Death of beloved Warren Wilson College professor, John Casey, impacts school’s community

'A GREAT STORYTELLER': Warren Wilson College professor John Casey taught a popular environmental ethics course for more than 20 years. Services for professor John Casey will be held Saturday, March 4, at 1 p.m. in the Warren Wilson College Chapel. Photo courtesy of Warren Wilson College
'A GREAT STORYTELLER': Warren Wilson College professor John Casey taught a popular environmental ethics course for more than 20 years. Services for professor John Casey will be held Saturday, March 4, at 1 p.m. in the Warren Wilson College Chapel. Photo courtesy of Warren Wilson College

Press release from Warren Wilson College:

Warren Wilson College philosophy professor John Casey lost his battle with cancer Friday. His death was announced to the campus by email within hours. By 4 p.m., retired and current staff and faculty members, students, alumni and community members gathered at Morris’ Community Pavilion to remember the beloved teacher.
“Our lives are experiences to be fully lived,” Casey wrote in an email to campus Feb. 16. “However, this life of experience rests on an illusion of separation. Separation is a good thing in experience. Feeling separated from friends prompts us to seek new friends, loss of a lover prompts looking for a new love and separation from success prompts renewed effort.”
At the pavilion, stories of Casey’s wit and endless wonder came to the forefront. Each tale was funnier than the next. But they were separated by periods of silence to give the grieving time to reflect on a life well-lived. At one point, an owl could be heard hooting in the distance. Warren Wilson’s mascot is an owl. The owl is also associated with wisdom. For a period spent remembering a philosopher who worked at Warren Wilson College, the bird’s timing could not have been more appropriate.
Casey’s rare form of wisdom was shared time and again in office 307 of the Jensen Humanities and Social Science Building. In fact, still plastered to the outside face of the door is a note written in black marker: “Dear John Casey, It finally sank in! – Wyatt Smith.” While the note does not expound upon what “it” is, it is safe to assume Smith is referring to one of Casey’s countless lessons.
“But in reality, there is no separation, only is, existence, one stuff, Brahman, Yahweh, God, Tao, Wakan Tanka. These are just names, and as such they already imply separation. Words and thinking require distinctions, so you cannot think your way out of thinking and so out of separation,” Casey continued in his email. “I believe I’m prepared to be a ‘one timer’ going straight to is.”
The professor’s love for the land, particularly Warren Wilson College’s campus, was well-known. He helped create land use plans for the College and spent a career opening minds to the dangers of climate change. In 2012, the Mountain Xpress noted his environmental ethics course was “the class he came here to teach.”
Since 1991, with his doctorate of philosophy in tow, Casey has called the College home. Over the years, he earned a reputation for being a stickler for the rules, particularly when it came to campus government meetings. Casey also served as interim vice president for academic affairs and dean of the College for three years.
Outside of his professional life, his penchant for nude running was thought to be the stuff of legend. But, he confirmed the tale in his final letter to campus.
“Years ago, I began running on Dogwood in the pitch dark of a moonless predawn and got a surprise,” he wrote. “Darkness has no edges, no limits and to be in it is to be it, not part of it, not moving through it, to be it! When you run clothed in the rain you feel the wet, but naked you are the wet, naked in the snow, you are snow, naked in the wind and you are the wind. So I ran across the forests and fields naked in the dark and experienced being.”
Many sightings have been claimed but few, if any, have ever been confirmed.
In the days leading up to his death, Casey invited the College community to “come to my house, and sit with me. I may not be up for talking, but just holding hands will be better anyway.” His dying wish was granted by many, and his wife, Rebecca, is forever grateful.
Now the campus prepares for one more ceremony to pay respects to a man who did so much for so many.
“I do not suggest that you run naked on Dogwood, although it might make for an interesting experiential independent study,” Casey concluded. “But I hope you fully experience those occasions when while painting you become the painting, ride your bike in the zone, play music and become the music. These can provide glimpses of being without separation. So when it is your time, you can be.”
Services for John Casey are Saturday, March 4, at 1 p.m. in the Warren Wilson College Chapel. A reception will follow, and his ashes will be spread in Dogwood pasture later in the day.
For more information, visit https://goo.gl/JvzHBr.
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