My friend Chris Dula died Tuesday, January 8th after a two year battle with brain cancer. Just like my friend Rodney Wysong, he fought the disease from day one, but in the end, this form of cancer is systematic and brings to end another friend.

Chris wasn’t normal. In fact, my friend Steve Marshall is quoted in many of the post-Dula memorials as “energy personified.” That phrase is certainly fitting for the man who like other iconic souls (Jesus, Gandhi, Bono, Prince, Sting, Cher, etc.) held space with one name: “Dula.”

It wasn’t long ago when Steve introduced me Dr. Chris Dula. We were playing in our band, These Undowners and Steve told me the story about how he credited Chris as his motivation to continue his love of music when moved to East Tennessee from Florida.

Steve finally invited me to join him at the Acoustic Coffeehouse in Johnson City to meet his good friend. Dula was known to play free gigs at the Coffeehouse and invited any musician who would come and play. The rules were simple. No money and no rehearsal. And there you have the magic of ‘Kryss Dula and friends.’

Steve did give me PDF though, and that’s all I needed. It was filled with a variety pack of folk, rock, and hip-hop chord charts. I took a peek at the songs and made my way to the next gig at the Acoustic Coffeehouse,

Chris’s character immediately pushed my personal Geiger counter. Long hair down to his waist, many rings, bangles, jeans and a posture that was tall and confident. He was thrilled to meet me, and that was our crossroad story.

On stage, Chris (always on the marquee as Kryss), swung his 12-string back and forth thrusting through chords and singing directly into the microphone. Whether or not the pitch or the words were right didn’t matter. You see – Chris was the pied piper of the Johnson City music scene.

The Acoustic Coffeehouse was small. Located next to a laundromat, the room had a small stage, a narrow two-person wide entry/exit and a sitting area in front of the stage – two tables to the wall. Nevertheless, in between songs, Chris was intimidating the audience to sing, grab an instrument – to join in and be a part of the band.

Chris Dula at the PUSH Film Festival debut of his biopic documentary – The Way of Dula. October of 2018

The players may have been different from gig-to-gig. Steve and drummer Steve Reece were regulars. I showed up several times but had trouble navigating the three bands I was playing with at the time. When I did play, you never knew who would be performing with the group. Sometimes there were two guitars, a trumpet, a fiddle, freestyle dancers, you name it. You never knew what to expect, but that was Dula’s pixie dust.

The music was something Chris loved to do. It was an early passion, but his real love was teaching.

Teaching was Chris Dula’s gift. This is evident by the respect of his students, employer and the thousands of lives he influenced as a Psychology professor at East Tennessee State University.

It’s nothing I experienced personally and thus something that lacks bias. Dr. Dula went above and beyond in every situation when it came to the classroom, and the impact on his students was evident and for that matter documented.

Beginning most of his classes with a raucous-attention getting, “Helllooooooooo” – he was clearly an engaging professor. He didn’t just show up for the job either. I noticed that each year, he volunteered to welcome new students with an onboarding class of sorts to get them ready for college.

His efforts didn’t go without recognition. He was voted as one of the Top 25 professors in the United States from RateMyProfessor.com – a recognition earned by student reviews.

In 2017, Chris received the Richard H. Hagemeyer Educational Advancement Award and other faculty awards from East Tennessee State University. In fact, upon his death, ETSU will officially recognize this treasured faculty member by creating an annual Dr. Chris Dula Day of service.

On a personal level, Chris and I shared an interested in books. Toward the close of his life, he left us with a testimony to his short time here on Earth. Penned by yet another nome de plume, Steven Sage chronicled his life in a memoir titled “Experiments in Life – One Man’s Transformation from Privilege to Pathetic, Penitent to Professor. I’m still reading the book and often find I can hear Dula’s voice dictating the message – his enthusiastic spirit encapsulated in the signed copy which reads, “Peace and Love!”

Early on at one of the Dula and Friends performances, Chris gave me another book. We often talked about our favorite authors, and he passed along a paperback from his collection from Robert Anton Wilson. “Quantum Psychology” is up next on the reading list too. Along with the book a hand-written note – “Don’t worry about returning it to me, until you have a chance to read it.” I imagine he felt there was something here that would add another recipe to my own perception of the world.

One of the most important aspects of this life-well-lived and well-scripted was the marriage of Chris and Denise Dula. It might be because their romance happened during the same time my story began with Kelli. Their photos and the beach, their wedding were a nice layer to my own happiness, and I can’t help but connect myself to him at this time.

Besides being a great intellectual friend, rambunctious musician, energetic professor and inspiring soul, Dr. Brian Noland said it best. “It’s hard to find words to describe my friend Chris Dula, and I’ve been struggling with words all week because simple words do not do him justice.”

I’m sure the Celebration of his Life was a perfectly orchestrated event at ETSU. My friend Steve Marshal would undoubtedly work with Chris to adhere to even the most delicate details.

As I drove to the event on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I packed all of my keywords. I didn’t practice and had everything possible backed into the rear of my Jeep Cherokee – ready to play music, the way Chris would want it.

There was no sophistication, or long drawn out epicurean playlist of funeral music. Chris had picked out one song. He knew the musicians would wink away the selection, but he knew one thing for sure. Everybody would know the song – those on an instrument and those who sang along. When the band started to play through several choruses of the song, it was certain that by the end of the celebration – we were all a part of Kryss Dula and friends.

If there was ever a pied-piper for peace, love, music, understanding, and optimism on the campus of East Tennessee State University, Chris Dula is the penultimate symbol of that free spirit, and there’s no doubt his soul will brighten the lives of those he served and that campus well beyond his days.

As luck may have it, one of the last video performances I ever recorded of Chris was at the Willow Tree in Johnson City. After performing an impromptu version of ‘Already Gone’ by the Eagles, Chris stepped up to the mike after a dissolved ending and said – “that’s what’s great about not practicing – you never know how the song ends.” So true Chris – so very true and a good code to live by.

Go Bucs and God Speed Chris Dula!