Professor David Dean had never missed a class in 25 years of teaching. Every first day of Principles of Microeconomics, he has told his students to plan to never miss class, because he never would.
For freshman Spencer Crouch, that had been the benefit of having Dean as a professor during the fall of 2012. Crouch had never seen a professor so dedicated to his class. That is what made it even weirder, he said, when on Oct. 22, Dean didn’t show up for class.
“I kind of knew something bad had happened,” Crouch said. “We were all confused since he said he would never miss a day. It must have been something awful.”
The class was shown a video that day, he said, which started with an introduction from Dean.
“Good afternoon, class,” Dean said in the video. “I have been diagnosed with a lymphoma which is going to require me to be in the hospital from Monday through Wednesday.”
Dean had been having concerns since late September, he said. He had been having night sweats and what he thought was a rib injury, he said.
On Thursday, Oct. 18, after three weeks of blood work, CT scans and a bone marrow biopsy – Dean’s hematologist told him he had a very rare and aggressive stage-IV lymphoma in his spleen. He would have to come in for chemotherapy that Monday.
“It’s probably about the worst news you could expect,” Dean said. “Next, it’s like well, what’s going to happen?”
One of Dean’s first concerns was how he would accommodate his classes, since he wouldn’t be able to teach in person, he said. The chemotherapy would leave his immune system in remission and prevent him from leaving his house. If he were to be around someone with an infection, he could get it and potentially die, he said.
Dean called Dean Nancy Bagranoff and his close friend and economics department chairman, Bob Schmidt, to talk about potential solutions.
They decided that Dean would tape lectures in the classroom over the weekend, he said. The Richmond information services department would provide videographers for the tapings.
Dean was nervous to be away from the classroom because much of his teaching style revolves around participation, he said. He calls on his students incessantly, which has given him a “slightly intimidating reputation,” he said.
Dean typically calls on students more than 100 times total in one class, Crouch said.
If a student didn’t know an answer, he’d typically be called out on it, Crouch said. Dean was never mean about it but instead wanted the student to succeed, he said.
Sophomore Emily Archibald, who took Dean’s class, would go over her readings four or five times before class, she said, out of fear of getting something wrong and looking like a fool.
This type of reputation earned Dean a nickname, “Dr. Death.” He likes the nickname because it weeds out students who would not be committed to his class, Dean said.
But for those who were committed, Dean was nothing but helpful, students said.
When freshman Patricia Dan stayed on campus for fall break, she needed some homework help from “Dr. Death.” He was the first teacher to agree to meet with her during a break, she said.
Archibald is now an economics major because of the impact Dean had on her through his humor and energy, she said.
When Crouch did microeconomics homework with his friends in other classes, he said he had realized how much more material Dean had taught his class.
All three students said he had been the best professor they had ever had.
Now halfway through the fall semester, “Dr. Death” would have to communicate with his students only by email and phone, he said, as he fought for his life.
Dean’s appearance started to change as time passed. He lost weight and his hair. By his twelfth and final lecture, he was completely bald.
As for the continuity of the course, students said they didn’t see that drastic of a change.
Dan thought that there was nothing different about the teaching or outline of the course, she said. The students still took a quiz every day and listened to Dean’s video for the material.
“He didn’t want to give us away, and he wasn’t going to,” Dan said. “He wasn’t there [for class], but at the same time, he was there.”
The entire university played an indispensable role in the transition, Schmidt said. Professors opened up more office hours, volunteered to administer exams and answered any questions for the class, he said.
On weekends, Dean would come to the classroom, once straight from the hospital, to record the lectures with a videographer, Schmidt said. The video would then be converted to DVD and subsequently to an online stream for students to watch any time.
Jonathan Wight, an economics professor, wasn’t surprised by the economics department’s response, he said. The department is full of “team players with great attitudes,” he said, and Dean was an exemplar of the dedication of many of the faculty members.
Dean has also created a lot of camaraderie in the department, Wight said, through a number of social activities for the faculty. In the past, colleagues have participated in a bowling league, football pool and an occasional game of golf.
Economics professor Erik Craft thought another important social activity for the department had been basketball, he said. At a Richmond basketball game before Thanksgiving, a lot of the professors shaved their heads for the game to support Dean and Bobby Hayes, another colleague who had been undergoing chemotherapy.
“David loves basketball,” Craft said. “He’s always talking about how next year, he’s going to be dunking. …But next year keeps getting pushed on a year into the future.”
Dean believes dunking will have to wait until he turns 60, he said. As for his future, he is uncertain, he said. If all goes according to plan, he will be receiving chemotherapy throughout the spring semester and subsequently a stem cell transplant to strengthen his immune system, he said.
“It could be a couple months; it could be a year,” Dean said. “I’m trying to come back to school in the fall, and hopefully if not then, I’ll make it a year from now.”
The type of cancer Dean has could have been fatal if it were slower spreading, he said. Because it is more aggressive, it has a better chance to be treated more aggressively, he said.
In his time away from the classroom, Dean has been working on research projects and spending time with his wife, Holly. When he looks back on the decision to record videos instead of finding another teacher, Dean said he hoped it had taught his students that sometimes the show must go on.
“You’ve got to stay with it,” Dean said. “I sort of expect my students to work hard, and if you’re going to ask for a lot of effort, you’ve got to put in a lot of effort.”
Dean’s personality traits — specifically his dedication and energy — have prevented him from getting down as he fights his illness, Schmidt said.
“He just keeps on going,” Schmidt said. “He sees the end line; he’s focused on the end line, and he’s going to do what he needs to do to get there.”
Contact reporter Scott Himelein at firstname.lastname@example.org