Remembering Sean Kay

Feb 10, 2021

This is a guest post from Sahar Khan, an editor at Inkstick and adjunct fellow of Defense and Foreign Policy at the Cato Institute. She tweets at @khansahar1.  This is the third post in our remembrance series honoring the life of Sean Kay.

My cousin is a sophomore at Ohio Wesleyan University, and on November 13, 2020 she texted me, “I’m so sorry about Sean Kay.” Sorry? For what? Then she told me that he had passed away and forwarded me the email that the president of Ohio Wesleyan University had sent to the community that morning. I was in utter disbelief and couldn’t think of what to do except forward that email to Ahsan. As Ahsan and I spoke that day, shrouded in a cloud of disbelief, I kept thinking: how do you thank a professor like Dr. Kay?

I arrived at Ohio Wesleyan in the fall of 2002, ready to embrace my newfound independence and American life. I had envisioned my college life to be what I saw in Hollywood movies: full of friends, parties, easy classes, and cool places to hang out in. But reality was quite different and I felt kind of lost — and invisible. I had wanted to do pre-law and psychology but wasn’t sure anymore. I loved politics but didn’t really think of it as a practical field.

So, I ended up in Dr. Kay’s “Global Issues” class my second semester because I needed another class, and I figured reading political stuff would be fun. But that class — and Dr. Kay — changed my life. He made politics come alive. His lectures were like long conversations that were rich, passionate, insightful, and thought-provoking. I changed my major to International Studies that very semester, and took all of his classes like so many IS majors.

To say that Dr. Kay was an exceptional teacher is an understatement. He was engaging, approachable, and encouraging — and a true advocate, always ready to write a recommendation letter at a moment’s notice. I still have notes from his classes. He wanted all of his students to think analytically and be creative. He always had time for his students and answered every email, which is quite extraordinary. He was also very gracious with his time, constantly engaging with overzealous students like myself during his office hours and beyond. Above all, as a geeky, awkward, and homesick undergrad, I felt seen and heard by him.

My junior year, he went on sabbatical to complete his book, Global Security in the Twenty-First Century and he hired me as his research assistant. It remains one of my favorite jobs, and I loved it. It was also the job that made me realize that I wanted to be an editor. One afternoon really stands out in my memory. He had asked me to edit a draft chapter and “not to hold back.” I didn’t and really marked it up, writing long suggestions in the margins (and yes, it was on paper because it was 2004 and Sean and I both preferred editing in hard copy back then). When I handed him my edits, I remember feeling queasy. I couldn’t believe I had just done that: given my advisor a heavily marked chapter, in red ink no less. He went through it, and chuckled in the end, saying, “Well, looks like I have some work to do.” He actually made several changes and thanked me in the book, an honor I can never forget. I can also never forget getting caught having lunch in his office when I was his assistant. Since he was on sabbatical, he allowed me to use his office while I edited his book. But one day I was running late and hadn’t had lunch so I just brought it to his office with me. As I sat on in his chair, eating an egg salad sandwich, drinking coffee, and editing with the radio on, he came in, whistling with a cowboy hat in hand. As I sat there red-faced, he just laughed and said reading goes faster if I put my feet up on the desk. Years later, anytime I do put my feet up to read, I end up thinking about that afternoon.   

We stayed in touch over the years, and in 2019 he invited me to speak on campus as the inaugural speaker of the Sagan National Colloquium for 2019-2020. I was honored, and humbled. It felt great to sit and chat with him in his office, something I hadn’t done since 2006, the year I graduated. He insisted I call him Sean or he’d call me Dr. Khan. But no matter what, in my mind he will forever be “Dr. Kay.” 

I started at Inkstick on November 16 and my plan had been to send him an email from my Inkstick account to tell him that I made it as an editor, something I had wanted to do ever since I edited his book. But he died before I could tell him — and thank him for believing in me all those years ago. This semester I’m teaching his course, “International Organization” virtually at OWU. I’m a poor substitute for him, but I hope I can help keep his legacy alive and inspire students the way he did for so many years. 

He was exceptional and like Ahsan, I feel so lucky to have known him and am glad that I was able to tell him what a great mentor he had been. I will remember fondly, always.

May he rest in peace. 

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Joshua Busby is an Associate Professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He is the author of Moral Movements and Foreign Policy (Cambridge, 2010) and the co-author, with Ethan Kapstein, of AIDS Drugs for All: Social Movements and Market Transformations (Cambridge, 2013). His main research interests include transnational advocacy and social movements, international security and climate change, global public health and HIV/ AIDS, energy and environmental policy, and U.S. foreign policy. He also tends to blog about global wildlife conservation.