This weekend, I saw news in my FB feed that my friend and colleague, Tim Ortyl passed away. Tim was a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota — just a couple of months shy of becoming Dr. Ortyl and securing a great tenure-track faculty position. Given his otherwise good health, his young age, and all that his life promised the universe, my brain refused to process the news. Once I clicked to see Tim’s Facebook page, the outpouring of messages expressing hurt, disappointment, shock, and sympathy for Tim’s family confirmed it. Damn.
The details are still vague at the moment, but it appears what took his life was related to his epilepsy. Another young life unexpectedly taken by epilepsy. I feel the same way I did when my 19-year-old cousin Danny passed in 2010 from a seizure; he suffocated because he was face down in bed. I feel robbed. I feel we have all been robbed. The universe gave us someone whose life promised greatness and success, only to take them away at a young age. The theft feels so much crueler because Tim was just shy of being rewarded for his hard work in graduate school. Why now?
I met Tim in 2008 at the Summer Institute in sexualities studies held at the (then) National Sexuality Resource Center (San Francisco State University). Tim struck me by the size of his brain and the size of his heart. He had a clear vision for his career as a scholar — one that was bound to change how we think about relationships, family, gender, and sexuality. But, he was not arrogant about his brilliance and skills; he was always open to receiving feedback and being challenged to be even better at his work. After that summer, distance — him in Minnesota and me at Indiana — reduced our contact to catching up at annual conferences, with the occasional exchange on Facebook or text message.
We stayed connected, but never as much as I would like. I, like many people, simply told myself we will do more next time. Maybe he will interview at a school near me. Maybe I will be invited to give a talk in his neck of the woods. No? Okay, well there is always the American Sociological Association meeting in August. I am sadden that there are no more next times. We already had our last exchange: it was his text message to me to express excitement about making the short list of candidates for a job — one of what would become many, I am sure.
Speaking of the job market, the dreadful thought cross my mind: did stress play a role? Trying to survive on the academic job market is a tall order. Unfortunately, the market offered little when he applied for jobs last year. But this year — with a few jobs actually in sexualities — this was Tim’s year. We were not close enough for me to really know how he was holding up. Maybe, like many, he only updated people who are not as close to him about the big, positive news about the job market — but, kept to himself and close friends and family about his health, well-being, and doubts. I know that he was pursuing some sort of medical treatment to control his epilepsy, but maybe such treatments are far from 100% effective. I learned with my cousin’s passing that thoughts about whether these tragedies are preventable and other “what if?” questions are futile; a young, warm soul has left this earth. All that we have left is the memory of Tim, and the challenge of making peace with guilt and anger and shock.
Tomorrow is not promised to any of us. Tomorrow is not promised to any of us. As far as I could tell, Tim did not wait to start living once he had his PhD, or a job, or tenure, or… whatever academic milestone. He was a positive leader in his fraternity, Delta Lambda Phi, leaving behind many young gay, queer, and bisexual men who look up to him as a role model. The beginnings of a promising career as a researcher had emerged well before he approached the job market; he just had another solo-authored article published recently. This included advancing publicly accessible scholarship (Contexts magazine and the Society Pages blog). He was also an active LGBT advocate within the discipline of sociology, working to create community among queer sociologists and make the discipline more LGBT-inclusive. His passing is a huge loss to many, many people.
Rest In Peace, Tim. You are already missed.