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Wallies Heading to Bridgeton Today

Howard Hewitt – The College mission statement says: “Wabash College educates men to think critically, act responsibly, lead effectively, and live humanely.”

Once in awhile a unique opportunity comes along to allow students the opportunity to practice the ‘live humanely’ portion of that brilliant statement.

Parke County suffered what is still an unimaginable loss last year when the beautiful Bridgeton Covered Bridge was totally destroyed by arson. The community is going to rebuild the bridge and needs a little help. 

Even though we have fewer than 80 students on campus, the Present Indiana program is taking approximately 25 young men to help rebuild the bridge today.

Over the past week we’ve recruited from the nooks and crannies of the summer campus to get students and staff to join the effort. We’ve rounded up t-shirts for the participants and planned the day. The folks down in Bridgeton are excited. The town women are cooking up lunch and the two project leaders have planned chores for the Wabash men.

Look to the College website tonight for a story and photos from the day in Parke County. Hopefully, those rain clouds stay in Illinois until late afternoon.

Present Indiana, funded by Lilly Endowment, gives 8-10 Wabash students a summer internship to study historical and cultural aspects of the Hoosier state. Oklahoma native John Meara ’07 is studying Parke County bridges.

I drove Meara down to Parke County for his first visit two weeks ago. The Bridgeton Bridge was, perhaps, the most photographed bridge in Indiana if not the Midwest.

It was startling and even emotional to take the last bend into Bridgeton and see the familiar red mill but the bridge was gone! The photos show the stark contrast.

In making arrangements to take the young men down for a day of sorting wood, stacking lumber, and cleaning up debris, the spirit of Bridgeton’s town people has really shone through. The town women are insisting on feeding our young guys as a thank you. On normal work days they feed a handful of men who are volunteering. We hope to deliver a small hungry army!

Noble words like lead effectively and live humanely are often easy to write and talk about. But teaching young men the meaning of such words often requires a little sweat equity. We hope there is a lesson of  “living humanely” in helping a tiny town rebuild an Indiana landmark.

And what could be more humane than helping out a neighbor?

An Unexpected Connection

Jim Amidon — One of the great traditions of any Wabash Commencement is the awarding of honorary degrees. Over the years the College has honored heads of state, leaders in business, and acclaimed scholars from all over the world.

This year, Wabash honored its own — two alumni and one honorary alumnus. And while it doesn’t always work out quite so perfectly, this year’s recipients had a lot in common and they didn’t even know it.

Bruce Baker graduated from Wabash in 1965. He was particularly adept at Latin and Greek and had a solid understanding of hieroglyphics. He continued his education at several graduate programs, later taught at every level, then came up with an idea that would change the lives of tens of thousands of people.

While thinking about ways in which he might help a friend with cerebral palsy to better communicate, he began formulating an idea that would become Minspeak. Baker drew on his knowledge of Latin and Greek, hieroglyphics, and Mayan verbs to imagine how symbols or pictures with multiple meanings could create a visual language system for the severely disabled.

Long before the advent of laptop computers, Bruce Baker’s Minspeak device provided users with a keypad that stored a handful of small images or icons representing hundreds of words and sentences. Using early electronic voice technology, Baker was able to link the symbols to phrases, which could create audible responses.

For people unable to speak or with little muscle control over their fingers and hands, the ability to communicate effectively with just a few keystrokes opened up new worlds of possibilities.

Soon, his company, Semantic Compaction Systems, began to put Minspeak devices in the hands of disabled Americans from coast to coast. Conferences were begun, at which Baker would illustrate not only the value of Minspeak, but the value of the individuals using the device; he not only gave voice to the voiceless, he became their advocate for equal employment opportunities.

Today Minspeak is available in a dozen languages around the world and is being translated into scores of Asian languages, as well.

One of the other honorary degree recipients this year was Admiral Alex Miller, Wabash Class of 1971. Admiral Miller left Wabash for the United States Navy and 35 years later is still going strong.

Miller’s specialty also is communication, though in a far different arena. He spent most of his military career in intelligence, trying to break codes of our country’s enemies. His work was in signals intelligence and it took him on four submarine deployments and a handful of international assignments. You could call him a “master code breaker.”

