Please feel free to contribute your memories of or thoughts about Steve and his work here. (You can also send any photos to DFRuccio@gmail.com.)
Please feel free to contribute your memories of or thoughts about Steve and his work here. (You can also send any photos to DFRuccio@gmail.com.)
47 thoughts on “Remembrances”
Steve was perhaps my closest friend. He was smart, funny, sometimes bawdy, often confrontational, generous to a fault. When I came to UC Riverside, I already knew about RM, and I knew that one of its editors was in the Economics Department. I went to his office to introduce myself. We chatted briefly, and I left thinking he was one of the most difficult people I had ever met. Despite being a young man, he was working intently on becoming an academic curmudgeon. Nevertheless, we bonded over our intellectual interests, especially the possibility of a Marxian analytic in a post-structuralist world. As we got to know each other, we became fast friends and developed a daily ritual of having coffee in the morning before going to campus. We went to the same place, sat at the same table in the same seats, and often had the same arguments about everything from the labor theory of value to how the campus should be run. Those early morning discussions were important to both of us, and unless we were traveling, we rarely missed. Even after we became administrators, we made sure not to schedule meetings during that sacred hour.
My role in our relationship was to prevent Steve from becoming too full of himself, a Herculean task. I always had to pick my moments. Once, while Steve was chair of Economics, the P.E. department had gone into receivership and the dean of the college asked him to step in temporarily as its nominal chair. He loved to proclaim that he was chair of two departments. It was also during this time that he decided to remodel his kitchen. Home Depot offered to do the whole job, which was considerable: new cabinets, new appliances, new floor, the works. Furthermore, they allowed him to defer payments: it was something like 18 months same as cash. Steve never tracked his finances particularly carefully, so despite actually having the money to pay upfront, he took the 18-month deal, and immediately forgot when the payment was due. Anyone who has ever waited for a reader’s report from him understands this. The day came and went, and of course he not only had to pay for the work, but was also assessed some exorbitantly usurious interest rate dating back to the moment he signed the “deal.” His kitchen ended up costing him about 30% more than it should have (though, in fairness, they did a great job).
One morning at coffee we were arguing about some campus procedural point and in his completely illogical and irrelevant way he said, “You know I’m right; I’m the chair of two departments.” I replied, “Well, I may not be the chair of two departments; and I may not have a Ph.D. in Economics, but even I know enough not to borrow money from Home Depot.” I’ve never seen so much coffee come out of someone’s nose. He laughed for five minutes.
He was my colleague, my collaborator, my co-teacher, my interlocutor, and my dear friend. I will miss him terribly.
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Joe I am so sorry. I know how close you were. I am feeling this loss pretty deeply. He was also my friend and I wanted to live in the university he imagined.
Thanks, David and Joe, for the reflections. I remember David talking to me about Steve when I was about to come to UCR. David and Joe have brought to mind his lovely and lovable quirky, way. Knowing him was a blessing. I’m very grateful.
I knew Steve so long, we used to play hoops together. He didn’t have much of a shot but he sure thought he was good!
As time passed, he had to give up the game—but then both of us had moved on to other things: finishing up our studies at UMass-Amherst, joining AESA and starting RM, working together on conferences, discussing over bottles of wine the intricate details of economics, politics, and the Marxian critique of political economy.
I had my group at Notre Dame and he his at Riverside—but we also shared our collective of friends and collaborators in and around RM, which allowed us to get together on a regular basis, notwithstanding the distance. We licked stamps and stuffed envelopes (nothing was too mundane a task for any of us, including and perhaps especially Steve), argued about how to run conferences (since he never wanted to make a report about what he was doing, responding with a terse “don’t worry, it will all work out”), coedited RM for a year (which he did just to get me to step up to edit the damn thing, since he had no plans to do any of the editorial work himself), and traveled together to meetings and conferences (including to Italy, where I watched him with a giant smile on his face as we entered a shop tempting us with a dozen different kinds of prosciutto).
So, yes, Steve would often try my patience, and yet I derived tremendous pleasure from his companionship and comradeship. He was smart, curious, committed, and generous—and he remained, even during his final years when we had very little contact, one of my best friends.
I guess the news from Joe wasn’t a shock (I knew Steve was very ill) but it was still terrible. I had hoped to see Steve again—and now I’m faced with an enormous void, a dreadful absence.
And still, sitting here at my computer, I can picture his warm smile and mischievous eyes. I can hear his arrogant lectures and bear witness to his munificent gestures to conversations and causes. I remember seeing his evident suffering, incredulous at his unwillingness to complain about his health. And how I cherish all those hours we shared, the projects we undertook together, the ideas we exchanged, and the example of a life well and fully lived.
David F. Ruccio
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So, I’ll just tell one small story for now, this late at night. Back I think in the late 1990s–and this was now at least 20 years since I first met him as an uber-smart and just as uber-lovely–and also insufferable–grad student in the radical economics program at UMass (from which I had long since left)–a bunch of comrades from Rethinking Marxism went to a conference at the University of Exeter, UK hosted by the inestimable Regenia Gagnier. For reasons that always baffled me, she liked us, liked Steve especially, and would schmooze with him about higher ed, the fortunes of radicals at Riverside and elsewhere (she had been tenured at Stanford before leaving to move to Exeter), and much else besides.
I traveled first with Steve while in England to stay with our wonderful friend Judith Mehta in Norwich. He was already noticeably disabled and had some difficulty getting around and climbing stairs. But we made it, and after a great visit with Judith we reconnoitered with David and Joe I think in London. And then we 4 traveled together by train out to the English southwest, where we met up with still other friends from RM/AESA. Once we got there, and the conference was in progress, Steve did his usual familiar impression of either sleeping while looking awake in most sessions. Or was it being awake while faking sleep? I don’t think we’ll ever know. Anyway, at the conclusion of a very successful conference, and after having much fun besides, there was a wrap-up session led by Regenia. and she was discussing the leftist/Marxist political importance of things that were said (if I’m not mistaken, it was after a final talk by Terry Eagleton). And as she got more pointed and passionate, moving toward her final talking points, she turned to the entire audience of conference goers, and us, and then explicitly lauded the presence, and the presented work, of “the lads from Rethinking Marxism.”
Damn, Steve LOVED that! I swear, when she said that, as David pointed out today, Steve just about jumped out of his chair with sheer happiness, enthusiasm, and some kind of vindication. This made his day, his week, his month, his year, and so on. He long after in my presence or on the phone would repeat to me over and over just that phrase: “the lads of Rethinking Marxism” with a twinkle in his eye or a lilt in his voice. And for good reasons, too. After all, or so Steve believed, Regenia had given us the ultimate compliment; we, “the lads” who were there, were a solidaristic group, a collectivity, to which she then and there implicitly and figuratively joined herself. We were still a young and somewhat struggling group, hawking an equally young and aspirational Marxist journal. But as Steve astutely understood, in her eye and through this familiarizing term, she had “recognized” us publicly, respected us just as publicly, and had bade others to please join with her in doing the same.
For those who knew him, Steve fought endlessly for the recognition of the entirety of the RM/AESA circle of friends and colleagues (and not just those few “lads” who showed up at Exeter). He believed that anyone who said otherwise, and who didn’t think, as radicals–with some of us employed very badly in a degraded discipline and profession–that we were “good enough” (ugh, this awful language of the Economics discipline. . .) to be taken seriously, could shove themselves where the sun don’t ever shine. Notwithstanding his occasional overly self-confident bearing, Steve never obscured his own estimation that, inferiority complexes aside, we were among “the best” (or so he thought) scholars and political thinkers of any kind one could find within the academy. He never took an attempted elitist beating well, or silently, if at all. And he never allowed anyone in his presence to “punch down,” especially if the blows were aimed at his colleagues, students, friends, and comrades. In his many academic, administrative, and organizational roles, he supported generously all manner of junior, marginalized, alternative, discriminated against, and ersatz or wayward colleagues, myself certainly included, way more than his own shoulders could ever carry. But carry, at least for a time, he did, And so many of us, I think, owe large chunks of our careers–the better parts–to his fierce, fighting, pushback efforts on our behalf.
