Lost in a sea of unsolved murders, the death of a beloved WSU professor 30 years ago still haunts friends and former students with the question: Why?
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As I learned more and more about Philip “Phil” Traci, a Shakespeare scholar at Wayne State University, it was easy to picture him on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. The popular professor would have put social media to good use. He cared more about the education of his students than the demands of academia, and he wanted to connect with them — to make them love Shakespeare as much as he did.
I imagined a provocative social post or tweet Traci might have sent students the night before class. He might have given them his take on a certain aspect of a Shakespeare comedy, asking them to think about it and come ready for good chat.
For his friends outside class, Traci might have constantly posted photos of gatherings in his custom-made gazebo, or among the flowers in his garden at his Nottingham Road home on Detroit’s east side. These photos might have shown up the day after one of the many gourmet meals he would cook for dinner guests, or one of the many parties he would throw to welcome a new season.
But Traci didn’t live in today’s age of social media. He made his mark on Detroit in the 1970s and ’80s, a time when people had to be far more creative and bold to make an impression. Traci did exactly that, building a reputation for himself at Wayne State and beyond as a man who understood human nature and the need to be loved.
Traci was also gay, and, unlike most of the men he was naturally attracted to, unafraid to be exactly who he was. One of Traci’s best friends, Lorne Hanley, can only marvel now at Traci’s disarming authenticity during the darkness of the early ’80s when AIDS, crime, and overt prejudice against gay men plagued Detroit as much as any other big American city.
“I can’t remember Phil’s address,” Hanley said last spring as we talked about Traci in Hanley’s home in Huntington Woods. “But I can remember his phone number. He’d throw it out to the crowd during lectures he gave on homosexuality. He’d tell them to use it, but ‘only if you like fat femmes.’ ”
All of this ended on a cold spring morning in 1984. Traci didn’t show up for his regular coffee date with Hanley. About an hour later, Hanley opened the door of Traci’s house on Nottingham Road where he’d attended so many parties and had long talks with his close friend. He walked in. He found Traci stabbed to death on the kitchen floor.
BLUE-COLLAR ROOTS: Traci grew up in a Cleveland neighborhood where loving to learn wasn’t the popular thing to do.
The first time I ever heard of Traci was when one of his former students, Ed Peabody, who works at Hour Media, sent me a one-line email. “I have an idea for a story,” Peabody wrote. “Who killed Phil Traci?” I did an initial Internet search on the professor, but all I could find were a couple of obscure references, including a couple of lines and a picture on the obituary website findagrave.com.
Then I met Peabody several weeks later at 9 a.m. on March 14 in his office. It was exactly 30 years to the day and hour after police showed up at Traci’s home to investigate the crime scene, a coincidence Peabody said he hadn’t realized when I suggested the meeting time. He called it bizarre, but not surprising, given his vivid, recurring memories of the slain teacher that had followed him throughout his career.
“He was funny as hell,” Peabody said of Traci. “I remember his way of instilling order in the classroom. He would say, ‘I can be June Allyson, or I can be Joan Crawford.’ ”
It wasn’t just Traci’s dramatic antics that made him stand out. More than any professor at Wayne State, Traci could invoke passion in his students for a subject they might have otherwise shunned. Peabody wasn’t fond of Shakespeare until he took Traci’s class in the English Department at WSU. He would end up concentrating on Shakespeare largely because of Traci, completing his senior thesis in 1983 on the public and private personas of Shakespeare’s kings.
Peabody was working at Autoweek magazine when he found out Traci had been murdered. He described feeling utter shock — a sense of devastating loss for his favorite college professor who had inspired the trajectory of his undergraduate studies. “I really feel like the world got robbed of someone great,” Peabody said.
Then time passed, and Peabody stopped hearing about the murder. There had been briefs of the killing in the metro sections of local newspapers and a couple of news segments with colleagues interviewed on camera. But really, that was it. Within weeks, Traci seemed to be gone.
Three decades later, that still bothers Peabody. “I’ve just always had this nagging feeling about who killed him,” Peabody said.
Peabody isn’t the only one for whom Traci’s death would become a life-altering mystery. But as I talked to the people who were closest to Traci, it seemed that both his friends and the police might have known all along one plausible scenario — that he was killed by a stranger he had invited into his home for sex. The Detroit police, however, didn’t pursue that lead, his friends say, and would end up losing the investigative file, along with any hope of discovering the truth.
After 30 years, Traci’s murder had become just another cold case among thousands of unsolved Detroit homicides.
The most important question Traci’s friends seemed to carry with them over the years, then, wasn’t really who did it, but why. Why would a man so loved by his colleagues and friends end up butchered and left to bleed out on his kitchen floor? Was it because he was gay? Was it because he was reckless? Was it just bad luck?
And why didn’t the police do more?