By Clay Evans
For the University of Colorado Arts & Sciences Magazine
The remote Republic of Palau in the Pacific Ocean can thank the late Kurt Vonnegut for the newest member of its supreme court. But give the lion’s share of credit along the way to a couple of professors at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Ashby Pate, 35, left his home in Birmingham, Ala., in mid-April to take up his post as the sole American justice on the bench, alongside three justices from Palau. And what a long, strange and immensely enjoyable trip it’s been for the 2000 English honors graduate.
Vonnegut, the late author and humanist, influenced Pate via retired CU-Boulder anthropology professor Dennis Van Gerven, who sat on Pate’s honors thesis committee. At the end of each course he taught, Van Gerven liked to give his students a little pep talk about living life to the fullest, what Vonnegut called “skylarking” in a famous graduation address at Bennington College in Vermont. Van Gerven hit the same note in his honors commencement address when Pate graduated.
Van Gerven “advised us to be willing when we graduate not to adhere to any specific career path. He said ‘skylark for a while,’” says Pate, who also holds a law degree from Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law and a master’s degree in international law from the University of East Anglia in England.
Here’s how Vonnegut put it: “Do not take the entire world on your shoulders. Do a certain amount of skylarking, as befits people your age. ‘Skylarking,’ incidentally, used to be a minor offense under Naval Regulations. What a charming crime. It means intolerable lack of seriousness. I would love to have had a dishonorable discharge from the United States Navy — for skylarking not just once, but again and again and again.”
“He meant, ‘Don’t squander your life on work, on being something,” Van Gerven says. “Just play like a child. Never forget to do that.”