I loved Steve immensely. He was better than “good” at what he did and who he was and what he stood for. As I’ve said to others today, in my view, Steve was the best of us. By far.
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Oh, alas, Steve … I think so fondly about those days in Riverside: the hard work, the intensity of thinking, the fun. I think about Steve, but also Jack, David, Joe, Will and Arjo: all of you who cherished him. I especially relished the interactions between you – yeh, full on confrontational and hilarious! I’ll always be grateful to Steve for inviting me in and giving me headroom, a voice and, more than anything, some great conversations. Gosh, he did some brilliant work at Riverside… And thank-you, Jack, for coming with Steve to stay with me in Norwich: a little bit of Riverside chez moi. Be aware that I’m thinking of Steve – and all of you: all my American chums who loved and valued Steve and who will miss him, those Riverside days, now touched with poignancy.
Steve is gone. Of the same year, 1953. Gets me thinking. I move with the words that David and Judith left. So nice to hear their voices. Steve had an important place in your intellectual community. I did not know him well enough that he could be a pain in the ass as Joe describes. I know him as the organizer of conferences, as editor, as a friend to Jack, David and others, as a serious guy with whom it was good to talk. The comments get me intrigued in his life. What can we learn from it?
I first met Steve in grad school; what a brilliant, funny, kind person. A very brave human being as well.
I met Steve a few weeks before my start of the program at UMass. I was living in New Haven and needed a place to stay a couple of nights a week near UMass. Rick put me in touch with Steve, saying he might have a place for me. That last house on the dead end in Northampton so many of us lived on at one point or another, by Joe’s Pizza. I met Steve on the front steps, and we chatted there for a few minutes. I asked Steve the question I learned never to ask another graduate student: How long have you been in the program? He gave me “the look” and said, six years. I said, “Oh, shit. I’m going to finish up in three.” I’ll never forget the disgust I saw in his eyes. For better or worse, that exchange cemented our relationship. He was the wise elder, I was the hopelessly naïve, dim-witted kid who needed to be smacked down whenever I evidenced any pretensions. He then took me upstairs to show me what would be my room. It was essentially a storage closet (that’s what he and his roommate were using it for); and he said the rent was 1/3 of the total, even though I’d be living in 20 sq ft and would be there just two nights per week. A few months later he told me he had been intending to let me live there for free but charged me exorbitant rent because I was such an idiot. Message received. (And yes, when I got to years 4,5,6…Steve routinely reminded me of that first conversation).
Steve was irascible, impatient, sarcastic, dismissive. And I loved him for it. He so often said what needed saying. He pushed me to think more clearly, commit more fully, believe more deeply. He was fiercely loyal to his AESA community, but he taught me to be open to wisdom wherever it could be found. He managed to be stubborn and open-minded. He was a pluralist despite his partisanship. He put his beliefs into the arena with others who did not share them. And so he was widely and deeply respected even by those who could not begin to understand let alone countenance his radical, disruptive approach to social theory, or his guerilla warfare approach to academic intervention that he lived and loved. At root, those who knew Steve well recognized that he was an extraordinarily generous person—creating space and opportunities for those of us he could help in one way or another. He just didn’t want the world to know it!
Steve’s disability was too cruel for words. It removed him bit by bit from the public life he loved and then even from the interpersonal discourse he craved. I have missed him deeply for a long time, but this weekend when I got the news I realized I always thought foolishly there would come a moment when I could reconnect with him as I knew him over so many decades when he was able to live the life he wanted to live. So his death, though not unexpected, is causing me to grieve deeply. And it drives home the point that I should have been there for him over the past years, when he could no longer be there for us. What I can do now is carry him in my heart and try to live a bit more the way he taught us to live.
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I met Steve only a handful of times during his much awaited and much appreciated visits to UMass Amherst. I was instantly struck by his brilliance, wryness, and kindness. I feel fortunate to have known him, and I’m deeply saddened that he is gone so soon.
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I wrote to Steve the Saturday before he died. In the spirit of what others have written, let me share what I wrote:
I just got the news from Jack and wanted immediately to write. From the first time I met you many years ago in Amherst, you were always an inquisitive, super-bright student with your own mind. I liked that right away. I wanted somehow to win you over for Marxism, not that you were all that resistant. But you had that kind of intelligent skepticism that got through to me as a challenge. I tried to meet it. And over the years felt a deepening solidarity with you despite our being so far apart geographically. And I did end up – as I think you approved – working as hard as I know how to translate, apply what all of AESA helped produce so as to help generate a daily, relevant, operational combination of critique of capitalism and proposal for an alternative system captured by the everyday term “workers cooperative” that allows our research and interpretation of Capital to enter mainstream conversations in the US and beyond, steadily if still frustratingly slowly.
Steve: you are in our hearts and thoughts now as you have been for so many years. You were the student and became the colleague that makes the teaching profession so very special and rewarding.
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So touched by your words. So glad you were able to reach out in his final hours. Stephen was a cherished friend from HS and beyond. We visited in 2019 when he returned home.
I was fortunate enough to meet Steve Cullenberg in 2003, when visiting UC Riverside, and later to have him as a Dean after I joined the school. When I left, he was kind enough to advise me on how best to do so. Throughout my time knowing him, the great thing about Steve was this: he was an enthusiast who applauded and encouraged good work, notably from emergent academics and domains of knowledge.
The shared snobbery that finds some humanities people turning their noses up at the social sciences, and vice versa, was not Steve’s way. He sought and rewarded interdisciplinarity. He was intellectually generous and curious; he was committed to expanding the Division he ran and progressive thought everywhere; and he was vitally dedicated to UCR in general. When I was asked by the then-hierarchy what sort of Dean he’d make, I had no hesitation in recommending him the most glowing terms. I recall that conversation today, even as I mourn his loss and thank Joe Childers for curating this site.
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I was a PhD student at UC-Riverside when Steve was on the faculty there. He was smart, argumentative, occasionally curmudgeonly. He was very generous with his house, hosting great parties by the swimming pool that really rocked! I recall his love of Santana and his disdain for some of the music we would try to play.
i met steve when i began doctoral studies at mass in 1983. he was a few years ahead of me so we didn’t have classes together. there was, however, a journal group that met regularly. it was composed of students who were working with steve restock or rick wolff. when i started going to that i began to see steve regularly. so many have talked about steve’s brilliant contributions to marxian political economy, both as a research scholar, as a conference organizer, and as a dean. he “built” spaces within which marx and marxian possiblities could live, grow, intersect with other knowledges.
i want to share another aspect of his life where he and i spent a lot of time together. sports……steve was the first real, TRUE, avid celtics fan i ever met in my life! being from philly, and in the 1980s the only rival the sixers had for dominance in the eastern conference was the boston celtics. we all know david stern pushed “boston v los angeles” to build the league’s profile, grow it’s market share and league-wide value. when steve found out i was from philly, he made a bee-line to me to talk about celtics superiority. that was the beginning of our friendship and deep admiration and respect for one another. he was a deeply compassionate and sensitive and understanding person who wanted to spar endlessly about your shortcomings, which we all know amounted to the ways we disagreed with him!
steve and i talked basketball all the time. we saw each other often enough. if we weren’t at a journal group, it was softball (brand x) or basketball in the gym at umass. the grad students who were a few years older than me and finished with course work had regular pick up games, and i liked to join them. (tim koechlin was easily the best player in the bunch.) on the court with steve, jack diskin, tomorrow delguidice, david thompson, and so many other guys, we’d talk about our relative merits as players and also about boston v philly, or the incorrigible racism of ALL boston sports. steve was a defender of boston’s sports history. not because he didn’t see its flaws, but because he saw its improvements. he also saw the diversity of fanships in boston sports, and always argued with me that it was possible (he was exhibit A) to be against the racism and for boston sports. “ok sure steve, let’s finish this conversation at fenway and see what happens….” (no, we never did that and we both knew that wasn’t a good idea.)
