A pumpkin hangs on the front door outside the Casey home on Pepperdine’s Baxter Drive. The refreshing feel of fall fills the inside as calmness and serenity surround the room. Resting on the kitchen table is a framed photo of Michael Casey and a St. Louis Cardinals baseball hat, along with a box of hundreds of sympathy and support cards.
While fall holiday decorations welcome visitors around the home, the photo and hat sit together in memory to help Judy Casey honor a different celebration — the admirable yet shortened life of her husband.
Dr. Michael Casey, Pepperdine professor of communication, died Oct. 22 surrounded by family at Kaiser Hospital in Woodland Hills after a battle with cancer. He was 53.
“Our community lost a talented, kind, gentle and loving man,” President Andrew K. Benton said. “His pain is over and for that I am glad. Our loss will be felt for a long time.”
Michael, who was initially diagnosed with cancer in April of 2006, served as the Carl P. Miller Chair of Communication and was in the middle of his 21st year of teaching at Pepperdine.
He was teaching Fundamentals of Intercultural Communication and Message Creation and Effect until the time he entered the hospital the Thursday before he passed.
Judy accompanied her husband that Tuesday night to the last class he would teach.
“You could tell he was tired,” she said. “He was still teaching, though, and doing his best with the class.”
Because Michael had already experienced several ups and downs throughout the past year, Judy didn’t think much of yet another hospital stay. The combination of liver failure and excessive amounts of medicine, though, was too much for him to handle, she said.
Michael and Judy’s son, Neil, an 18-year-old freshman at Harding University in Arkansas, flew home Oct. 20 to be with his father. The following day, Judy talked to hospice about taking her husband home, but the Malibu Canyon Fire changed her plans.
“I had to tell him we couldn’t go home,” Judy said. “But by the next day, the majority of his family had come from all over the country to share a final moment with him. He just went so quickly.”
Communication professor Dr. John Jones described his colleague not only as a person with whom he shared a strong passion for the St. Louis Cardinals, but as a “devoted Christian father, husband, professor, scholar and friend.”
“He was a strong believer in Christian education and was always looking for new innovative ways to integrate faith into teaching,” Jones said. “He was a very gifted researcher, and one of the last days I saw him he was telling me how he wanted to write more books.”
Jones is one of a few Pepperdine professors who credits Casey with influencing them to come teach in Malibu.
“I’m here because Mike encouraged me to apply for a faculty position,” Jones said. “After I got the job, he was my mentor, confidant and friend from day one.”
That was nine years ago, and Jones says he’ll never forget “the words of wisdom and Pepperdine gossip he shared over lunch at Subway,” as well as living in the Casey’s basement while his condo was being completed, trips to Dodger Stadium and watching their Cardinals win the 2006 World Series.
Dr. Gary Selby, a fellow communication professor, was also recruited by Michael to join the Communication Division faculty.
“He was the one who initially talked with me on a number of occasions about the possibility of coming out here,” Selby said. “I almost decided not to come. I called Mike and told him what I was thinking, and in his ‘Mike Casey persuasive way,’ he urged me just to come out and visit.
“Here I am today, and I’m grateful for his support and wisdom along the way.”
The same support Michael offered his colleagues is now being felt by Judy from the Pepperdine community.
“Everyone’s been so supportive throughout all of this,” Judy said. “Not just now but for the past year, the church and neighbors and professors have all been extremely helpful.”
As Judy sits in the same chair her husband occupied just a couple weeks ago as he watched the baseball playoffs, she thinks of how she should be celebrating her 20th wedding anniversary this month and recalls the first time she met Michael during the summer of 1985 in Abilene, Texas.
“We were introduced through a mutual friend, so he called me up to ask me out, and I would never turn down a free meal,” she said.
Two years later, “he said we should get married and of course I said yes because I really liked him.”
“He was a geeky guy, but a lot of fun,” she said as she circled her wedding ring around her finger.
Benton said he admired Judy for exhibiting both faith and hope during a time such as this.
“She never minimized the challenge and neither did she dwell in despair,” he said.
Judy believed her husband’s greatest passions were books, research, baseball and travel.
“Mike was a gifted historian,” said Dr. Jerry Rushford, Pepperdine professor of religion. “He had a genius for locating primary source materials, and he was always generous in sharing his discoveries with other historians.”
Along with fellow professors, several of Michael’s students recalled their own memories.
“He invited all of his students for one-on-one coffee in the HAWC and invited us all to his house for dinner,” said Pepperdine alumna Erin Calderon. “He was brave and dedicated. He didn’t seem burned out — he really cared about what he taught.”
Calderon created a Facebook group in honor of her professor. She encourages everyone to join “Remembering Dr. Casey,” where anyone can leave photos, anecdotes, quotes, songs and memories that bring to mind thoughts of Michael.
“He was so courageous and joyful in all he did,” said senior Amy Larson, a member of the group. “Few people could ever be so close to death, and yet so alive.”
Judy will join several other friends and family members for a funeral service in Michael’s home state of Missouri on Saturday. Although a date has not been set, a memorial service will also be held on campus sometime this month.
“He was a dear friend,” Rushford said. “I miss him very much.”
“Mike was a good friend and colleague at Pepperdine, and beyond. He was a man of great spirit. I will really miss him.”
-Garry Bailey, friend
“Mike and I go back to ACU student days. We talked Restoration history constantly. My favorite student memory was a paper he received back from an OT professor with no grade and big red letters on the bibliography page, "your sources are infidels!"
-Mark Love, friend
“In no small way every good day I have here at Pepperdine (and almost all of them are good) is due to Mike Casey. I already miss him profoundly but celebrate the fact that he has joined that great cloud of witnesses.”
-James Wiser, friend
“In the summer of 2006, I e-mailed Dr. Casey because I was writing a paper on cancer, for a class on pastoral care. I remember being very intimidated- I didn't want to impose or take his time away and I didn't know what to expect. He was actually very accommodating. He sat in a rocking chair, I think, and we could see the view of the ocean. I tried to listen to him but I admit that I was curious and probably talked more than listened. I asked him about Neil- he was trying to convince Neil to stay at Pepperdine- and I just asked him what it was like to have cancer. He talked about trying to retain as much normalcy as possible while learning to say no. He was, at that point, surprised that he didn't lose his hair. And he talked about how it was important to him to keep the rituals of things like baseball.”
-Erin Calderon, student
“He and the entire Casey family have played such an enormous role in who I am today — 13 years from when I first met him. I know he will be missed by friends, students, colleagues, and most important, family. Mr Casey, you will always be loved and I thank you for being such a good family friend these past 13 years.”
-David Kingsbury, friend