A Tribute to my mentor, Professor Roger Duncan

One of the most magical experience in life...

…is entering a space utterly unaware that you’re about to meet someone who will change the rest of your life.

I had that experience in 1992, junior year of college.

I signed up for a philosophy class on World Religions while unleashing the greatest eye roll the world has ever known. I didn’t care about philosophy, much less about world religions. But I had to take this damn class because it fulfilled some annoying social studies requirement and it fit my class schedule.

I dragged my feet to class, readying myself to tune out the foolery that was about to get spewed at me, and endure this thing til the semester was over.

In came Professor Roger Duncan.

I cry as I write this…

Professor Duncan stormed into the room wearing a long black coat, and he never took it off because he was so engrossed in what he was saying as he paced fervently around the room talking about Hinduism.

I was mesmerized. I couldn’t take my eyes – or ears – off this man.

More tears as I write this… Within 10 minutes, I was under his spell, and it became my favorite class. Mind you, I was there to study filmmaking, not philosophy, and certainly not world religions.

Roger Duncan, 1970's

Duncan's class was the highlight of film school.

He was hilarious. He was passionate. He was outrageously book smart, but he didn’t care if you were. He could make any philosopher accessible – and even interesting.

Professor Duncan’s class wasn’t about the big books. It was about being human. More tears as I write this. There will be many as I get to the end of this write-up.

I was 20 years old, hopeless and ashamed about my creativity or ambitions to be a filmmaker. I felt lonely and lost, seduced by distractions and material accolades.

Professor Duncan reminded me of what it feels like to be alive – to be fully alive – to be engaged, and thinking, and passionate, and connected to another human mind that brings you to life and ignites your spark.

What does it mean to own a home? He would ask us. “Your name on a deed means you own this home? Or you caring for this home means you own this home?

Duncan was a devout catholic.

At this point in my life, having had a secular Jewish upbringing, I was convinced that all religions were a bundle of superstitions and manipulations designed to disempower people. I was convinced it was the opium of the masses.

By the end of that semester, I fell in love with all religions. I understood the beauty of Catholicism, and Christianity at large, I fell in love with Eastern religions, I understood why Islam and Judaism are two peas in a pod. And for the first time in my life, I got curious about my own identity, heritage, and cultural roots.

After he taught a couple of classes about Judaism that had us laughing uproariously about how the world feels about Jews, I went up to him after class, my mind and heart racing:

Professor Roger Duncan, 1970's
Professor Roger Duncan, 2010's

"What does it mean that I'm Jewish?!" I would ask.

And he would reply and say “I don’t know.” And then he would add “But you have to find out.”

At the end of the semester, we were supposed to write a paper about any religion other than our own. When I asked him if I could write my paper on Judaism he said that I was clearly searching, and that in my case, yes – I may write about my own religion.

The next semester, his was the first class on my schedule. All the other classes were going to have to fit around this one. Studying with him was my non-negotiable.

Duncan lived in a community around an Abby, and like a truly devout Catholic: He worked the land; he was a musician; and when he wasn’t doing that, he tended to his greatest love of all: studying and teaching philosophy.

I took his class titled The Philosophy of Love. I completed the semester pouring over St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica and wrote a paper about my own love life as a young adult, and how I might apply Aquinas’ understanding of love to my own relationships. Duncan gave me an A+, the only grade I ever cared about in college.

The following year, immersed once again in filmmaking, but under his influence, I wrote and directed a musical adaptation of Plato’s Symposium.

In Professor Duncan’s class, thinking was an act of love.  Thinking was an act of passion. Engaging with other human minds, whether in conversation, or by grappling with things they wrote centuries ago – he brought his students to life by waking up our minds.

When I graduated film school, I was in deep despair.

Film school had taken the joy out of filmmaking, and without support or confidence to go at it – I quit. After film school I was chronically depressed, suicidal, often drunk. And having quit filmmaking, I had no idea what I would be doing with my life.

Roger Duncan, 2000's

duncan's teachings were a fog horN when I couldn't see a lighthouse.

I had also become friends at the time with Don, another one of Duncan’s students, who was likewise going through a hard time. (The 20’s are a bitch!) Don, a Catholic of Italian heritage, ended up joining Duncan in that same community and eventually finding his wife and his family, and building the rest of his life in a home next door to Duncan. He became his friend, confidant, a son to him, and he still lives there.

During that same time, I found a Jewish community, and took root in it over several years.

Those of you who know me know that I spent most of my twenties as a practicing Jew, studying ancient Rabbinic texts and Jewish law in an Orthodox Yeshiva.

After years of this loving community nurturing my soul back to life, I also began doing peer counseling work that empowered me through healing from childhood wounds. In my 30’s I married a funny New York Jew who, 20 years later, still makes me laugh, and eventually circled back to a secular Jewish lifestyle. But importantly –

I returned to filmmaking from a different place. I was no longer a young woman looking for applause, but a grown woman on a mission, wanting to touch people as Duncan touched me.

Duncan was a beacon of integrity and truth seeking.

Duncan had no interest in turning me into a Catholic. His only interest was to turn me into me – the Jewish girl and filmmaker that I was meant to become.

Duncan would visit me when he was in New York. Pictured here: Duncan and I pretend to have a philosophical debate.  Always a laugh with him. In hindsight, I wish I had taken the time to visit him more often. However –

Something I learned in his class that always stayed with me: When you love someone, it’s not about what you want from them, or get from them. You’re simply thrilled that they exist in the world.

That’s how I always felt about Roger Duncan: his existence thrilled me. I felt better living in the world, knowing he was somewhere being Duncan.