it was on the court that i noticed that steve had an ailment. there were certain non-movements that i noticed….in response to a high pass, for example, he wouldn’t raise his arms or jump or stretch for it, but would just turn and head back on defense. his tendency as a player was to play for the jump shot. to move off picks, pop out for a quick jumper. or, he would use his considerable “trunk” and thick thighs to get and maintain position for a rebound (how’d you like that rick robey move lucas?”) during timeouts and over meals and on walks on campus, we had a much quieter conversation about his arthritis, about flareups and his efforts to manage it. this was the space of our friendship i came to cherish the most. it was the door into deeper friendship for us. he never ever said he was in pain, but i learned how to see when he was. i worried about him, his suffering. he didn’t want or allow me any pity, and i valued that as much as i did watching his courage in suffering.
i’ve known two people in my life with arthritis as severe as steve’s. one was my aunt ann, who died while i was in high school. she suffered mightily with psoriatic arthritis, to the point where she was wheelchair bound and then bedridden. i remember vividly the moment i learned aunt ann died. i was distraught and sprinted out of church, up the street, to an empty parking lot to be alone. years later when i met steve, w hen i saw that the disease was ravaging his hands the way it had ravaged aunt ann’s, i understood how deep steve’s courage and tenacity were.
the other person was ms elijah, a member of our church. her story was similar, except that she was, like aunt ann, not much known for not wanting to talk about her pain. here again, when i met steve and recognized what he shared with both these elders, i remembered what they said about the pain of the disease, the details of the unreachable aches and pains, the agonizing sweaty episodes that required hospitalization or heavy medication.
yet……aside from telling me that he had arthritis, i don’t believe i ever had a single conversation with steve about the unjustness or undeservingness of his ailment. he was terse about pain management, but he was silent with me about what his condition cost hom. it’s quite possible that being a guy from philly meant i wouldn’t understand (see celtics above), but it’s also possible that steve’s ailment was, through his own intelligence and commitment or “resolve,” less important to him than his marxism, his ideas, his opportunities to build transformative conversations.
in my friendship with steve, the celtics were more important. as i look back on our years together in western massachusetts, i miss his unyielding defense of the celtics and red sox. he taught me that no essentialisms ought to be defended, that even in new england it was possible, necessary to create a non-reductionist debate about racism and the celtics. i could not have imagined that nba basketball was a topic that would drive home the epistemological significance of learning to think without absolutes, but with cully that happened.
his brilliance extended well off the page. in the mid 1980s i had no idea i would become a “lifer” in western massachusetts. i’m still a philly guy, but i’ve seen a ton of success in boston sports over the years. honestly, without my time debating sports with cully, i would never have enjoyed the red sox beating “my” yankees in the early 2000s, or the obvious excellence of the patriots for the past 20 years. cully went to los angeles. as i softened my dislike of the celtics, so did cully learn to appreciate the lakers and magic. i doubt they superseded his boston teams, but he developed an appreciation for possibility that someone could love the lakers as much as he loved the celtics. i appreciate that. i’m glad we shared that joy. i’m glad we built that conversation across regional and race and class lines. i’m better off for having known him and worked with him.
you labored for a long long time, persisted even longer. rest well my friend. peace, lucas
Steve was dean when I first came to UCR. I remember meeting with him in his dean’s office. I liked him immediately bc he was smart, funny, and very accessible as a leader. He was also a good listener. I also remember going to his house for occasional CHASS faculty social events at which there was always good company, including Steve. My sympathies to his family. And to Steve, a peaceful eternity. Tanya Nieri
I will always remember Steve as a fierce advocate for the arts, deeply sympathetic with the needs of the “creative” departments, and a funny, salty, and genuine guy who loved to hold court at the bar at Ciao Bello’s old location on Spruce. One of my favorite memories from there is when he and Erith Jaffe-Berg launched into an impromptu conversation in Norwegian, of all things. RIP, Steve. You have been and will continue to be missed.
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Thanks Joe for putting this together. It means a lot to us. I hope we have the chance to speak at some point.
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Thank you for the initiative, Joe, and for your heartfelt words about Steve. He was CHASS Dean when we made the big move from Germany to Riverside in 2008, and every single interaction with him was fun. I thought: If that‘s any indication of the work climate at UCR – I will stay! In that first year, he helped me and Johannes with a personal issue in the most graceful and unbureaucratic manner, without hesitation or fuss – for which I am grateful. He did say, though, that it helped I told him I am from Trier (Karl Marx‘s birthplace).
And he could certainly throw a party!
My sympathies to his family. Und Frieden für Steve.
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I often had disagreements with Steve when he was Dean, but these were, in the end, rather fun debates about almost everything. He took over the budget committee after me, and I got to know him much better as we discussed how to get more information to faculty about how the budget process (often made deliberately complicated for obfuscation); this was long before he was Dean but, clearly, he wanted to be part of the administration of the university. And he got to chance to be Dean and had a good fun in that position. My best memory of Steve was his graciousness in organizing the small celebration of my appointment as University Professor; he present me with Ansel Adams’ book of pictures on campuses of the University of California as a gift that is always on my central coffee table at home for the last eleven years, plus a book by John Maynard Keynes that I had mentioned months earlier that I had never finished. And, he followed through to make sure that I had finished this time around by quizzing me on it periodically. I admired Steve in his ability to work so hard, despite his increasing disability, and to carry out the functions of Dean making many important decisions that have influenced the history of UCR over the last decade. So good bye, Steve, and thanks for giving your all to UCR. Jonathan Turner, University Professor
I was hired in 2006, not by Dean Cullenberg, but by a guy named Dean Martin. To work on Frank Sinatra Drive, the address of the Palm Desert campus. I was hired to develop the MFA program out there, and would report directly to the Dean. By the time I started, Steve had taken over the job.
A year or two later I got an offer to do the same job at USC. Steve pushed me to let him make a counteroffer, and I said you can’t! It’s great money, it’s 50 miles closer to my house, it’s more prestige. He said there has to be something you don’t like about it, and I said yeah, I don’t like doing administration, I don’t want to run a program I want to write and teach. He said okay, I’ll match the money and bring you to the main campus, no admin. I said okay, but I’ve been around the business long enough to know that this is probably not going to happen again—it’s going to be my last moment of leverage. So give me one more thing. I was thinking a course off, or a sabbatical quarter. He said, okay, I’ll add a free oil change. I accepted. (I never collected on the oil change.)
I didn’t know him when he was chairing two departments, but I did when he had two offices, one in HMNSS and one at Ciao Bella, with a never-empty glass of white wine. He liked to have sardonic chats, and he loved to say inappropriate things. His wit could cut you down sometimes, but mostly he built you up. When I suggested starting the Los Angeles Review of Books he was immediately supportive and remained so. He helped me more than any other single person at UCR, or anywhere else for that matter, live the academic life I’ve been able to live. And he was a great model for how to make the institution adapt to you rather than adapting to the institution.
He was such a deeply nutty guy—I loved him.
I remember his summer movie afternoons for staff. I really appreciated how he seemed to care about staff. He was always doing something nice for the CHASS staff; it was very appreciated. As Dean he showed up at performances and supported the Performing Arts Faculty. I remember once he got on the elevator with me in Hinderaker, I was going to the 2nd floor, he pressed the 4th upon seeing that I just said “so somebody has been a bad puppy.” He just looked at the floor and laughed. RIP
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I met Steve during my tenure as chair of the sociology department. We had numerous conversations that were valuable in helping me navigate my duties as chair. I will miss the conversations we had about the campesinos working the agricultural fields. Adalberto Aguirre Jr
Steve and I met shortly after he moved to Easton, Mass., in 1966 or so. We played Little League baseball on the Easton Huskies. The team wasn’t very good, a pint-sized version of the woeful pre-1967 Red Sox, but Steve played a decent first base and hit pretty well.
We went through junior high and high school together, graduating from Oliver Ames in 1971. It was a small school and we were in a lot of the same classes. He was very bright and had a dry sense of humor. A good guy. I only remember seeing him once in (can it be?) 50 years, but he’s not someone you’d forget. It’s very sad to know he’s gone.
