Lindsay J. Cropper
The late Lindsay Cropper would like the new writing center at USD
By Arthur Salm
BOOKS EDITOR, San Diego Union Tribune
October 30, 2005
The Lindsay Joanne Cropper Center for Creative Writing is a quiet refuge in USD's Founder's Hall. A sofa, writing tables and comfortable chairs offer sanctuary; on the wall there's a photograph of Lindsay Cropper and framed copies of the three book reviews she wrote for the Union-Tribune.
They were the aspiring young writer's first, and only, appearances in print. The last review was published in August 2000, just a month before she struck her head after being thrown from a golf cart. She never regained consciousness, and 12 days after the accident, she died. She was 24 years old.
The room at USD comes from the generosity of Lindsay's parents, Barrie and Dorothy Cropper. In their grief, through their grief, they determined to memorialize their daughter at the institution that meant so much to her.
"She didn't throw her cap into the air like everybody else," said Barrie Cropper, talking about his daughter's May 1998 graduation from USD. His eyes frequently fill with tears, as do Dorothy's; she can hardly bear to talk about Lindsay, their only child, at all.
"Graduation meant the cloistered environment was ending, and she was a bit timid about going out in the world. So, when the time came, that cap did not go into the air."
News of Lindsay's accident arrived, Barrie Cropper said, as "the dreaded 2 a.m. phone call from the hospital." Lindsay had her own apartment in Pacific Beach by then; she had been to a block party in Bay Park, attended by some of her co-workers from Anthony Robbins' Robbins Research International, where she designed programs for intellectual property. The details remain unclear, but what is certain (according to the police report) is that Lindsay was riding in a golf cart; the driver – who, like Lindsay, had been drinking – lost control. Lindsay was thrown into the street and hit her head on the pavement. The driver later pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated.
During the agonizing week and a half in which she lingered, the Croppers, both natives of England – as was Lindsay, who lived there till she was 10 – were further unnerved by the response from their friends and Lindsay's friends.
"There was a time I thought there was a great similarity between British and American culture," Barrie said in his soft, northern England, almost-Scottish burr. But, he said, unlike what would have happened in England, "there were so many people there during the time she was in hospital, practically a round-the-clock vigil. We were in the room with Lindsay. Part of the cultural issue was how to communicate with them. We're very private people, and that was very difficult for us."
Barrie, Dorothy and 10-year-old Lindsay came to the U.S. in 1987, living a year in Valencia before moving to Poway. Lindsay quickly Americanized herself; she attended Twin Peaks Middle School and Poway High, and became fluent in Spanish. Eventually, after being accepted at UC Santa Cruz and changing her mind at the last minute, she fell in love with USD. ("I'd wanted her to apply to USD in the first place," Barrie said, "but she flatly refused, probably because I'd suggested it.")
Through it all, beginning with remarkably clever childhood poetry, her compass was fixed on literature.
"She was always a good writer," Dorothy said, looking over some of Lindsay's early drawings and poems in the Croppers' immaculate living room. "I don't know – it was just there."
"She had the ability to articulate that was extraordinary," Barrie said. "It sure didn't come from me."
Lindsay Cropper envisioned herself as a writer, and she was well into the process of making herself one. Over the course of three years, Cynthia Caywood, an English professor at USD, had Lindsay in four of her classes: Women Writers, Jane Austen, the 19th Century Novel, and 18th Century Poetry and Prose.
"Every class she took with me, her grade went up," Caywood said. "I was extremely impressed with her growth as a writer; she became much more skillful as an analytical thinker. She was so eager and open to what I and others suggested she try. She was, 'Bring it on, tell me what I'm doing right, tell me what stinks.' She owned her education, demanded that it be first class in terms of her response to it.
"USD students tend to be quiet, dutiful, not expressive. Lindsay was fun to have in class – she brought strong opinions, sometimes wacky, sometimes right on the nose. And she'd laugh at herself for being such a big personality in class."
English professor Bart Thurber also had Lindsay in several classes. "She had this way of saying that she wanted to write," he said. "I decided to challenge her: 'Write what?' That got her thinking about the story, the subject, rather than her own persona. She ate it up. That's why I had such faith in her ability, her future. I could tell that she had enough drive that it might happen."
The Croppers have stayed in touch with many of Lindsay's friends. Liz Harris, a recreational therapist at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital who got to know Lindsay at USD, runs the Carlsbad Half Marathon with Barrie.
"I get sad when I think of her," she said, "but before I get sad I always smile. She was hysterically funny – there was never a time you were with her that you didn't bust a gut."
All her friends, Harris said, have a little survivor's guilt: "I go to professional conferences, Whitney Lyles is a published author, Steve De Lorenzo has his own hairstyling salon. And Lindsay's still 24."
Whitney Lyles' second book, "Roommates," will be published next month. She barely knew Lindsay at Poway High School, but the two became close friends at USD and after, sharing a mutual love of writing and literature.
"She was so smart, and so passionate about everything she did," Lyles said. "And she was such a good friend – she had a genuine interest in everyone she met. Everyone is irreplaceable, but one of the hardest things was knowing that I would never know anyone like her."