Roger Duncan and Ela Thier, New York, 2004

2 months ago I received a message from don that Duncan was hospitalized.

I dropped everything I was doing and rented a car.

Don, being the responsible one, tried to dissuade me from coming, and explained that he had been turning down visitors. Evidently the last guy who tried was told by Duncan: “Don’t sit down.” That’s the Duncan I knew. I didn’t care.

I told Don that if I saw him for 5 minutes, it would be worth the 5 hour trip.

Sure enough, when I arrived, Duncan told me that it wasn’t a good time to visit because he needed to take a nap.

It’s ok,” I said, “I’ll sit here and read while you take a nap.” I knew that the sight of a person reading relaxes him.

You can read in the waiting room then,” he said, “You’d be more comfortable there.”

I’m ok right here,” I said as I sat down and pulled out a book. I didn’t read a word. I just wanted to look at him.

His daughter, Laura, my age, was there as well, and I got to meet her for the first time. I remember him telling me about his 20-year-old daughter who was an artist as well, back when I was 20. Every time he spoke about her, there was a tone of boasting in it.

I ended up staying with him for a good part of the day. Laura told me that it was the longest visit he had allowed anyone other than her. It was one of my greatest honors in life to be with my mentor, with Professor Roger Duncan, that day.

Connecticut, 2024

It was a beautiful day in april.

Laura and I took him in a wheelchair outside. It was his first foray outdoors in a while, and I watched Duncan absorb the sun, the grass, the trees, his daughter, and his student.

At one point he asked to be wheeled closer to one of the flower beds, and we moved over to watch the flowers with him.

Duncan was so fully alive in this world, up until the last minute.

As we soaked in the sun, the grass, the blue sky, the flowers, I told my beloved teacher that I had a confession to make:

I’ve been carrying this on my conscience for 30 years…” I told him. “I once took a written exam in your class about a book we were supposed to read, and I got an A even though I only read one page of it. In the exam, I simply addressed what I read in that one page.”

Duncan replied: “I gave you an A because you were thinking. Whether you read the whole book or a single page is not the point. You engaged your mind. That’s all I ever wanted from my students – that you think.

And then, in classic Duncan sense of humor fashion, he crossed his heart and absolved me of the sin.

duncan and I talkED philosophy on my visit

I asked him what he thought about the current pope (Pope Francis), and he replied: “He’ll go down as one of the great popes, because he never stops thinking about the poor. If you’re not thinking about the poor, then…” he ended that sentence with a classic Duncan shrug that I’ve always adored.

He then told me about an article he was writing. He wanted to be sure that his article, titled The Anatomy of Being, would be completed and published.

I told him about the next film that I’ll be directing.

There’s a mythical character in my film, I explained, who helps a young “ice princess” recover her ability to love, by helping her heal her relationship with her mother.

Duncan listened and then asked: “But does he help her find her purpose?

Your purpose right now,” I said to him, “is to let people care about you. You’ve cared for so many, for so long. Let us take care of you now.”

I received a nod, as I watched him consider the challenge I presented before him. He always liked and respected my brain, which is what every great mentor does.

I went home talking to him in my mind:

isn't every person's purpose in life to love? To find their own expression of love?

Be it teaching philosophy, or playing the sax, or parenting, or caring for the elderly, or being the vulnerable one who needs care – ultimately, isn’t every type of work that we do, if it means something, an expression of our love?

I’ll never get to hear his reply to my question, which I know would have been unique and interesting and utterly unpredictable. No matter what you thought Duncan would say, his brain would always take you by surprise.

Yesterday, on Saturday, June 8, 2024, I drove out to Connecticut again, to join his community in a service and burial.

As students, colleagues, and community members shared memories – we saw how he touched every person’s life, uniquely, and all the same.

“Curious George” as he named his friend George, met him just recently at a vacation on the Jersey shore, and he was touched by his intellect and passion – same as students of his that go decades back.

Every one of us had been touched by this funny and brilliant man who was forever passionately seeking… 

He didn’t just seek the truth. He sought you. The real you. The you that the entire universe is rooting for you to be.

MY dear professor roger duncan,

Out of respect for your love of Catholicism and everything that it intends to be and that you knew it could be, let me say this:

You were a miracle in my life. You resurrected me.

You didn’t teach philosophical treatises. You taught us how to be human beings. And you led me to my purpose – which I know is all you ever wanted to do – for anyone.

The countless students I’ve touched myself in teaching filmmaking, and the many I’ve touched and will touch as a filmmaker – it’s a ripple effect of your labor. One of many.

I will forever love and remember you for that. And I will carry out your work and service by guiding others in finding their own unique purpose and path.

As a Jew, however, it is my duty to lament and say: There is a tear in the fabric of the world that I’ve known. Without your voice, humor, mind, expressions, presence, there is a gaping hole. It’s not the same world.

You are irreplaceable. And I’ll never stop missing you.

Your forever student,

6 thoughts on “A Tribute to my mentor, Professor Roger Duncan”

  1. Ela, Beautiful tribute to Roger Duncan, in loving memory, your philosophy professor, mentor and Catholic mensch! You inspire others to pick up and carry the torch he shone in life.
    Even so, you reminded me of the one encouraging Prof I had at CWRU in Cleveland OH, Louis Gianetti, “Understanding Movies,” fantastico in the classroom and yet a practicing Buddhist. He too graded papers on one’s effort and better understanding.
    In peace and love, HMJ

  2. Thank you for sharing that beautiful tribute to your mentor and friend. You made me aware how grateful I feel to all those who cherished and nourished the little flame in my heart till it could glow brightly on its own


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