Thanks to everyone for sharing these memories. I’ve enjoyed learning about Steve’s later life.
Condolences to his family and friends of later vintage.
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I am very saddened by this news. Steve and I shared quite a few nights of pool and beer back in the day. I was one of the last remnants from the old grad program when Steve was hired at UCR in 1988. While we were polar opposites (me the laid-back Californian and Steve the not-so-hip easterner), we did share a gift for “talking smack.” As the beer flowed, so did the acerbic repartee…
Two of my most vivid recollections. One evening at the old Barn, Steve was lining up a long shot on the eight ball for the win, when a young undergrad he was playing said, “There’s a lot of green there grandpa.” Steve chuckled, leaned over, pushed his glasses up his nose, sunk the shot, tossed the cue on the table, and sauntered out like John Wayne…
The second. I got a job at SUNY Buffalo State in 1990, and a few weeks before I left Steve offered to take me out for a beer so he could give me some pointers about living out east. The first thing he said was, “Do you know what a Zamboni is?” I didn’t. It went downhill from there.
Steve was kind enough to accept when I asked him to sit on my dissertation proposal committee, despite it being an empirical project. When it was his turn for questions, he of course loudly stated that he didn’t believe empirical research had any validity.
I periodically stopped in to say hello on visits back to Riverside (my parents lived there), and, if he had time, we would inevitably end up at a bar to have a beer and play some pool. I hope he enjoyed my company as much as I enjoyed his. Rest in peace my friend.
I’ll just say this: I always loved seeing Joe and Steve together at Jammin Bread.
I didn’t know Steve well. I remember how everyone on the RM ed board (and maybe everyone at UMass, generally), used to make fun of him when he was not around. I never understood what they were talking about, what the problem was with Steve. He was never anything but kind and gentle with me. His early work in RM was instrumental in my own. Apparently I missed out on a lot by not knowing him better. Grateful for his part in creating and fostering RM and AESA.
I always thought about Stephen Cullenberg, David Ruccio, Jack Amariglio, Joe Childers, and others at Rethinking Marxism as a collective, a whole. The trouble with wholes, solidarities, is that when one goes it leaves a hole, a wound, in the rest. Or again, there are some people for whom you feel such respect and affection that even if you don’t see them for 10 or 20 years, with no contact at all, when you do come back in contact it is as if you were never apart. The conversation picks up again as if without interruption. Marxists are like that. I worked with Stephen on Culture and Economics, Sublime Economy, New Economic Criticism, Postmodernism/Economics/Knowledge, and Postmodern Moments in Modern Economics through AESA, SCE, and IAFFE, at Riverside, Notre Dame, and UMass. The last time I saw him was at a conference Joe Childers had organized at Riverside, where Stephen was Dean. What heaven! I thought: a Marxist Dean. In the shifting sands of HE administrators, he was our rock. Rest in peace, lad. We love you. Regenia
I first met Steve at a Marxist inspired, interdisciplinary ‘political economy’ reading group organized by Edna Bonacich (then Professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies) when I first joined UCR in 2000 that included both graduate students and faculty. I enjoyed his insightful and often humorous contributions to our various discussions as we tried to make sense of both our quickly changing political economy and the various authors we were reading. Dean Steve was later very supportive of the development of UCR’s Labor Studies program and minor. He helped to make sure that our program had both administrative support as well an office from which we could advise our students, meet with our community partners, host visiting scholars, and work on research projects. I will always deeply appreciate the support he provided both to me personally and to Labor Studies at UCR.
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It is hard for me to separate Steve from the group of graduate students in Economics at the University of Massachusetts in which I first encountered him engaging in spirited (and often loud) debates in those smoke-filled seminar rooms. I am so appreciative of his work in fostering what has since become an important intellectual home for me, the Association for Economic and Social Analysis, and later the journal Rethinking Marxism, where he and I worked together on the editorial board for a number of years. Later, I also admired the academic leadership work he did at Riverside. Much to their annoyance I would often ask my own administrators why they could not be more like Dean Cullenberg and then rattle off the long list of reasons why he was so worthy of emulation. I am deeply saddened at his passing and offer my deepest condolences to his family and dear friends.
I’ve laughed out loud several times while reading these beautiful and heartfelt tributes to Steve, both here as well as on FB. The sentence that prompted the biggest laugh was from Tod Goldberg, as he wrote, “For the first couple of years that I knew Steve, I wasn’t sure if he liked me or thought I was a total moron.” 🙂
Well, at a minimum I was on the moron side of the equation when I studied economics in the graduate program at Riverside in the late ‘90s. Steve was an amazing professor and mentor; able to bring clarity to the material, from intro to economics to advanced graduate work with seemingly effortless fluidity. Steve’s characteristic humor alongside his intellectual prowess and dedication to students made a lasting and no doubt lifelong impression on me on what a professor and educator can and should be.
As Steve increasingly moved into administration I was equally if not more blown away at just how good he was at developing and supporting innovative programs as well as nurturing the effectiveness of those around him. He was a true intellectual who had no difficulty operationalizing his values for the practical, common good.
Beyond the critical comments on my papers and thoughts, two specific memories of Steve come to mind. I was (relatively) newly married when I went to Riverside to study economics, and my wife was joining me in California from her home country of Zimbabwe. When we moved to California, Steve showed my wife a warmness and welcome that I truly appreciated. I remember different social occasions (including the infamous parties at his house) where Steve and my wife would unite in witty banter to make fun of me for the duration of most conversations. This put my wife at ease and kept me on my toes as I contemplated where I stood on the “I think he likes me – No I’m a moron” continuum.
The second memory was when Steve literally saved my career. After a couple of years at Riverside I decided that I wanted to broaden out from economics proper and transfer to the Political Economy program at USC to complete my degree with Professor John Elliott. On the whole, Steve supported me in this, while of course it also meant I was leaving Riverside.
While Professor Elliott was only in his mid/late 60s at the time, and his mind was as sharp as ever, he was unfortunately also fighting his own silent battle with arthritis. Steve, John, and I were working on a couple of things together when John passed away suddenly in 2001, blowing a hole in my dissertation committee. Steve graciously stepped in at the 11th hour as an external committee member which enabled me to complete my doctorate and get on with things.
While my professional life has taken some different paths than I may have envisioned at the time, what’s clear is that I wouldn’t have found my niche, where I can do the most good, had it not been for Steve’s mentoring, intellect, humor, and encouragement. I’m a better person for having studied with and known Steve, and I’ll be looking to double my efforts going forward, if only to achieve a mere percentage of what he accomplished.
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I did not cross Steve’s path while he was in graduate school, so I did not have that studying and growing together experience that a good number of his dear friends did. Nor did I get to spend as much time as I would have liked to have spent with him after we worked intensely together on organizing a conference and editing a book. I didn’t know what I had been missing before that stint at working with him, but that stint was enough to form as deep an affection for him as I could have if I had had that growing together experience. I worked with him, and played with him too, some more after that intense stint, but not as much as I wish (and wished then) I had: first he got too busy, then he began to not be well. My loss! Such an intense burst of smarts and generosity was Steve that it took so little time to get to love him. His wit (which he could turn on himself too, as some have recalled) was how he managed his being somewhat smarter and somewhat more generous than most people around him. His wit was his way, I’ve been thinking, of giving his smarts to people (to build them up or bring them down a peg as he thought necessary) without holding back, but in a way that was disarmingly charming, personal, human. But it wasn’t a life of just smarts and wits. The wits and the smarts, remarkable as they were, jumped in here and there in what I thought was the life and time of a good heart, loving and wanting to be loved. I did love him and have missed him for a long time. It was hard to think of him not doing well. Now that he has left us, it’s the love that remains.
