On Friday May 3, the SDSU English department came together to celebrate the life of June Cummins. Although I never had the pleasure of meeting June, her fellow friends and colleagues painted a picture of June as a clever, quick witted woman with infectious laughter and more than enough love for everyone.
June came to be known by many things: Michelle Martin lovingly refers to June as her “Conference Wife”, Michael Borgstrom thinks of her affectionately as “Junelah”, and Yetta Howard felt honored to call her a trusted confidant. Although she may go by different names, everyone thinks of June as a beloved friend who will be dearly missed.
Joseph Thomas captured June’s vibrancy in his piece “A Few Words for June”, which can be found below, and Michael Joseph portrayed her strong will and passion for justice in describing her letters raising awareness of the use of the swastika in a children’s alphabet book.
We laughed together as Mary Garcia reminisced over her discussions with June about what to have for dinner, and tears were brought to our eyes as Lissa Paul illustrated June’s passion for family and friends: June taught at San Diego State by day and would fly home to have dinner with her family and help her kids with homework back in Chicago.
Thank you to everyone who came to honor June Cummins’ life, and we thank those honoring June from afar. She has left a lasting imprint on our community at SDSU, and on many of our hearts as well.
Our Director and June's dear friend, Joseph Thomas, wrote this piece to honor June. We thank him for sharing such touching words on their friendship with us. We reproduce it below:
A Few Words for June Cummins
My name is Joseph Thomas, and I’m a professor here in the Department of English and Comparative Literature. I’m also the director of the National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. June was instrumental in my joining the SDSU faculty, and were she not such a dear friend, and had she not so convincingly advocated for me, I doubt I’d be here today. Today. It’s just so wrong that she’s not here too, today, that we’re not still teaching together, working together, supporting one another as the spring semester wraps up. And 2007, the year I joined SDSU’s faculty seems so very recent. As does the year 2000, when we first met in Roanoke, VA, at an academic conference. So recent, yet also so long ago. It’s difficult to remember what it was like before I knew June; it’s like we were always friends. She should still be here. Today. Instead of this. Or at least she should be in the air heading back to Chicago for the weekend. But here we are. Today. And today we honor June Cummins. Remember her.
June completed her MA back in 1986. Her PhD. in 1998. Her first publication was “Romancing the Plot: The Real Beast of Disney's Beauty and the Beast,” which was published in 1995. And she was presenting at national and international conferences even earlier. As a result of her early and prolific start as a scholar, June decided, even after she married, to continue to publish under the name June Cummins, and it is under that name that her professional and academic work is remembered, and it is by that name that many of her students and colleagues know her. So today, we honor June Cummins, our dear friend, our dear colleague. And today would be impossible without the really very hard – and too often thankless – work of Kim Navarro. You didn’t know June, but I can guarantee that she would have adored you. You’re a delight to work with, and your labor on behalf of today’s event, on behalf of June; your kind, thoughtful way of doing things, of getting things done – it just means the world to me. So thank you, Kim. And Michael Borgstrom. You’ve been so generous with your time; you’ve put so much emotional labor into today’s event; and you’ve been such a steadfast and wise friend for so long, but especially throughout June’s illness and, crucially – indispensably – after her passing: Words fail me. It’s difficult to overstate just how really, very hard Michael worked on making today happen. I know June would be grateful. And I know I am. When today honors June, when it summons her memory, when it moves you, June’s friends and family – inherited or invented – when it’s as special and unique and as affecting as I hope it will be, credit Michael. When it’s lacking, when it fails – when it’s rough and tiresome: blame me.
Now. A Few Words for June Cummins.
It’s harder than it looks, kids, writing this kind of thing. And the darkest irony is the simple fact that June was the person I’d turn to for help when writing this kind of thing. She was so good at knowing what was tasteful, what was right. In 2017, I wrote an essay honoring Alida Allison for our department newsletter. She had just retired. It began, “It’s difficult writing these things about retired friends.” And it is. But I had no idea, when I was writing, that, by 2019, just a month or so ago, Alida would be dead. I found out that she was terminally ill, in fact, when I wrote her about today’s event. Alida was among those who first welcomed June to SDSU as a colleague and, eventually, a friend. I wanted Alida to speak today—she was wise as she was good, and I knew she could help us all put June’s life in perspective, help us figure our loss. Alida couldn’t speak when I contacted her, or speaking was very difficult. So she had to decline, but she still hoped to attend, virtually if not physically. But now she speaks only in her absence. Her wisdom unavailable.
