As an English professor, labor rights activist, author, cyclist, music enthusiast and intellectual, Dr. Kathryne Lindberg was anything but one-dimensional or passive.
She pursued many passions in life, and her disappearance on Dec. 13 has left a gaping hole in the lives of her friends, family, students and colleagues at Wayne State.
“She was one of the most brilliant people I’d ever encountered. She was shockingly knowledgeable and well-read in an incredibly broad range of fields,” said Dr. Jonathan Flatley, a colleague and friend of Lindberg’s.
“Her everyday speech and emails were filled with plays on words and various puns. In a conversation with her, I felt like I couldn’t even keep up with 50 percent of her jokes.”
Lindberg came to WSU in 1991 after teaching at Harvard University. She specialized in American and African-American literature, but was also passionate about making sure workers, particularly African Americans, received fair working conditions. One of her projects before her disappearance was to create an archive of interviews and discussions with labor movement activists from various generations.
Dr. Todd Duncan, who worked on the project with Lindberg and Dr. Beth Bates, said the discussion sessions were held either on campus, Lindberg’s apartment or at a Big Boy restaurant across from Belle Isle, where the group would often eat breakfast while reviewing social justice or labor issues.
The ultimate goal of the archival project was to produce a film called “Detroit’s Un-ruined Voices.” The documentary would have been about “people of strong, good character who had done a lot in the city’s history, but were not widely known, (in order to) depart from the representation of Detroit as a place of ruin and dysfunctional people,” Duncan said.
Lindberg’s interest in political and labor activism may have stemmed from growing up in San Francisco, where she was aware of the Black Panthers and other political movements, Duncan said.
Dr. Ellen Barton, chair of WSU’s English department, said Lindberg’s interest in the subject increased when she moved to Detroit and learned about the archival collections housed in WSU’s Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs.
Barton said Lindberg had published over 25 scholarly articles relating to American and African-American literature, and had won numerous awards for her work. Her work was supported by the WSU Humanities Center, and from 1999-2000, won the prestigious honor of being a Scholar-in-Residence at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library.
One of Lindberg’s other works was as co-editor of a volume of poetry called “Bobweaving Detroit: The Selected Poems of Murray Jackson” with renowned poet Ted Pearson. Jackson was Lindberg’s late husband and a member of WSU’s Board of Governors from 1981-1988, 1989-1996 and 1997-2001. Barton described Jackson, who died in 2002 after an illness, as Lindberg’s “rock.”
“She was really devoted to Murray. They were different, but kindred spirits,” said Duncan, a close friend and colleague of Lindberg’s in the English department.
In the classroom, Lindberg was tough and expected much from her students. During the Fall 2010 semester, she taught ENG 7042: Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture and ENG 2310: Major American Books: Literature and Writing, where she guided students through the works of Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson and other classic authors.
The majority of her ratings on Ratemyprofessors.com are a testament to the difficulty level of her classes, as students assessed her as an exacting teacher who expected perfection from them. Barton classified Lindberg’s teaching style as “ambitious.”
Others recalled Lindberg as a fascinating conversationalist who always sparked thought after a discussion. Konstantina Karageorgos, a former student of Lindberg’s, described her in an email as “an intellectual in the best sense” and recalled how Lindberg always took time to write to her with suggestions for future reading.
Marie Buck, another former student, took a graduate course with Lindberg. In the classroom, she wrote via email, Lindberg was “intense, demanding, biting, hilarious, and extremely generous, all at the same time.” Buck wrote how she admired Lindberg’s “sensibility, bluntness and tendency to think and speak sharply and critically without holding anything back.”
Her outspoken nature and wit were well-known among colleagues and friends, as well.
Recently, after interviewing candidates for a position in the English department, Lindberg turned to Barton and quipped, “Well, that went as well as it could have.”
Friends also spoke warmly about Lindberg’s diverse interests. She bicycled to and around Belle Isle almost every day, Barton said, and participated in the Tour de Troit last fall with Barton and another colleague. She also enjoyed contemporary opera, as well as the films of French director Jean-Luc Godard and foreign travel.
Her nephew Chris Lindberg spoke through Facebook about how he and Lindberg had grown close over the past years through travel experiences, including a trip to Iceland in 2009.
Colleagues are baffled and bereaved at Lindberg’s disappearance, in what has been called an apparent suicide by Wayne State University Police Department Chief Anthony Holt weeks after her car was discovered abandoned on MacArthur Bridge to Belle Isle. But her legacy of encouraging interdisciplinary cooperation and challenging students to give their best continues.
“She understood scholarship in a very broad sense,” Duncan said. “It was a pleasure to work with someone who had a bold, and even provocative, intellect and the spirit of a poet.”
Perhaps the best way to summarize Lindberg’s character is in the opening stanza of “KVL,” a poem written for her by her late husband.
“Spitting fire-hot pieces of light, she suffers no shade, reels on the edge of mosaic shards in search of herself, forging indelible shadows.”