID SILVER