Stephen and I met in our early teens at confirmation classes at the Lutheran Church. Funny to think that was the start of a great friendship as religion never played a big part as we moved forward. Our circle of HS friends grew and were closely connected to service and activism. We worked with a local orphanage and started Project Soul and a Walk for Hunger through our local Youth Center. We shared so many meaningful, formative experiences with our tight knit group. So many fabulous memories and so many laughs. Stephen was just as so many described… brilliant, stubborn, arrogant, combative,loving, gentle, compassionate and always right. We love him so much and JoJo, Jeannie and I were so lucky to go visit him when he returned to the Cape. Reading these many tributes I feel so happy to hear he never changed but grew brighter and expanded his impact in so many significant ways. My favorite memories of my time with Stephen were the many winter days we would meet at the state park in Easton,MA, put on our ice skates and take off. We would challenge each other – speed skaters – like we were training for the Olympics. Exhilarating joy! I wish I was there as he passed on whispering in his ear to say let the wind and your skates carry you… free at last…. may you shine your light upon us and be at peace. ❤️
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I first met Steven when I came to UC Riverside in 2003. I was introduced by my good friend Tom Patterson, then chair of the anthropology department. As someone interested in political economy, I was sometimes drawn into their conversations in the courtyard of the Barn, where Steve would sometimes “hold court.” I enjoyed those spontaneous conversations where he could wax eloquently on just about any topic we brought up. I cherish those conversations.
Rest in peace, Steve.
With Love for Steve, from Charu
Marcel Proust wrote of the smells of foods as a trigger for memory, in In Search of Lost time/Remembrance of Things Past. For me, it is the sound of the keyboard.
Most people who have met Steve and me know this story. I arrived at the US as a neophyte graduate student in 1985. I was 21 years old and had lived a very sheltered life. Given how education worked in India with hand-written exams, I had never learned to type. U.S. faculty expected typed papers. Steve was my office mate, and he had this wonderful, advanced machine – an IBM Selectric with the capacity to correct spelling errors before you hit return to move to the next line. With some reluctance but never-the-less graciousness, he said I could use that machine to type my paper. I spent an entire night in the office struggling to type – and when he arrived the next morning, he found me asleep on the office couch having spent most of the night desperately trying to type, and in absolute tears when he woke me. Steve told me to get myself up and go get food, and by the time I got back having showered and eaten, he had typed that paper to make the deadline. Of course, he made sure everyone we met for the next 30 years heard about this. But – to me that is Steve. That absolute willingness to reorganize anything on his plate to help a friend, along with that teasing reminder.
Steve is rightly remembered for his acumen, his wit, and his charm. But this remembrance is about his kindness. To me, he was loving and kind. I came to the US at age 21, never having traveled abroad or left the shelter of my home, as a foreign student. Steve was one of the very first people I met in the US. I was assigned to an office with him and Richard Wright. I had little money and even less experience. Steve placed his bookshelf, his understanding of the department – and his IBM Selectric – at my disposal. He took me under his wing.
Most of all, what he gave me in those early years was a sense of the intrinsic value of my ideas. As a woman of color in academia, I of course face the by-now predictable aggressive dismissals of my ideas based on presumptions about what I must be arguing as a consequence of my identity (usually by people whose comments very clearly indicate that they never actually read my work). But while it was and remains hurtful, and Steve helped me brush that off by the seriousness with which he took my ideas the first few shocked times I encountered this, that type of dismissal is by now easy to spot.
More troubling has been the microaggression that masquerades as allyship that I have faced over the years and still face. This is the strangely defensive and awkward “praise” for my intellect or ideas that is supposed to substitute for actual engagement. This is not a very nice thing actually, this praise. Sometimes colleagues say well, Charu knows everything! Or, my gosh you are so smart! This kind of praise is not a prelude to engagement, it is a patronizing reminder that whether I am smart or not, they are the arbiters of this. That I need to make sure I am smart enough to be acceptable but not too much so as to make them feel inadequate or threatened. It is praise as a substitute for genuine engagement, a way to reassert power hierarchies even as you avoid discussing the pros and cons of a specific argument or idea.
This was not Steve. His famed sharpness and cantankerousness, his formidable intellect and willingness to provide acutely pointed comment, was a matter of love. He is the person who helped me distinguish between sentimental charity and respect, who taught me that within academia the real coin of respect is critique. I don’t mean the type of dragging down or superciliousness snark that substitutes for critical engagement within academic hierarchies – I mean that type of critique which shows that the critic has actually read your work and thought hard about it. He helped me grasp that snarky dismissal and sentimental pats on the head were two sides of the same coin of academic power and hierarchy, and that as a scholar, I had earned the right for more substantive forms of engagement than that. He helped me experience what actual, genuine critique that took you seriously as a scholar and thinker looked like. For a woman of color in US academia, this is a very rare and precious gift.
Not only was Steve a model of what it meant for me to feel my ideas were worth something, he also helped me navigate the sense of pain and multiple moments of thinking I should leave academia as I encountered hostility and tried to find myself within the power structures of US universities. He was there for me when I decided my tenure track job at Franklin & Marshall was too toxic and put myself back on the market for a job in WGS/GWSS. He was there for me to help me navigate the uncertainties of finding my place at UHM. If I flourished at UHM, Steve was one of the reasons. He helped me grasp how to “find my peeps” in an institution. He placed his own formidable networks and understanding of academic institutions at my disposal.
He did this again when I returned to the mainland first at UNLV and then at UWB, now as a senior scholar trying to find her place in administration. He helped me understand how West Coast academic administration worked. And also – what was feasible but equally what was not within that institutional space. The greatest gift was to help me understand that there was no neoliberal solution to the problems of academia, no easy resolutions and no areas that did not entail choices. When I finally decided the costs of submitting to institutional power were more than I was willing to take, he helped me grasp another way of being true to myself in academia.
If you read my work, you know that intellectually, Steve’s work on dialectics and Cartesianism are central to my own work. He understood why the transition debates were not a minor side-issue or the special problems facing “those people” in the ex-colonies. He also treated third world scholars as colleagues and theorists, not just people applying metropolitan theory to marginal “case studies.” It is the rare scholar who does not merely write about the third world, but actually collaborates extensively with scholars who reside in, work, and build careers in the third world.
So, my dear friend, colleague and comrade: You helped me see myself as a scholar, helped me understand the stakes of my work, and helped me take the leaps and risks I needed to reach where I am today. Your scholarship on Cartesianism and Transition has been immensely important for me. And your model of how to show care for and nurture colleagues without making that into some sentimental project of white saviors has been a model for my own efforts within academia. I miss you.
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This is a beautiful tribute, Charu. Thank you.
My first memory of Steve goes back to the September of 1980 at a party, just a month after I had left Turkey to start my doctoral studies at UMass, Amherst. On a brilliant New England fall afternoon, I was hanging out with new friends taking it all in in this new land. I saw Steve from a distance, in a black t-shirt, tall and striking, beer in hand, heading out to the dance floor, with one of the new PhD students. I believe, he had arrived the semester before, so we ended up taking some classes together. He always liked to consider himself as part of my cohort for which we teased him forever; “You would want that, wouldn’t you Steve! We are Resnick’s favourite class, after all!”
We became close with Steve after 1986 when I returned to Northampton to finish my dissertation. We watched the 1986 FIFA World Football Cup elimination rounds, together in the house at the end of the infamous Graves Avenue. This culminated in a huge party we gave at the house on the day of the final. Steve, of course, was there. Would he ever miss a party?
He loved being with people; he really was a very sociable man, but not really a talkative one. Perhaps, some of my friends will find this strange, but for me, Cullenberg was not verbose in speech; he was a man of few words; words, always delivered very quickly with perfect timing, like a professional comedian, to stunning effect. Academic brilliance, he certainly had, but it was his cutting sense of humour, that was second to none.
In the final year or so of finishing my PhD, my partner financially supported me; my scholarship had ended. “Serap, you are a kept woman.” That was Steve’s interpretation of the situation! I would accept a comment such as this from a very small group of men. Steve was one of them. I never doubted his sincerity, his loyalty, affection for and devotion to his friends.
I loved the way he was the same with everyone no matter their background. Steve had that authenticity: he was keenly aware of differences and he really treated everyone in the same way. With that endless warmth, irreverence and merciless wit of his. For that, I genuinely adored him. His ease with not adjusting his personality according to who he was talking.