When not breaking codes by analyzing captured transmissions, Admiral Miller was helping the National Security Agency reshape itself after the Cold War. As the chief of staff to the director of the NSA, Admiral Miller helped the Navy move its focus from the Soviet Union to global terrorism.

And it seems that when Admiral Miller gets a few days of leave, he returns to Wabash to speak to classes, attend reunions, or counsel young men on their careers.

Bruce Baker and Alex Miller knew of each other but did not know each other until last weekend. That’s when Wabash’s third honorary degree recipient, President Andy Ford, hosted a luncheon honoring the two distinguished men and their families. The luncheon allows the recipients to say a few words about what they do, why it’s important to them, and to introduce their families in attendance.

Immediately after the lunch, Admiral Miller made his way directly to Bruce Baker’s table, whipped out his business card, and extended his handshake. And what the Admiral said to the visionary communicator went something like this:

“Bruce, I’d like to have your card. We’ve got people at the National Security Agency who need to know you and need to know about your work.”

Some people referred the exchange as a perfect alumni network moment. Others simply said, “Only at Wabash.”

An(ne) Amazing First Lady

Jim Amidon — Wabash College held its 168th Commencement exercises on Sunday, starting with the Baccalaureate Chapel and ending with 203 young men earning their sheepskin diplomas late in the afternoon.

Commencement traditions continued with the awarding of honorary doctorates to a pair of prominent alumni, inventor Bruce Baker and Admiral Alex Miller. There was even a surprise for outgoing president Andy Ford when he, too, was awarded an honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters

This year was not completely traditional. This year marked the end of the Ford era at Wabash, an era of growth and prosperity for the College dating back 13 years. President Ford was honored with tributes, resolutions, and even a Sagamore of the Wabash from Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels.

For me, though — and for President Ford, I suspect —†the highlight of the weekend came Saturday night when First Lady Anne Ford was paid the ultimate compliment. The National Association of Wabash Men named her an honorary alumna in the Class of 2006.

She certainly deserves that diploma.

She might not have attended many classes, if any, but she certainly earned her stripes as a Little Giant. From traveling the country meeting alumni to serving as a most gracious hostess on campus, Anne Ford has played a pivotal and dynamic role along side and apart from her husband.

Believe me when I say that what Anne means to Wabash goes way, way beyond the “behind every good man” cliche. Anne has become as synonymous with Wabash as anyone.

The citation that was presented to her Saturday night captured in small measure what she has meant to Wabash, its faculty, staff and students, and its alumni. In even smaller measure, it celebrated her role in the Crawfordsville community as a board member for the Christian Nursing Service, Montgomery County Community Foundation, and Youth Service Bureau.

If you have a young child, you probably know that each year at Halloween she decorates the Elston Homestead and dresses up to pass out candy to happy trick-or-treaters. She loves kids — anybody’s kids — and seems to bring out the very best in children.

If you served on a local agency board with her, you know that she always knows exactly what to say — to cheer you up, make your day, or get you to think differently about something.

As Kitty Haffner said in a recent tribute, “Anne is the kind of friend everyone needs: she makes you laugh, she doesn’t take life or herself too seriously, she takes time to listen and care, and then she stretches your comfort zone from time to time.”

Alumni adore Anne so much that when President Ford travels to Los Angeles or New York on behalf of the College, the first question from alumni tends to be, “Where’s Anne?”

Alumni are fond of her because makes them feel at home when they return to Wabash, and she takes the Wabash they remember and love out to them, whether that’s Orlando, Seattle, or Tulsa. The National Association’s tribute Saturday night made all of us at Wabash feel good because it acknowledged her many contributions in making Wabash a stronger institution.

To quote the tribute, “Anne, there are simply not enough adjectives to describe what you have meant and will continue to mean to Wabash College. But in the true spirit of Wabash, one phrase sums up our feelings for you: Anne Ford: Some Little Giant!”

For so many of us in attendance Saturday night, that gesture was a fitting addition to a weekend of tributes and traditions.

