The recent publication of the fifth, and final, volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) marks the culmination of nearly five decades of work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. DARE is a landmark of American scholarship, recording the words, phrases, pronunciations, and pieces of grammar and syntax that vary from one part of the country to another. And the attendant hoopla and coverage from media and DARE admirers around the world is fitting and deserved.
I just wish Fred Cassidy, the University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who was the force behind DARE, were here to enjoy it. He worked on the dictionary until his death in 2000. Even after his passing, Cassidy continued to push it forward: His epitaph reads "On to Z!"
I'll leave it to others to affirm the merits of DARE, its more than 60,000 terms, and the colorful history of the project itself that includes a treasure trove of 1,800 audio recordings made by DARE field workers who collected 2.3 million responses between 1965 and 1970 as they did their research. But what I do want to capture before DARE leaves the media spotlight is my own memory of Fred Cassidy and my brief encounters with him in the late 1970s.
Madison, Wis., retains the feel and appeal of a small town, and the city was even smaller and friendlier when I arrived in the mid 1970s. After several years of community work, I wrangled a job with the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters in 1979, an independent, nonprofit organization, that as far as I could tell was a sort of club for UW faculty types, most of them guys. They were a garrulous and jocular bunch and treated me with kindness and courtesy, even though I wasn't in their league.
Fred Cassidy was one of the friendlier ones, and on those days when he was at the Academy for a meeting, he'd stop by my office to say hello. He was such a cute little elf, constantly smiling and always curious, that I looked forward to his visits. During one of those I revealed to him that I had a Master's in English, so from then on he'd end our conversations with a gentle reminder for me to continue my studies and get a Ph.D. With him, of course!
Fred Cassidy didn't talk too much about DARE in those days. I think he was still a little disappointed that he didn't finish Volume One in time for the nation's bicentennial. On one particular day at the Academy, I sought out Fred Cassidy rather than the other way around. The Chair of the Board, a wildlife ecology professor, needed me to bring some materials to his campus office immediately, and I didn't have a car. Fred Cassidy did, and even before I could finish asking my question, he smiled and said, "I'm at your disposal. Let's depart for campus!"
Watching the dapper, diminutive professor get behind the wheel of a large American automobile looked down right strange. Dr. Cassidy had to lean forward to look over the steering wheel and seemed to be sitting on a pillow. But that was the least of my worries, because no sooner did he turn over the engine then we were off -- and I mean off. He was rattling questions at me, but all I could do was watch the speedometer rise. My eyes grew wide and I soon became certain that we would hit something or somebody before we ever got to campus. After a few minutes of terror, Dr. Cassidy stopped talking and turned on the radio -- to public radio of course -- and we careened our way to campus. The brakes screeched, as we pulled up in front of the Wildlife Ecology Building, likely in record time.
Dr. Cassidy asked me if I needed a ride back to the Academy that I politely refused. He seemed to sense my apprehension but flashed me a big smile anyway. "My chariot is at your disposal," he winked. "Just ask for the Man From DARE."
My memorable ride with "The Man from DARE" is still fresh in my mind. So, too, are the words from "Back Home," a poem written by Fred Cassidy in 1994.
For each of us there is
a corner of earth, a refuge of green trees,
a cover of clean snow, rocks firmly
heaving above the sea, unreachable
horizons, small cress-grown creeks,
hard clayey fields, that we call "home."
An infant grasps the hand of the old man.
The other grasps the earth and the waters
under the earth. If true love exists
this is a part of it.
And if true genius ever existed, it resided in The Man From DARE.