I knew of his illness from the beginning. He almost never talked about it, but I understood just how difficult it was when he told me that there was not a single day he didn’t feel pain somewhere in his body. Holding up his finger he once told me: “I woke up today; it felt as if someone was drilling into it.”
He did everything to enjoy life. In one of our many one-to-one conversations, he described to me how one summer night he was swimming naked in his swimming pool and as he was floating, a hummingbird started buzzing right above him. ” I said to myself, ” it can’t get better than this.””
His illness never seemed to stop him from flourishing either. He continued to write, teach and had a long and very successful run as an administrator. People admired what he wrote, his students loved him as a teacher, and most astonishingly, he was even loved as an administrator! I always thought that the last one is impossible to pull, but Steve did it.
I saw him last in 2017 when he hosted the AESA retreat at his home in Riverside. It was very painful seeing him not being able to talk. It felt horrible having to ask him to repeat what he said. Yet, there he was, sitting at the centre of his living room, holding court, and somehow communicating anyway. I remember looking at his beautiful home, and the wonderful garden and wondering how Steve’s love of life was just so visible everywhere he had been and he had touched. He had that light in him, that kept on shining despite everything.
Before we left, I hugged him and said “Steve, I love you!” He shot back: “Love you too!” Somehow, those words came out more easily that night.
I consider myself a very lucky person to have known and loved him.
As we say in Turkish: may his place of rest be filled with light!
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These are very beautiful reflections, capturing so many aspects of Steve Cullenberg. I met Steve along with my ‘elders’ in EGSO at UMass in September 1981, when I started the doctoral program there. He was not easy to approach – shy, actually, masked by some brittleness. Over the many years that followed – including my joining the faculty at UCR a year or two after he did (I think 1989 was when he got there, me in 1991) – I saw that this way he had, of making that seemingly cutting remark, was just his way of letting you into the intimate cave of his conversation. He became, over the years, a good friend.
I want to focus in my comments on something that’s not been talked about much here. That is, Steve’s role on the Riverside campus, especially his role as dean. He was always tuned into the overall campus vibe. It was at Steve’s urging that I got involved with cross-campus affairs – people, issues, etc. – at UCR; he walked me into a more mature understanding of the political dimensions of maintaining a pluralist presence in an ambitious university. I grew a lot, and learned how to be a more effective actor in the university setting due to his guidance (often delivered with a withering comment or two, Steve style). That path led me away from campus for seven years, 2003-2010.
When I returned from Sacramento, Steve had become dean of the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (CHASS). He’d fought for it, assembled a supporting coalition, and been named. This was the change point, the point where he found the role at UCR that was equal to his ever-expanding intellectual vision. It was marvelous to see. Playing this role involved reaching well beyond the economics department at UCR, and well beyond economics as a discipline. He joined in and materialized the efforts at UCR to embrace the new multi-cultural, interdisciplinary path, embracing California’s diversity and – simultaneously – the multiple voices of subaltern and excluded people, scholars, visions that Riverside could – with the right leadership – affirm. And he was that leader. It was remarkable to see the growth in Steve, in his understanding that this was the path forward – for him and for the university whose arts/humanities/social science colleagues became a family. He widened that cave of his – as Joe and many others have remarked, he was always that cantankerous bear inside there – widened it so that we were all inside it. It was so much larger than economics per se, by the time he stepped up and embraced that role of being dean. And the consequences were foundational for UCR’s leap into its future – so many liberated voices found their way thanks to the hiring he enabled, the committees he convened.
So to come back to UCR after the years away, to see what Cullenberg had done, what he had become, all while his body was betraying him every more, slowly slowly, but with him never surrendering to that – it was remarkable. I was so proud of him, for him. He had grown, grown to embrace and love the beautiful diversity of people and voices that he’d enabled to spring up around him.
By the time I really was settling back into Riverside, 2011, I could feel and see Steve’s success, and all that it meant for the University. He had become the dean that his beloved college – the college of arts, humanities, and social science (CHASS) at Riverside had always needed. I moved on to Leeds by April 2012, but that too had Steve’s stamp on it. The offer to go there came out of the blue. I talked to Steve about it quite a lot – and in the end moved on. Cullenberg had shown me that you have to take opportunities to make a difference when they arise, and then embrace them.
In making this turn as dean, he showed us something that he’d learned. Long after the words we’ve written and published or not published are archived or forgotten – our best legacy will, I suppose, lie in having been there to say ‘yes’ to some of those who normally only hear ‘no’. Cullenberg will be looking down on us – you know he is – happy with that legacy, those he left here behind him, working and trying to hold and widen the boundaries of brave speech and thinking.
One remembers many things – quiet dinners with – white wine (!) – at his favorite spot, his critical flaw (that love of the Celtics and Red Sox), that half-concealed smile of being almost happy that he’d give you on a good day, that touch on the shoulder as you left the office. His amazement that Angela Davis paid him tribute on his retirement as dean – Angela Davis! What world was he living in, that this had happened? And our recognition that he had made a little corner of that world as a space for open, tolerant thought, the space of a university that could hold and honor academic voices like Angela’s, a university in which he found his own space too.
Gary Dymski, University of Leeds
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Steve helped me decide to come to UMass when I stayed overnight at the Dewey Court place he shared with Ric McIntyre and Michael Hillard in March 1984. He told about his year at Princeton and the many ways UMass was better, especially for someone interested (as I was) in economics and philosophy. Even after I wasn’t new anymore, he was still a big brother. He nicknamed me “Rocket” when we played on the Brand X softball team in spring ’85. I went to his prospectus and dissertation defenses in the 6th floor lounge — just to see what happened (and whether Bob Ackerman really understood the decentered totality). When he and I were long-distance travelers to RM Ed Board meetings in the mid/late 90s, we often would meet at Bradley, drive up to Julie’s, and bunk in adjacent guest rooms for a couple of nights. I even helped him move his absurdly heavy couch up a steep flight of stairs when he moved into the Northampton apartment where he finished his dissertation while teaching at Smith in 1988-89.
Like others, I saw Steve’s tender heart — and couldn’t believe how much grief he took from unnamed senior members of AESA. I remember Steve going toe to toe with John Roche in 1987 about whether or not AESA could afford to host the Cullenberg-envisioned “Marxism Now: Traditions and Difference” gala conference in 1988. He never had a budget; yet he was confident and unrelenting in his vision of RM becoming the NLR of the United States. Pretty soon he had us all signed up for the gala committee.
What I think I appreciated most about Steve was his intellectual leadership. He was loyal to our group and had great faith in our collective work; yet he was never satisfied with anyone’s pat answers. He kept us in dialogue with whomever he was reading at the time (Hindess, Hirst, Cutler, and Hussain, Lacalu and Mouffe, Elster and Roemer, Prigogine, Lewontin and Gould, Meiksins Wood, etc.). He kept us honest. He wanted us to keep growing.
Like Jack, Steve was so talented, so committed, so generous in the volume of crap he produced, distributed, and received, he in many ways personified the intellectual/political community that continues to mean so much to so many of us. Our socialism may be thinner, but we are forever a thicker group (Steve the connectionist), with a more learned and more international set of projects, thanks to Steve Cullenberg.
I became close friends with Steve during my first year as an assistant professor at UCR — in Spring 1995 — and we remained friends through the years, including all his Dean years when he was very thoughtful and responsive to my department’s needs. We had so many good times together, especially at the “old” Marios, and then the “new” one. He was so smart–and so arrogant! But he also played an important role in my life — because of him, I am much higher in Openness than i used to be. I was so sad when he became more and more ill and so sad that he’s gone.