Leaving a mark
Within a couple of days of Lindsay's death, it became clear to the Croppers that they should in some way memorialize their daughter at USD.
"Oh, she'd complain like every other kid about the injustices of school," Barrie said, "but it was complaints about how some kids couldn't afford to attend. And some subjects she liked and some she didn't. But she just adored studying, and her relationship with her professors was unbelievable – they knew absolutely everything about her. That's extraordinary, considering the number of kids they have to deal with."
The Croppers created a scholarship, and donations came from friends and business associates around the world. (Although semi-retired, Barrie is still CEO of Lume Lighting, a sports lighting company he founded.)
But they wanted to do more. About six months later, Barrie was talking to Paul Bouzon, a business colleague who knew John McNamera, at that time the director of fundraising for USD. Bouzon arranged for them to have dinner.
"Before I even started to talk," Barrie said, "John said, 'Your daughter was a very special girl. I've just talked to her teachers, and I've never heard anything like this before.'
"He said they wanted to know if we would be willing to put together something that would benefit more kids: a writing center. We're not terribly wealthy, but we've already decided that everything will go to the university. John arranged a lunch with the professors. There must have been 10 people, and they all said something about Lindsay. I couldn't believe the impact she'd had on them.
"It was clear what they wanted to do and how they wanted to do it. So we put money into an account to build the room."
That was just the start. The Croppers also set aside a generous endowment for the English department to use at its discretion, with the understanding that it be creative-writing oriented.
Peter Kanelos, chair of the English department's creative writing committee, had just arrived at USD.
"We as a department suggested an annual writers series," he said, "with a committee of four – Gail Perez, Stephen-Paul Martin, Lisa Smith and me – to decide who to invite. We start off with a dream list, 15 or so who seem viable and haven't won the Nobel Prize yet. We circulate the list in the department and discuss who might be available."
The Lindsay Cropper Writing Series kicked off last year with a reading from poet Dorianne Laux. Poets Li-Young Lee and James Tate followed later in the year. The 2005 series opened with novelist and short-story writer Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni ("The Mistress of Spices") in October, and Friday will present novelist Chang-rae Lee ("Aloft").
When the series began, Kanelos said, he was unsure of the proper tone. But the first writer, Laux, addressed Barrie and Dorothy Cropper directly before she started her reading.
"She's such a gracious woman," Kanelos said. "Her sympathy and appreciation in some way accommodated their wishes, and at that point it was easy to envision what this should be. As the series goes on it has taken less of an elegiac mood, and moved more toward the celebratory."
And there's another payoff for USD students serious about their writing: On the Saturday morning following the Friday evening reading, the guest writer conducts a two-hour workshop for 10 selected students. In English classes, Kanelos said, the kids read literature and learn to write about it and interpret it. In this workshop they get sustained contact with people who do literature.
"This is an opportunity for them to take themselves seriously as writers," he said. "That little nub of confidence is what we're trying to grow. We want them to see themselves as potential peers, to see themselves as writers."
The Croppers attend the readings in the writers series, but since their daughter's death much of their life has been circumscribed. It was Lindsay who coaxed them into learning how to ski. When they went to the opera, Lindsay was with them, locked into "La Boheme" (she minored in Italian). And during Shakespeare plays at the Old Globe, she'd be whispering in Barrie's ear, explaining the story as it was taking place.
They've since found it impossible to go skiing, or to attend the opera or the theater.
Or church. Although the Croppers say they have received wonderful support from St. Bartholomew's, their Episcopal church, they no longer go to Mass on Sunday, as they always had before.
"Does it shake your faith?" Barrie asked. "Absolutely. Does it change you? Yes, it changes your whole perspective on faith, the whole concept of mass religion. You ask yourself, was this God's will? How much sense can this make? ...
"I respect other people's beliefs, but I beg to differ that everything that happens on this planet is God's will. Having said all that, faith is a tremendous comfort. I'm not sure how you get through all this without faith."
"The room lit up when she came in," Dorothy suddenly, softly, interjected. "That's it in a nutshell. The light's gone out."
"And you're never going to find the switch," Barrie said, "so you'd better learn to live in the dark. They say people move on, but I don't know where it is they move to. ...
"When kids exit this world for whatever reason, there always seems to be something special about them. But Lindsay had this tremendous talent that never had the opportunity to flourish. The only opportunity it will ever get is what's going on at USD."
The Lindsay Joanne Cropper Center for Creative Writing is just down the hall from Bart Thurber's office. He occasionally slips into the room "to spend a moment, 30 seconds, even, with Lindsay.
"And every time I do there's a squirreled student or two in there studying, colonizing the place, making it their own. Lindsay would have liked that."
The room is used a lot. The creative writing club meets there on Wednesday evenings; it's both a literary and a social event. Early one Thursday morning not long ago, Peter Kanelos, noticing that the door was ajar, peeked inside. The wind had scattered papers all over the place. Some of them had settled under Lindsay's picture.
"Apparently the kids had been there half the night," he said, "talking and writing poems. Leaving behind pieces of what they'd been doing.