When I was a young man, introduction to literature classes often spoke of The Grand Themes of Literature—generally characterized as “universal” themes. We’ve largely put that stuff behind us. But one of those themes still haunts: mutability. And if we eschew Universal Themes and embrace the contingent, set aside Grand Narratives for the micro, replace the Global for the local, well, that’s fine. But that’s also mutability. Even this building, Scripps Cottage, speaks loudly of mutability. Scripps Cottage is one of SDSU’s eight original structures. Together with our campus’s original quad and the five other buildings who owe their existence to the Works Progress Administration, the Cottage is part of a federally designated historic district. In 1963, this building served as the reception area for President John F. Kennedy, who had come to SDSU to deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary doctorate. It wasn’t here then. It was over there, near the Faculty-Staff Club, up the hill, where it was constructed in 1931. Ellen Browning Scripps ponied up most of the cash, the building built through monies she contributed to the local YWCA. Originally, it was a women’s center, serving as the headquarters for the Associated Women Students. In 1968 the Cottage was moved here to make way for the Love Library, the big Brutalist monstrosity that dominates the center of campus. The koi pond behind you and the groovy hills and trees, they were added in 1972, the year I was born. Alida was a student here in the 60s, floating here and there throughout the 70s, until she returned to study creative writing in our English department in the 1980s. She saw many of those changes. She knew this building. And she’s here now, if only embodied in language and, for some of us, in the stuff of memory. Permanence. Mutability. Binaries that deconstruct as readily as any other.
I know June would appreciate being honored in this space—especially given the fact that this structure once served as a safe space for women in a world that was and too often still is unsafe. A darker kind of permanence. Some things don’t change, I suppose. Or they are too slow in changing. Today’s event adds to this building’s history. Its legacy. And for those of us who call this campus home, June’s memory will now animate this place, a kind of happy haunting that summons joy, that brightens the dark. Mutability.
June haunts those of us who loved her. And if she will now haunt this place, by virtue of today’s event and the lingering associations today’s event will engender, she haunts other spaces as readily, even spaces she never touched. While I drove home the other afternoon in my little 2006 GTI, the White Stripes were playing. June loved the Stripes. Loved Jack White. And in my little white car—a car June never saw or sat in—her spirit manifested. Suddenly I was in another car, one June knew well, a beat-up 2004 Mini Cooper. A kind of time travel, a time trap.
Day turned to night; the 8 turned to 4th and University. I was no longer alone and heading home, and, instead, I was on the road from Nunu’s to someplace else in that little green Cooper. June, Katie, and I listened to “Instinct Blues”:
The flies get it.
And the frogs get it.
And all them big jungle cats get it.
And I bet your little dog gets it.
Yeah, I want you to get with it.
I turned and saw June pressed into the back seat (Katie drove; I rode shotgun). June’s head reclined; her eyes closed; she smiled as the music played too loud. June was in her town, rambling about from joint to joint in a dirty little car – and she was digging it, she was home – or in one of her homes – but this was the home in which she once rambled about from joint to joint as a girl, as a teenager – time stacked on time stacked on time – where she still lived now (then) as a grown woman – but still stayed in her parents’ pad, once hers, still worried about staying out too late. A kind of magic took place on those late nights, magic that pressed forward into the present (I was driving home, then, on the 8, as I, now, stand before you, when transported back to that intersection in which June sat, reclined, eyes closed, in a car now gone), and that magic, then, inflected June’s long, busy days on campus. She’s still alive, a professor, a mentor, a scholar. Here – then – she was a girl, an adolescent, a college student, a professor – a mentor and friend. Time bended and warped; June was unstuck in time, as was I; she hung with a gang of ne’er-do-wells in a beat-up car, listening to music, putting off her homework – there’ll be time for that tomorrow. But tomorrow would bring her to campus, where she’d hang with college students whom she’d inspire and who would, in turn, animate her with their youthful vigor. She was a professional, a mentor, a star in her field (a kind of mantra, this); a professor, a teacher, an academic advisor, a senator, even. She is a key member of the San Diego Junior Theater’s executive board, a group she performed with as a girl. June was famous for her poor sense of direction.She’d call me for directions – once while lost in Balboa Park (I was on campus, flummoxed – for how could I help her get her bearings, miles away, in a place where she’d spent years as a child, a teen, and an adult?) – but of course she’d get disoriented. I was disoriented, even as I headed west on the 8. It’s daytime. It’s night. It’s 2008. It’s 2019. The city was in constant flux. Is in constant flux. We’re here. We’re over by the Faculty Club. The Love Library hasn’t yet been built. John F. Kennedy delivers the commencement address, receives an honorary doctorate. It’s 1963. It’s 1972. Spatially and temporally, San Diego spins eastward on the flesh of a globe turning on its axis, that globe, too, in prograde motion about our star, also spinning, taking with it its system of our sister planets, as it moves through darkness around our galaxy’s hub, that hub, too, whipping through the universe, dancing with its galactic neighbors in a celestial cluster: when and where and even who – a child, a teen, a seasoned scholar – all a vertiginous mess of selves and refigured relativities Professor Einstein couldn’t untangle.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
