Just like any of his classes, Dr. Chris Dula’s celebration of life began with his booming voice saying, “Hello,” over and over.
The only difference was the “hellos” were recordings of Dula’s voice, and while hundreds gathered Sunday at Brooks Gym at East Tennessee State University, where the beloved professor of psychology taught since 2004, there was an emptiness as well. Dula, 49, died Jan. 8 after a two-year battle with brain cancer and a stroke that limited his mobility.
But he never lost hope, never gave up and if the celebration on Sunday was any indication, he will live on in the lives of those he loved and impacted by his enormous presence.
“It’s hard to find words to describe my friend Chris Dula, and I’ve been struggling with words all week because simple words do not do him justice,” said ETSU President Brian Noland. “Chris was more than a faculty member, he was more than a researcher, he was more than a mentor, he was more than a community advocate, he was more than a father, he was more than a husband. In many respects, he was a force of nature. We have few opportunities in our lives to meet people who are living legends, but that’s what we all had the chance to do every time we were around Chris.”
Noland said for those who overlooked Dula because of his appearance, it was their misfortune.
“As a nation we seem to judge people at first glance, letting labels define them rather than their inner values,” Noland said. “For those who didn’t take the time to listen and look beyond stereotypes, some may have thought Chris was merely a loud, brash, opinionated and long-haired academic. but for the other 99.9 percent of us, he embodied all that was pure and good in the world. Despite his larger than life persona, he was a calming force.”
Noland went on to day Dula was a polarizing force at critical times for the university — including when the campus was “wrestling with the pain that emerged from bigoted actions on Borchuck Plaza, who stepped forward to bring us together? Chris Dula. When we needed someone to lead our diversity efforts, who volunteered and stepped forward? Chris Dula. When we needed someone to perform at the annual staff picnic, who volunteered? Chris Dula. When we needed someone to speak about the transformative power of higher education to incoming freshmen, to talk about academic and financial planning in college 101, who volunteered? Chris Dula.”
Noland wasn’t the only one to sing Dula’s praises. Several messages from people who could not attend were read to the audience, and several audience members took the opportunity to say a few words about the impact Dula had on their lives. The audience also heard from Dula himself with the playing of a short documentary video he made after being diagnosed with cancer.
If there’s anyone who knows how hard it will be to fill Dula’s shoes it’s his son, Daelin Dula.
He described his father as “probably the most unique individual anyone’s ever met. It’s kind of crazy to try and put it into words. He had such a massive impact on everyone. Of all the people here, everyone was impacted in a totally different way. Music and teaching and love, that’s who he was. He was a great father, mentor, friend, supporter. Everything I ever did, he always just gung-ho, supporting it.”
Daelin said he wants to “keep being myself because he was always himself.” He also plans to carry on his father’s legacy, “to play music, of course, that’s a big connection we had, and striving everyday to be a better person, to better myself and help people any way that I can.”
The celebration rounded out with a stage full of musicians playing one of Dula’s old favorite stand-by tunes — “Wagon Wheel” — a tune that many musicians shy away from.