Remembering David Southern (1946–2021)

On April 1, our dear colleague and friend David Southern, age 74, passed away peacefully at home. David had been an invaluable member of the Press since 1998, and he was passionate in his work as managing editor of the Carlyle Letters, a project that reflected his love of the written word. David grew up in North Carolina and was an accomplished local historian. His lifelong interest in poetry is reflected in years of correspondence with and publication of numerous poets, including those associated with the former Black Mountain College near Asheville. His obituary is available here. In today’s post, we share memories of David’s time at the Press.

“I—like many others at the Press—really cared about David. I had worked with him since 1999 and had some incredible conversations with him throughout the years. He was an intellectual decathlete–a person who knew more about more subjects than anyone I’ve probably ever met. He was incredibly kind, thoughtful, conscientious, funny, and humble. He’ll be deeply missed.

“In 2007, my daughters and I went on a hike with David. David talked to them about odology, different wildflowers and birds, colonial history, etc. It was like spending the afternoon with a very intellectual park ranger, but we never left Durham. My kids were like, ‘David knows something about everything.'” —Rob Dilworth, Journals Director

“David never wanted to be a bother or impose on anyone. To a fault. I often found myself in our check-ins caringly upbraiding him for being (what I felt was) too self-effacing and even nagged him on occasion like the Jewish mother I am. Speaking of which, he always remembered to wish me well on the Jewish holidays. He also always inquired about my kids. He was a mensch.

“Every status report he submitted read more like something I would want to pore over while drinking a glass of wine rather than something I would want to get through efficiently. That’s not to say they weren’t informative or pertinent to work; they were just also so imbued with the affable kind of character you yearn for in a narrative voice and so rich with historical digressions and juicy aside. I (half)joked several times in meetings with him that we should publish his status reports in their own right.

“He’d be so upset to know that he wasn’t able to see the publication of the final volume of the Carlyle Letters. And my tears come as I think of this especially. He always noted that he wanted to leave everything in good order, not to be a bother, impose. I would just tell him, as I tell him in my mind now, that he did so much and that all he had done was already enough. That he was always welcome to bother me more and didn’t have to apologize ever for imposing.” —Stacy Lavin, Senior Managing Editor

“I’m very saddened that we’ve lost David. When I first started at DUP I was fortunate to have an office space directly across from his. David was so kind and generous. I looked forward to seeing him every day in the “JEDIT loft” and always enjoyed talking with him, especially about history and baseball (and how our teams, Atlanta and Kansas City, were faring). I learned so much from David about the history of my new home city and state. I very much admired David and his remarkable erudition, wit, and genuineness. He will be greatly missed. I’m so sorry for his family and for everyone who cared so much for him.” —Ray Lambert, Senior Managing Editor

“The courtliness is real. I can’t count the number of times I was walking behind him in the halls of Brightleaf and he jogged back to open whatever door I was headed for. I fondly recall an evening at the Federal when I sat next to him and his friend at the bar, and David facilitated the entire conversation between us—feeding us tidbits of information about each other that he knew would provoke interest and connection, making sure we came to know and enjoy each other.” —Allison Belan, Director for Strategic Innovation and Services

“I was visiting Bennett Place in Durham with some visiting family and was surprised to hear David’s voice narrating the film at the visitor’s center. He was uncredited but admitted to me that it was indeed him, doing a favor for a friend. So typical. Always full of surprises.

“Upon seeing all the dictionaries in my office, he said I could have his 1934 Webster New International 2nd edition when ‘he was done with it.’ I just smiled thinking that was a long way off. Now I know returning to work will definitely not be the same.” —Charles Carson, Managing Editor

“I want to share a video that features David’s beautiful voice: a fundraising video for the Carlyle Letters that the marketing team created. David shared with me once that he’d been told that the Carlyle Letters would be considered one of the Press’s greatest contributions long after all of us were gone…in addition to the Carlyles, it captures correspondence with so many luminous minds of that time (Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Elizabeth Gaskell). No wonder David had such a passion for the project—he was always in good company. Like Stacy, I am so sorry that he won’t see the publication of the final volume.” —Jocelyn Dawson, Journals Marketing Manager

“David’s courtliness cannot be overstated. It showed in his manner with all of us, in his choice of words, even in his style of composing an email. Here’s one he sent last June to the DUP list in response to some insect photos I had circulated.

“The salutation is naturally a classic southern colloquialism (with a comma added in). But before that, the date. Besides the expressions David chose, I loved his way of dating emails, as if he were writing with a quill pen from the desk of. That habit was part whimsy but also, I think, part an act of resistance to technological constraints. David had to use email, as we all do, but he, immersed in Victorian correspondence, wanted it to be something more—a letter.” —Chris Mazzara, Assistant Managing Editor

“I had the honor to work with David on The Carlyle Letters as the liaison to the technological team at the University of South Carolina that develops and manages the Carlyle Letters Online. David was always courtly and generous in person and in his gracious emails; indeed, I wasn’t sure what I had done to merit such kind appreciation! I especially enjoyed when the academic editors would come to town and the four of us would go out for ‘tea,’ a charming euphemism. Our conversations ranged widely, and I began to realize that David had a wonderful knowledge of many things and had some sort of mysterious connection to everyone and everything. He seemed to magically combine all the best qualities of a scholar, a gentleman, and a hippie. With deep attention, expertise, and patience, he maintained the highest editorial standards on the Carlyle Letters; I am so sad for us and the project that he will not be the one to produce the last volume. We should have been saying all these things at his retirement party after publication of volume 50! I feel that we have lost something incalculable with his passing and that when this special and unique person went away from us, he took a whole world with him.” —Sylvia Miller, Senior Program Manager, Franklin Humanities Institute

“It is so sad to hear of the passing of David Southern. I’d had some interesting conversations with him over the years I’ve been at Duke University Press. I’d always tell him, you definitely have a radio voice (and I thought at least one of those movie announcing voices). I’d once discussed inquiring with him on some North Carolina history of Halifax, Warren, and Nash counties, and he told me, sure, anytime. Now, I sadly wish I’d added that time to my schedule. I’m sure I’d have gained a lot.

“In hearing the news of the loss of him I was stopped in my tracks. He always greeted me warmly in the hallways. Kindness can be rare these days and I truly appreciated his kindness. I will continue to remember him as a quiet, gentle soul. To the man of The Carlyle Letters, you will be missed. Rest in peace, David. And know on a Friday afternoon, we stopped the Press for a moment in your honor.” —Sonya Johnson, IT Project Manager

“I am so honored to have known David. Even with all of his knowledge and accomplishments, he was always so unassuming, welcoming, encouraging, and kind. He taught me what a Japanese apricot was. Once, when I passed him straightening the rug in the Brightleaf hallway, he said he just liked to keep it neat—that is the kind of careful, generous person he was. He will be greatly missed.” —Sadye Teiser, Managing Editor

“Shortly after I began working at DUP, our annual meeting theme was on Press history. We were able to benefit from David’s incredible history of DUP. He graciously met with us to provide information and even accompanied our Front Desk Coordinator, Jennifer Tyska, to Duke Archives for research. My initial impression of David being an incredibly intelligent and kind man never changed from that first interaction. He was a true gentleman and will be greatly missed.” —Bonnie Conner, HR Director

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