The other day, Michael Borgstrom said to a graduate student (I paraphrase), “There are personal reasons I study early American Literature. I wasn’t alive when it was written, and I had to wrestle with why my interests lay there, why this literature is still important. And in answering, I can communicate to my readers why it might be important to them.” He then turned to me, adding, “There must be a reason Joseph studies children’s literature – he’s not a child anymore.” (He said it sweetly.) As he spoke those words I felt you there, June, a ghostly presence. You’re often there, in those moments, as you so often were there. Your absence a presence so massive it bends time and space, summons you from the past where you still live. You haunt the halls.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
June was there, that moment, just out of phase. I could almost hear her whisper hoarsely, “Me too.” I was hit hard, for an instant, because I could almost hear what June would add to Michael’s words. But that almost evaporated before it materialized. To imagine what June would say, what she might have said is impossible (or impossible to do accurately). For June was always unpredictable. Her insights by nature as surprising as they were provocative. That’s what we’ve lost: her uniquely Juneish way of putting things, whether in writing or in conversation. And not just her way of putting things, but the things she put. Always a joyful surprise. Still, I wondered for days after that brief haunting. Thought about June’s scholarly interests, how they, too, were deeply personal. How the place she worked, the place where she made her professional life – where she, as Lissa will suggest, made her life work, made work of her life - fairly hummed with childhood and adolescence. And I thought about the queer significance of the fact that when June wasn’t here in San Diego or with her husband and children in Chicago, she as often as not was in New York City, where she was born, the place of her childhood. Her adult life – mother, wife, matriarch – an island in Chicago bracketed by lives on either coast. Native New Yorker, native SoCaler, mentoring her young students and junior colleagues in the rich loam of her childhood. And from that fertile soil grew a career. Students budded from that career and matured into colleagues. And alongside those students, who owe so much to June’s patient counsel, grew a body of scholarly writing whose impact and influence is still being felt as it will continue being felt long after all of us in this room have followed June into death. Her legacy is in that work as much as it is in her family. Few have made so much in so little time.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
Cruising in the back seat of a Mini Cooper and listening to rock and roll, or hanging with me while I stole a smoke in the garage near Arts and Letters – well after the No Smoking ban had become the law of the land – or handing me a wad of bills so I could pay for drinks after sunset on the sabbath – but don’t tell, she’d smile – an adolescent act of rebellion in the face of her serious and adult desire to honor her heritage (she rests in Jerusalem, after all).
Her smile. The way she’d move her hands. Cross and uncross her skirted legs. So true and joyful. Even her anger was alive, sparking like an angry cat. "A cat's rage is beautiful, burning with a pure cat flame, all its hair standing up and crackling blue sparks, eyes blazing and sputtering.”
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
We had a semi-standing ritual, Katie, June, and I. We’d venture out into the city and try a new restaurant. Each week or so we’d give one a try. “It’s no New York,” June would joke about San Diego’s food scene. “It’s no Los Angeles,” Katie’d joke back.
Katie and I don’t try out new restaurants anymore. Or not too much. I hadn’t put it together until writing these very sentences, but that change is doubtlessly a kind of grieving.
June and I would also have coffee together in Hillcrest before heading into campus. Usually Thursday mornings, but also other days when we could make it work. And she’d give me a ride to school after. For years we’d meet at Bread n Cie, when I lived on that side of Hillcrest. Then at Filter when I moved east of the 163. These coffees were regular things up until her illness took her away from us, took her back to Chicago.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
Old habits die hard. So we began using Skype and Facetime to meet every week or so. A fortnight wouldn’t pass without me dialing her up. Talking with her. Dishing oncolleagues, spreading gossip, telling tales out of school. Katie and I saw her in the flesh one final time over spring break – just before she was honored with the mentoring award by the membership of the Children’s Literature Association. I’ll always cherish that final visit. But we carried on virtually between then and the last, dark weeks when her cursed disease made her impossible to reach. By the time she was forced to use a computer to speak for her, her side of the conversation dwindled. But not her smile. Her eyes. Lively and mischievous as ever. I’d curse and tell dirty jokes and delight her with my coarseness.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
June was – she is – it’s too much. Her memory a weight beyond weights. Her memory light as light. She’s still here, I want to say. Illuminating this space. Her smile. Her eyes. Her laser wit. If yesterday stands somewhere as real as now, as bright as the sun, whose rays reach us eight minutes and twenty seconds after they burst from its photosphere, our world lit by the recent past as the night sky is flecked by a more ancient time, then perhaps June still illuminates us, still warms our lives, even as her own body lies still, like some long dead and massive star. Or perhaps she’s just gone. And we, lost in darkness, carry on as best we can. With only the memory of light to guide us. I don’t know. But I want to believe her light still shines. And when the darkness comes – and, man, it’s black when it does – the memory of her warmth still warms. And if that warmth is a fiction, it’s the best kind. And I’ll take it. Because it’s all I got.