Steve essentially turned my life around at UCR. I was still an assistant professor, in a department that, at the time, was unhealthy in ways that were making my life miserable, and I was just starting to see some light with the help of Emory Eliott—who was going to introduce me to Steve—when Emory passed away. It was at Emory’s memorial, where I spoke, that I first even glimpsed Steve, and then at Emory’s funeral where I met him, in one of those classic, Cullenbergian encounters. I was still pretty shaken after the funeral and heading out to my car, and there was Steve in the parking lot, getting into his BMW. I thought, “Why not?—it’s the dean getting into his car after a funeral.” I went over and held out my hand and introduced myself, and Steve immediately threw me with some non-sequitur. I tried to say something meaningful, given the moment, and again, Steve said something that completely interrupted my train of thought. All of this had that kind of low-burn temperature to it. Steve spoke softly, in a retreated voice, with long pauses, and a couple times just stared at me after I’d said something. This is where Steve liked to live—he was a master at controlling conversations with negative space and few careful right hooks that came at you so quietly you hardly knew you’d been hit until after the conversation. It was an awkward encounter. I liked him.
I remembered Emory suggesting that I go see Steve at his other home, Jammin Bread, so I did one morning, and found him sitting there in what I came to learn was his chair, across from Joe his partner in crime in all things Jammin. I felt welcome by both of them, even as I also felt I was intruding! Little did I know that morning that it was the beginning of two important friendships. They both became my good friends, and that ritual of sitting at Jammin with Steve and Joe became one of the most important things to me in my life at UCR. In time I became Chair of my department, and Steve became an invaluable ally in my efforts to the strengthen and grow Creative Writing. The man wasn’t afraid to say no, that’s for sure, and he said no to me many times, but he also gave me a heck of a lot of yesses, really smart ones. And that’s the thing: Steve was a fiercely intelligent man. I came to love sparring with him about whatever topic happened to make to that beautiful little table by the wall. But one thing he and I never had to argue about was Joni Mitchell. Steve was the only man I’d ever met who loved Joni as much as I did, and we both derived a lot of pleasure from sharing our admiration for her, and, later, at this house, from long listening sessions into the night. In the later years, I took to picking up dinner for him, and heading over to the house, where we’d sit on the back patio with the stereo cranked up so loud the whole neighborhood had to listen to both sides of Hejira. But I was by no means the only one he welcomed into his home, which became a sort of Factory for faculty, a gathering place to make new friends and see old ones.
Nothing stays the same. Steve stopped being Dean, Joe left, and then Steve did too. I felt an acute diminishment of my UCR life. I missed them both. But I knew I’d see Joe again; Steve I missed in a way that felt permanent. Like everyone who really knew him, I will always carry Steve in me. I cherish a picture of him and myself out at a farm in Hemet that we went to check out as a possible donor property to CHASS. We’re both standing there in the dust, surrounded by old eucalyptus trees, looking kind of badass. I had driven us out there, and something about sitting with someone on a drive allows for more to come out. We shared things about our lives with each other.
I miss his rebellious pugilism, his quiet care, his willingness to come to know a younger colleague on a personal and real level, the level that really counts.
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Steve Cullenberg taught me the value of well-timed sarcasm, unapologetic (principled) opposition, and consistent humble accountability. We would often yell at each other over an intense disagreement (usually because he told me “no” about something), and 3 months later he’d admit he was wrong (and even, sometimes, reverse the “no” to a “yes”).
A typical story: During one of the many gatherings he hosted at his house in Riverside, my oldest kid, then age 10, took it upon himself to “borrow” the garden shears in Steve’s open garage and proceeded to raze every blossomed flower in his front yard (every. single. flower.). I marched him in front of Steve to get his comeuppance at the end of the party. Steve asked him “why did you do that?” Kid says, “the flowers were in my way.” Without missing a beat, Steve says, “you’re just like your dad.”
Dean Cullenberg welcomed my to UCR and I was so proud to be a member of CHASS with him as its leader. He was sincere, supportive, genuine and generous with his time and advice. I always enjoyed seeing him in Ciao Bella and having him join us (junior faculty) for a drink and chat about life in academia. He was a great scholar but never boasted about it and devoted his time to supporting others.
When I came to Riverside, I was blissful unaware of a boat horn. Now they have gone somewhat out of favor, and they rarely sound at graduations. Yet like Pavlov’s dog, I have been conditioned. When I have heard one, my mind goes back to Steve Cullenberg.
Steve was so alive, so vital a person that it is now hard to accept that he is gone. To be sure, in recent years his health had begun to fail, but it seems impossible that he could not have gone that quickly. Having recovered from the shock of the news, let me offer my own appreciation of what we have lost.
Steve and I were chairs together from 2000 to 2003, and we bonded. Consequently, Chairs and Directors meetings quickly were rather like a scene from Leave It to Beaver in which we took turns “giving the business” to the substitute teacher, aka Dean O’Brien. Then I also learned of his extraordinary generosity.
Once it came out that he was on the UC Press board, and he asked if I wanted anything. Why yes indeed, I said, The Diary of Samuel Pepys. A few days later after he had looked into the matter, he chided my greed: “there are eleven volumes of it.” I smiled weakly and forgot about it — until a week later, the volumes arrived, all eleven of them. Ecstatic, I ran to his office to thank him. Then is no need for such profuse thanks, he said, “I only got you the paperback edition.”
When he became Dean, I along with practically the entire College was delighted, and he did not disappoint us. His lengthy term in office was a joy, and it generated many stories about him. Here I will simply relate my favorite.
As a rule, graduation ceremonies are tedious affairs, even if you are there to hood a doctoral student. But Cullenberg made these mundane affairs an absolute delight. No one did it better. No one.
First, he got a competition going between various majors, exhorting ones with the smallest numbers to shout louder than the larger majors, whom he chided for getting drowned out. They need not have worried. He always gave them a second and even a third chance at improving the sheer volume of the cheers. Then he would get the parents gassed up and demanded that they cheered too. Finally, like Stokowski or Duhamel summoning up the horns and commanding them to wail, you could hear them in the cacophony, first in ones and twos and then by the score.
As an outward and visible illustration of neculturny behavior, it is hard to beat the use of boat horns in non-nautical settings, at least so some stuffy folks think. Such was Cullenberg’s genius that he immediately knew the key to a UCR graduation was noise — raucous cheers, bagpipes and above all else, the dread boat horns. The latter so dominated some proceedings that I sometimes suspected he brought them by the gross and passed them out beforehand.
The veritable pièce de résistance in the classic Cullenbergian graduation was singing. Student performers, of course, figured prominently. He loved that. But he also wanted everyone singing, and he was not too proud to lead the way. When it came time to sing the school song — rarely a prospect to make your heart skip a beat — he insisted that everyone belt it out at the top of their lungs. Otherwise, they would not be heard with the horn section going all out fortissimo.
One year, a keynote speaker backed out at the last moment, and Steve asked me to step in. At some point in my otherwise forgettable oration, I quoted Bob Marley — in this great future, you cannot forget your past. That was not good enough for Steve. He interrupted and insisting that we sing, we being everyone in attendance. He then led a rather ragged but nonetheless heartfelt rendition of “No Woman No Cry” with boat horns accompanying us. Purists were appalled by the scene. That did not matter. The students, their parents and even most of the faculty were all captivated and smiling. For his part, while some of the senior administrators were squirming, Steve was beaming.
I will always remember that look on his face. Indeed, now that I recall it, I know how I will honor the great man’s passing. I am going to buy my own boat horn and take my dog in the backyard. With the dulcet tones of my new purchase, I will summon a deafening chorus of the local dogs, eager to celebrate something other an errant possum entering their backyard without permission. Together we will make an unbelievable racket.
In short order, my neighbors will drift over to see what is going on. Some are UCR grads, and maybe we can thump out “UCR fair alma mater, the jewel of old UC.” Everyone, however, will be remember Bob’s classic, and we will belt out “I remember when we used to sit in the government yard in Trench Town.” The dogs will go berserk with the regular blasts from the horn. When we get to the part, “good friends we have, good friends we’ve lost,” I will be weeping. At that somber moment, Robert Nesta Marley will comfort us: “while I am gone, everything’s gonna be alright … so dry your years I say.”
