Tribute to Sean Kay

9 February 2021, 0615 EST

Sean Kay, a much beloved international relations professor at Ohio Wesleyan, died suddenly of a heart attack in November. Though I blogged about Sean in December, we will be publishing a series of memorials to Sean from former students and colleagues over the remainder of this week.

The post below is a guest post from Ahsan Butt, an Associate Professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and a nonresident fellow at the Stimson Center.

Even two months after his death, Sean Kay’s passing still feels shocking. Sean was a vivacious, larger than life presence, and only 53 when he died. Just a couple of months before he passed, he wrote to Sahar and me, and mentioned, among other things, a stress-related medical scare earlier this year. But he indicated nothing especially serious or life-threatening. When Sahar emailed me that awful November morning, time froze. I could only greet the news with the word “What” said in different inflections, at different volumes, with different punctuation marks.

Sean was an absolute gem of a human being. I knew few people like him, in our profession or outside. Being an IR scholar was, in many ways, the least interesting thing about him. He was a dedicated family man, one who took the institutions of neighborhood, community, and town very seriously. He was an avid producer and consumer of music, playing regular shows in Delaware bars, collecting mountains of records – most reliably American or British rock bands whose heyday was the 60s or 70s – and writing a well-received book on the influence of rock on politics.

He was a committed environmentalist, a position he came at not just by examining the data but by living and breathing nature, a canvas upon which he experienced his personal relationships (his article on his whitewater rafting experiences in Boatman’s Quarterly Review, he told us, was one of his proudest accomplishments and one his late father would have loved).

The primary emotion I feel towards Sean is gratefulness. It is impossible to measure the direct impact Sean had on my career and hard to imagine my getting a PhD or becoming a professor without his playing the influential role that he did.  

He was first and foremost an inspiration: it took a few weeks of taking my first class with him that I knew I wanted to become a professor. He was a nurturer, encouraging and engaging in drawn-out conversations in his office about the Vietnam war or Fox News or nuclear weapons. He was a motivator, cajoling me to write better papers, the intellectual equivalent of a cheery but hard-driving personal trainer. He was a PR agent, selling me to PhD admissions committees and think tanks like his life depended on it. He was a therapist, kindly and patiently listening to the fears about my career, graduate school, internships in Washington, or anything else.

And the truly remarkable thing is not just that Sean fulfilled all these roles for me. Rather, it is the sheer number of students for whom he did so. The testimonials from other students below make that clear.

I have so many fond memories of Sean. There are two in particular that stand out. The first is from the Spring semester of 2004, when I was taking my second (but first upper-level) class with Sean. I had impressed Sean the previous semester in an introductory course, and I was intent on continuing that trajectory. This class required a final paper and Sean offered to read drafts and offer feedback if students submitted them by a certain deadline.

I beat the deadline comfortably and, like nerdy eager beavers everywhere, was expecting praise and pats on the back when I handed in my draft. To the contrary, Sean gave fairly tough feedback. After my initial disappointment, I asked him if I could give him another draft in a few weeks. He agreed. I submitted a revised draft with an expectation, nay entitlement, that I would surely get the praise I missed the first time. Not quite. Though Sean said the paper was better, there was still quite some work to do. I went back and wrote the paper a third time, submitting it for my final grade.

At the end of the semester, I obliquely asked Sean why, when most of my colleagues were writing their papers the night before it was due, he was giving me such a hard time. Didn’t I deserve an A on effort and conscientiousness alone? (I did not say this, but implied it).

What he said has stuck with me ever since. “If I did not push you to do the best job you can do, then I would not be doing my job.” Never has a simple sentence so crystallized the job of a teacher and mentor. I wear his insight like a pendant, one that accompanies me every day in interactions with my students.

The second episode was one of Sean more transparently showing his affection. It was my final semester in Ohio, the fall of 2005; I was to do a study-abroad the following semester and then graduate. A couple of weeks before the end of the semester, Sean invited me to a show at – where else? – the Backstretch, a bar popular with OWU students and Delaware locals. In advance, he asked me which Beatles song I would like to hear. I answered: “Dear Prudence.” He played it that night. Even before his death, I would remember the opening riffs with a wistful smile, but now the memory is even more poignant.

Like most people, I worked assiduously to avoid Sean ever being let down or dissatisfied with me. For the most part, I succeeded. Yet I recall one period in the spring of 2006 when I risked his wrath – though “wrath” is too harsh a word for a man who was more a teddy bear than a grizzly.

The subject of our, shall we say communications breakdown, was where I should go to grad school. I had miraculously gotten into three PhD programs: Chicago, Ohio State, and NYU. For entirely personal reasons – yes, I can admit a girl was involved, I was 22 after all – I wanted to be in New York, and thus favored NYU.

Sean was apoplectic: the idea of foregoing two top IR programs for one less well renowned made him pull his hair out. Didn’t I realize how lucky I was? From my perspective, all I wanted to hear from Sean was not necessarily that I was making the right call but that it was a tough one; a simple acknowledgment that a choice between personal and professional considerations was a difficult one.

Part of the issue was that our entire exchange over this issue happened over email, where intent and tone can be so easily misread. Very quickly, Sean gave up trying to reason with me. I do not remember his exact words, but it was something to the effect of: “Go to Chicago, you work with Mearsheimer. Go to Ohio State, you work with Wendt. Go to NYU, you never talk to me again.”

There were two important lessons from that story. First, the whole mess could have been avoided in the first place had Columbia done the right thing and admitted me. Second, the deep distress and anguish that resulted from Sean expressing his disapproval of me. Until then, I had never experienced anything like it. I knew it was not an emotion I wanted to feel again.

Thankfully, I never did. As I went on from graduate school to working as a professor myself, Sean continued to be an ardent supporter and vociferous cheerleader for everything I did. He sent friendly emails. He looked Sahar and I up at conferences. He would be among the first to “like” and comment on Facebook updates about publications or other good news. And in the spring of 2019, he did something I appreciate with all my heart: he invited me to give a talk on my research on the Iraq war on OWU’s campus, right back where it all started. “Returning to the scene of the crime,” is what I called that trip. Sean was so gracious and so proud over those twenty-four hours.

Our last meaningful interaction took place over email, two months before he died. He reached out to Sahar and I to lament developments at OWU. Like many academics, Sean detested the direction and decisions of administrative higher-ups since the Great Recession, if not earlier. Looking back over those emails, I am so glad both Sahar and I were explicit about how wonderful he was and how major an impact he had on us. After a mentor’s death, it is often the case that mentees regret not having told them exactly what they meant to them. But this was not the case here. If nothing else, that provides me solace.

Sean was an incredible man, father, husband, son, musician, scholar, teacher, and citizen. I will miss him dearly.