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Accidental Philosopher

Pat Nobo creates scholarship to honor her late husband Jorge Nobo’s dedication

Pat and Jorge Nobo

From Bell Tower - Fall 2020

A seemingly insignificant life choice can sometimes turn into a catalyst for something much bigger. For Jorge Nobo, an elective he took as an undergraduate led to a life devoted to philosophy and teaching, and both his wife and a former student memorialized his life with a scholarship and a poem – two fitting creations for someone esteemed by his students and colleagues.

Jorge took his first ever philosophy class at the start of his final year while earning a degree in comparative literature from the University of Miami in Florida. He enjoyed it so much he took three more his final semester and then was readmitted after graduating to take two more philosophy classes that summer. With this new-found passion, he shifted his graduate school plans, met his future wife, Pat, and they eventually moved to Topeka where he built a career as a philosophy professor for 39 years at Washburn University. Pat completed an art degree at Washburn in 1988 and became an artist.

Jorge died on Aug. 7, 2019, and Pat created the Jorge L. Nobo Scholarship in Philosophy in his memory. The endowment is already benefiting the first philosophy major this fall.

Pat and Jorge met at the University of Texas at Austin while graduate students in philosophy. Jorge started in 1966, and Pat started two years later. They soon married, and after Jorge earned his doctorate, they moved to Topeka in 1972 and he started teaching at Washburn.

Dennis Etzel, Jr., ba ’99, ba ’04, was moved by Jorge’s classroom demeanor and the way he reached out to students beyond the classroom. Etzel is a first-generation college student who grew up in Topeka and ended up at Washburn as he says, as a fluke. “I wasn’t ready for college at all,” Etzel said. He studied computer systems his first time around and took a philosophy class with Jorge.

“He called me into his office, and I said, ’Oh no, did I plagiarize?’” Etzel said. “He sat down and said, ’Well, I know you understand the tenets of philosophy’ - and that was nice to kind of start on a positive note - he said, ’but you’re just not a good writer.’ And I was like, ’Oh. Well, how do I become a good writer?’ And he said, ’Keep a journal and carry a thesaurus.’

“I’m lucky I took him up on that.”

The seed planted by Jorge – that introduction to a thesaurus – freed Etzel of the constrictions of word usage he traced back to grade school.

“In the fifth grade I was kind of a troublemaker,” Etzel said. “Because of my ADHD, the teacher just didn’t want to deal with me in the classroom, so she would kick me out into the hall and ask me to copy the dictionary. So, the dictionary and words were associated with being in trouble or negative. Here, the thesaurus was the opposite. It actually shows connections with words; words and getting the texture of each one. All of those wonderful things.”

Etzel said Nobo’s suggestion turned into a passion for writing – first journal entries and then poems. He went back to Washburn for an English degree at night while working days as a computer programmer. He then earned a master’s in English and ’never looked back’ at the corporate world. Etzel started teaching at Washburn in 2006 and is a senior lecturer in English.

Pat hopes the scholarship in Jorge’s name will allow other students to have similar transformations. She knows many students stumble across philosophy like her husband and Etzel did. Some devote their lives to it. Some let it open
other doors.

“When we were setting up the scholarship, we didn’t put a lot of stipulations or conditions on it because a lot of people come to philosophy by accident,” Pat said. “You may take a required course or you have a slot to fill in your schedule. Philosophy is the underpinning of so much of life and so many different subjects that it speaks to students in many disciplines.”

Etzel listened to people speak about Jorge at his memorial service and realized the best way he can honor him is by writing an elegy. He included the work in his latest book of poems, “Everything is Ephemera,” a memoir of his experiences with grade school, Washburn and now as a teacher and parent.

“Washburn’s a special place because of what our faculty really do to reach one on one with students,” Etzel said. “Everything is focused on the student, even allowing that opportunity to students who might otherwise not have the chance to go to college.”

Ichabod statue

Elegy for Dr. Jorge Nobo
By Dennis Etzel, Jr. (reprinted from “Everything is Ephemera”)

you were alive when describing Spinoza
filling the chalkboard with Spinoza
with words with pictures with linear waves
in the way Spinoza explained reality
as a projection of God and we were inhabitants

when you called me
into your office I thought I failed
instead you said I understood the tenets
of our studies but wasn’t a great writer
followed with encouragement to track
with a journal and thesaurus the way words
move connect from book to page
while a whisper enters to help

Spinoza spoke there even after you erased
the day from the board
piercing eyes someone said about you
while with your deep focal glasses
you set us at ease
like any metaphysical truth
we felt seen

like Whitehead you showed
me my being is constituted by my becoming

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