For those of you, confused about how to honor him, I suggest you forget decorum just this once and do something a little outré. And remember nothing says Cullenberg like a boat horn. Target currently has a bad boy called “Maxpro Super Blast Marine” for a mere $9.99.
The first time I met Steve was in 1997, at an AESA Summer Conference, somewhere in New Hampshire, where I presented a short paper—pretentiously titled “The Auctioneer as a Suturing Element: A Note on the Walrasian General Equilibrium”. It was a brave attempt to combine Lacanian psychoanalysis with mathematical economics. Please note that I was a 24 years old graduate student, doing my first paper presentation. I recall a big roundtable in one of those makeshift conference/congregation/event rooms. Blair, who also came from West coast, having back pains, doing Tai Chi in the space behind the roundtable. It is a friendly context but everyone seems to know each other with a lot of history. I don’t remember any questions—probably folks were shocked and awed by the pretentiousness of the whole enterprise. But when the panel broke, Steve summoned me across the room and made some really good suggestions and comments on the paper—some somewhat more critical than others (perhaps he didn’t want to tell them to me in front of the rest of the group) and then passed me a copy of my paper (yes, he printed out in advance) with a lot of very useful notes written on it. It was my first presentation in my journey as a scholar and he gave attention and care to my work. I think, I hope, I still have that copy—somewhere at my parents’ house, in one of the boxes that moved from one place to another over the years. Later on, that paper became the basis of my dissertation and Steve’s comments had immense help in setting me on the right track.
A year later in 1998, when I joined the Rethinking Marxism editorial board, I began to socialize with him at and around board meetings. I am afraid I have been, like others, coopted by the Italian Mafia (Isn’t Jack Italian?) and enjoyed them teasing him. Yet, every time he woke up and made an intervention in those long and sometimes boring meetings, he made utter sense. In more than one occasion, he chastised us for being stingy Marxists and rightfully so. He always wanted the journal to be open to new ideas, new collaborations. He served on the editorial board from day one onwards until the day he died. He is the longest serving member of the editorial board. That must mean something.
Last time I saw him was at the 2013 conference. He was there with Anjan and Anup, and they were gracious enough to give ma a signed copy of their joint work, perhaps the pinnacle of his long-running collaboration with Anjan (and Anup) on class theory and critical development economics.
There is so much more. The SURPLUS/EXCESS conference that he and Joe hosted at UCRiverside Campus; the plenary talk at UMass Amherst, in 2009 that he so graciously cut short because another plenary speaker went 45 minutes extra beyond the time allotted to him (because I was not able to cut him short as the chair of the plenary session) and brought the audience to the edge of a revolt; many long dinner conversations about the future of the journal; and so on. As one of the Italian Mafia (!) told me today on the phone: the man did leave his mark. On the history of the journal, on the history of the Association, on his students and collaborators, and in an unforgettable way, on me. Thank you very much for all your generosity. Rest in Power.
My close friends know I’m a bit of a cry-baby when it comes to the loss of dear ones, so I kept putting this off until I could make it to the weekend and be in full weep mode, and then the next weekend cuz it would be painful… until I actually had a lovely day today despite a dreaded meeting I was anticipating, about which I would have vented to Steve about at Ciao Bella bar immediately afterwards if the years had not passed. So it felt like the right time to post.
I first met Steve long before he became CHASS Dean at a small meeting he had convened for faculty to meet with the UC Press Editor in Chief at the time in the early 2000s. He was quiet during the meeting, and we had to listen to the same full professor SOB in my home department monopolize Lynne Whithey’s time asking her annoying questions about why his monograph proposals never got accepted. I could tell Steve was as exasperated as I was. We would chat occasionally at meetings until we subsequently served on a rather intensive faculty search committee together for which he served as Chair of the interdisciplinary search.
Some have mentioned Steve’s arrogance, but he was also always happy to laugh hysterically at himself when you would call out his sometimes misguided arrogance. During one of the search committee dinners with a candidate, we somehow got to a point where we were going around the table telling horror stories of racist incidents we had all experienced, everything from being spat on in the streets of Paris to customers refusing to be serviced by us– mostly anti-Asian and anti-Black experiences given the composition of dinner guests. Steve wasn’t one to be left out… FOMO and all… cringe moment coming… so he told a story of playing pickup basketball with black and brown friends back in the day, and they made fun of him saying, “I guess white men *can* jump.” Needless to say, he did not hear the end of it from the rest of the table for the rest of the evening and even at his retirement party how backward-ass his not-so-humble humble-brag was in that context. He always accepted the criticism sheepishly and graciously with an acknowledging mea culpa laugh and nod.
We had become close friends by then, perhaps to the surprise of many of who didn’t know or couldn’t see our affinities. We are both tell-it-like-it-is folks, not always known for our diplomacy, and not prone to sugar-coating. I could out-crass him, and he seemed to appreciate that. I grew up watching the Benny Hill show which evolved into a much larger repertoire of bad taste, so he could never shock me, but he would keep trying. We could criticize one another and withhold judgment. At one of the candidate talks, I was sitting in front of Steve and George Haggerty, and had turned around to chit chat. I had never noticed his hands before, and said, “Steve, I’d never noticed how cute your hands were.” He looked at me for a bit and then slowly smiled without saying a word. The talk was beginning, so I turned back toward the front, only to catch a glimpse of the mortified look on George’s face. A decade later, Steve would tell me that the moment was disarming for him, and he appreciated it because most folks were uncomfortable talking about the rheumatoid arthritis at that point. From then on, he was much more open about his health with me.
We continued to meet up at Mario’s, Ciao Bella or Jammin’ Bread, whenever one of us had good news to celebrate or venting to do, which was often once every week or two, especially during his Deanship years. I must’ve ended up meeting half the mover and shaker townies in Riverside through Steve, retaining only a handful of the regulars. He was very proud of his deep roots in the community and connection to the people who cared for him, from small business owners to the custodial staff in his building and his home. I had introduced him to one of his final caretakers, and before moving out of state, she told me he had given her a $5K going away gift. He sprung for a fun night out for a handful of CHASS faculty to see Jill Scott at the Fox Theater, and would come up with ideas to build stronger community for the College and Campus at Barn parties or Women’s Basketball events. He enjoyed watching other people enjoy themselves.
We used to disagree about some of his strategies, like keeping his friends close and frenemies closer, which would sometimes backfire on him, and he would express how hurt he was when people would treat his investments in minoritized disciplines and people as wanting to hang with “the cool kids,” not only because of the slight to him but because of the racist infantilization undergirding the perception. He was a keen observer of bad racial politics, and always hungry to keep learning more. In his retirement years, Jodi Kim and I would keep up our three birthday dinner celebrations a year by bringing festivities over to his house. We had started the tradition during his Dean years, when he would use the get-togethers to run by situations he was dealing with to get our take on how he handled particular gender politics or racial politics. He was always quick to try and correct any potential wrongs, and perfectly comfortable with any needed apologies, but they were few and far between. He had one or two regrets. While he could not perhaps do all the required neoliberal functions of a 21st century dean toward the end of his term to the liking of all, I can still say he is one of the best Deans I have ever worked with now that I’ve had to work with quite a few. He loved his faculty, he cherished their scholarship and their humanity, and he knew how to support them in word and deed. He knew how to talk them up to others, and his enthusiasm was contagious. Of course he had favorites; they all do. He was not immune to the sucking up, which was disturbing to watch as someone who did not do that during his Dean years. I like to think I shared the responsibility with Joe of shaking him out of some of those relationships.
I wish we had more time together in his retirement years; he was looking really good as he prepared to move to Plymouth, and I was going to visit him there after COVID. Jodi and I tried to orchestrate a visit for him in Plymouth from one of his academic colleague crushes he had gotten to know when she was a visiting scholar at the Center for Ideas and Society. Instead of helping him and Tracy sell his Beemer, I decided to buy it myself, recalling how excited he was to show it to me outside Ciao Bella in the parking lot the first week he got it. I will now forever manifest Steve’s presence with me and Snowflake whenever we’re out joyriding in it. I picture him happy, always part of the action.
I mean Paula, not Tracy.