He saw his father murdered by the machete of a Mau Mau rebel when he was 13 and he forgave the killer. A genetic ailment lay dormant for much of his life, then sprung itself upon him, impairing his motor functions, but he kept teaching. One of the few professors brave enough to dole out a deserved D+, he was unfairly called a fascist, and he still gave students the chance to rewrite.
Richard Kroll was tough and fair.
“As man, perhaps, the moment of his breath, / Receives the lurking principle of death, / The younger disease, that must subdue at length, / Grows with his growth, and strengthens with his strength.”
Since Veterans’ Day, he battled a bacterial pneumonia, which, together with several other infections that he contracted along his journey, felled the titan. He died on the morning of Feb. 5; he was 56.
After his father was murdered, Kroll left his birthplace in the highlands of Kenya for Christ’s Hospital, a boarding school in West Sussex, England and the alma mater of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Lamb.
Kroll entered Downing College at Cambridge as an undergraduate pre-law student and met Mark Le Fanu, a premier British literary critic. His time with Le Fanu changed his direction, and Kroll decided to go into English.
Following a bus tour across the country, he decided that his future was in the United States, and he attended UCLA for graduate school. He studied under Alan Roper, a scholar of John Dryden, and received his Ph.D. in 1984.
He taught at Princeton, where he trained our own Jayne Lewis, and finally settled at UC Irvine. Depending on the student’s work ethic, Kroll was either the sage or the bane of the English Department to his pupils.
He was never willing to back down from a just fight, whether it was rightfully criticizing a colleague or a critic for lazy commentary or short-sighted analysis, or pushing a student to find the perfect word, even if they threw the inestimable advice in his face.
“Many men have been capable of doing a wise thing, more a cunning thing, but very few a generous thing.”
Kroll genuinely wanted to raise the standard in his classroom, never failing to mix his flamboyant presentation and sense of humor with the keenest, most nuanced analysis of any professor in the department. Kroll developed his own parlance to engage students, making sure everybody knew his playfully ironic distinction between the “Crap Poets” of Oxford and the “Good Poets” of Cambridge (of course, it was just a coincidence he went to Cambridge himself). To keep things interesting, there was always the possibility that a blue ball might glance the side of your head if you started nodding off.
He backed up his bravado in the classroom by giving enormous amounts of time to any student that bothered to seek his wisdom. As he did for me, he was willing to look over a draft, word by word, six, seven or more times, giving specific, constructive criticism; he forced students to look at every aspect of their writing and improve it, even if it meant scaring the hell out of them by giving their first paper a D. That’s not to make him sound like a nitpicker — such an epithet is only reserved for lesser scholars. This was not criticism for the sake of criticism, but unusually prescient, invaluable pedagogy — a lifetime of refined skills generously heaped upon every single student he could reach.
After he was crippled by a genetic disorder, Spino-Cerebellar Ataxia, he was so thoroughly dedicated that he made light of his own impaired gait and, despite the immense pain caused by the disorder, took the time to write copious notes on students’ work, however many times they asked him to do it.
Well above the superficialities of identity politics, Kroll was of the mind, as Dryden said of the Canterbury Tales: “Here is God’s plenty.” He delighted in being outrageous; while he was blunt enough to decry the myriad mistakes of “that [bleeding] idiot G.W. Bush!” he was also politically incorrect enough to designate, playfully, an Armenian “Representative from Glendale” in every class, and — spurring the shock and dismay of what he called “the armchair socialists” in academia — to declare, correctly, that the British Empire actually did a lot of good for the world and that Vietnam did not define the American Experiment. By pointing out that western culture is often too quick to write off its own accomplishments, he encouraged students to be just as willing to find the west’s positives as its negatives.
This man was learned beyond compare, able to discuss Edgar Allen Poe (“That nut!”) and Virgil with equal facility; at the time he collapsed, he was conducting an independent study with me focusing on medieval literature, well removed chronologically from his own 17th and 18th century studies.
Even in graduate school, he was studied enough to put his fellow students to shame. I’ve heard this, incidentally, through a reliable grapevine (my father was his classmate at UCLA).
Richard Kroll was an invaluable asset to UCI and academia in general. Too few professors are willing to make students work for their grades, content instead to push them through the system for the sake of avoiding conflict or because of some misdirected altruism. Kroll was determined to lift the bar of American education to the standards of Cambridge and, yes, even Oxford.
For all the students whom he edified with his particular genius, as his favorite poet Alexander Pope once wrote, “now upward will he soar, and little less than Angel, would be more.”