Remembering Thomas Goltz

Friday, August 18, 2023

I was sitting in the sauna the other day, reading the Bozeman Yesterdaily Chronicle, when an article caught my eye. "Former MSU Professor and World Traveler Remembered" read the print version (the online title is different). 

Who could it be? I wondered. And then I saw the photo. 

Thomas Goltz passed away on July 29. Here is his obituary from the Livingston Enterprise

His personality wasn't for everyone, especially in a university environment, but Thomas Goltz was an interesting dude. Born in Japan in 1954, Thomas had grown up in North Dakota. After studying theater in Chicago, and then German Literature and Middle East Studies at NYU, he traveled through Africa performing a puppet-theater version of Shakespeare. For much of the 1980s, Thomas was based in Turkey, where he was working as a freelance journalist. In 1991, he received a two-year grant to study the Turkic republics of the USSR. 

My time in Turkey began in 1992, so just a year or so after Thomas had left. In 1997, I first spied Thomas' book about his experiences in Azerbaijan in a delightful Istanbul bookstore called Robinson Crusoe. The book, which would be -re-published in the United States two years later as Azerbaijan Diary, was called, in this primary iteration, Azerbaijan: Requiem for a Would-be Republic. 

It was a beautiful, perplexing edition. Fake leather-bound and published by the unfortunately named ISIS Press, the pages were already falling out when I started looking through it at the bookstore. The book was filled with typos and long digressions that I thought were just wonderful. It came with a little red ribbon attached to the binding to act as a bookmark and cost something like $75. 

Even though I was earning pretty decent money back in those days, I refrained from purchasing it. Instead, I would stop in to Robinson Crusoe every time I was walking up İstiklal Caddesi to fondly read a few more pages. Eventually, my girlfriend at the time got tired of my insisting on stopping in and looking at the book every time we walked by Robinson Crusoe, so she broke down and bought it for me as a birthday present. 

Two years later, in 1999, I was back in the United States studying in an MA program at Princeton. In connection with the publication of Azerbaijan Diary, Thomas was giving a public lecture at Columbia University. I went and got him to sign my copy of the older book, eliciting a small cry of surprise from him when he saw the cover.

As the years passed and I became more involved with writing a dissertation and finding an academic job, Thomas' old book gathered dust in a box that I was keeping in my childhood bedroom at my parents' house in Ann Arbor. Living the life of a graduate student and changing apartments every year between trips to Turkey and the ex-USSR, I had no inclination to lug this and a bunch of my other books from one place to the next. One day, I figured, if I ever got a permanent job I would bring all of my books together in one spot. 

In December of 2008 I visited Bozeman for a job visit at Montana State University. Academic job visits can be a trying event. You're constantly talking to people, always "on" in a way that, after a few days, gets pretty exhausting. But one of the highlights from the trip took place when I was walking down the corridor of Wilson Hall en route to giving my research talk to the faculty and grad students of the Department of History & Philosophy. In the Political Science Department, which is next to History, a closed door on my right-hand side was identified, by its name plate, as belonging to none other than Thomas Goltz. 

I remembered, from the book I'd first seen at Robinson Crusoe some eleven years earlier, that Goltz lived full-time in Livingston, Montana, which, it turned out, is just down the highway from Bozeman. I asked what his connection was to MSU and was told that Thomas was an adjunct professor in the Political Science Department. 

Once I got the job and moved to Bozeman in August of 2009, Thomas would occasionally show up at events hosted by MSU's Turkish Club, for which I was acting as the faculty advisor (back then, thanks to dual degree programs between MSU and various Turkish universities, we had over 100 Turkish undergraduates on campus). We went out for beers two or three times, maximum. 

I can't say that we were close. I think Thomas assumed that I was some twit who had never spent any serious time in Turkey until graduate school. Although I had the sort of in-country background that I think he would have appreciated, I never volunteered information about my own connection to Turkey (or Azerbaijan) beyond noting that I had a copy of an early, now forgotten, edition of one of his books. Nor was I asked. Our relatively few interactions consisted mainly of Thomas talking and me listening. Which was fine with me. He had, after all, a lot to say. 

Thomas was a tremendously talented writer. I was, coincidentally, looking through Requiem just last week and was struck by how well it holds up. The book is episodic, and each story has a discernible beginning, middle, and end, punctuated with a blend of self-deprecating humor and the reporting of often quite grisly information. But what comes through most from that book is the author's clear dedication to getting his story out. It's an enthralling read. 

A couple of years after I started teaching at MSU, Thomas quit adjuncting. According to what I was told by mutual students of ours that he was still in touch with, Thomas had begun splitting his time between Livingston and a house that he owned in Ayvalık, on the Turkish Aegean coast. 

I thought it was a pity that Thomas wasn't able to do more at MSU. The fact that someone like him, raised in a rather remote part of the country, would spend his adult life traveling the world seemed really inspirational to me. And, it was clear that his students--many of whom came from locales that were similarly small and off the beaten track--really responded to this part of his story as well.  

While the mountains surrounding this stretch of Montana are beautiful, they can also hem people in. The first student who ever came to my office hours, a young woman who was one of the stars among our undergrads at the time, told me that, after graduation, her dream was to teach history in the very same  central Montana high school where she had studied. "It's so beautiful here," she gushed. "Why would anyone want to go anywhere else?" 

At that time, I was still too stupid and inexperienced to come up with a rejoinder that seemed effective. Instead, I mumbled something about there being nice places to live all over the world. I don't think my words had much of an impact. 

But I did start to think about this conversation, and the example of Thomas Goltz, when talking to my students from that point forward. I would point to Thomas as a model of sorts, and often brought him up when conferring with my students about their plans after college. About 25 of these MSU grads have since gone on to live and work abroad. 

Thomas Goltz devoted most of his adult life to exploring the world and explaining what he had learned to others. And that, I think, is a sign of a life well lived. 


Are you a Turk across empires? Order your copy of my first book at the OUP website or on Amazon

More photos, commentary, and links can be found, comme toujours, in the Borderlands Lounge.  

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