Sophomore Hams it Up With Robin Williams

Howard W. Hewitt – While we spend lots of time noting the interesting student internships and summer jobs, often our Wabash students share other interesting experiences they’ve had away from campus.

Bryce Chitwood ’08 recently returned from New York City with several great memories of his trip. While in the Big Apple, the Oklahoma native visited MTV’s popular TRL program and met comedian/actor Robin Williams.

Chitwood was in New York with his family for his brother’s graduation from the Juilliard School. His brother finished with a degree in vocal performance, with a focus on opera. The family all flew in for his senior recital.

Chitwood’s mom had a brush with a pseudo-celebrity, of sorts, – with a Wabash connection. She was shopping and stopped by the David Letterman Show then visited the neighboring deli that Letterman often features on his program. The deli owner, Rupert, was in the store that day and just happened to be wearing a Wabash College shirt.

It turns out the shirt was given to Rupert by Collin Lanam ’06 right after Colling graduated from Crawfordsville High School before starting his freshman year at Wabash.

Williams and Rupert weren’t the only celebs the Chitwood family encountered. Bryce also met JoJo during the TRL program then ran into Julia Roberts who was exiting a Broadway theater.

Class of 2006: Reflection and Wisdom

Jim Amidon — You read so much today about how young people are disconnected, lack focus, care little about the past, and are only whimsical about the future.

If you really believe that, spend a little time with a college senior about to graduate. You’ll come to support the adage, “Don’t believe everything you read.”

I’ve spent a fair amount of time with seniors who will graduate from Wabash College this Sunday. What I have discovered is that their emotions range from melancholy to frightened; from nostalgic to ecstatic.

What surprises me most, however, is how reflective our young men are at this point in their lives. Sure, the big, real world awaits, but for the last four years they have been given a wonderful, rare opportunity to exist — to thrive — in an environment that is tough, but supportive.

For three of those four years, they never realized how good they’ve had it at Wabash. Only when it’s all about to end do our young men look back at their time in Crawfordsville as the best time of their lives.

The soon-to-be graduates will make surprise stops in the offices of faculty and staff. “Just passing through,” they say. But pretty soon they are sitting down and talking with great affection and appreciation about their Wabash experience. These “passing through” conversations reaffirm all that we hope the Wabash experience will be for the young men who enroll here.

I’ve had about a half-dozen such visitors in my office in the last week. One was Curtis Eilers, a very talented, soft-spoken, but confident young man who has no concrete idea what he’ll be doing next fall. His future is uncertain, but he is a young man capable of changing the world in ways I cannot even imagine. I really do have that much confidence in him.

Curtis is feeling the full range of emotions that every college graduate feels. He knows he’s made the most of his senior year, sure, but he might be thinking a bit about what he didn’t accomplish in years one through three. Funny, though, because he wrote for several student publications; led at least two campus organizations; and hopes he’ll get the necessary grade point average to graduate magna cum laude (probably a safe bet).

We talked about everything. What struck me, though, is how he feels about the environmental group, Green Corps, which he has helped to lead for several years. About two months ago, the organization morphed into Students for Sustainability (SFS), with a shifted focus and new goals. Inspired by the visit of an environmental writer and activist, SFS got motivated to make a difference on the Wabash campus.

Soon, re-tooled bicycles, painted green, began showing up on campus, courtesy of SFS. Curtis sent a message to the community to use the bikes to avoid driving short distances. No locks, no keys, no secret hiding places; just bikes for community use.

And he’s proud of having accomplished that goal. But as we talked, he kept inserting the word “we” in conversations about next year. Clearly, like so many Wabash students, Curtis would like to rewind the tape to have the opportunity to aggressively take hold of his Wabash education.

He started to tell me that he’s been trying to insure the long-term future of the Green Bikes program and SFS, and in doing so he said something like, “I don’t think the younger students realize how they can influence decisions at Wabash.”

Ah, the illustrative moment: that very special moment, which too often comes as a Wabash man’s time on campus is winding down, when he suddenly realizes the entire institution exists for the students.

The timing of this revelation doesn’t surprise or sadden me. It’s a natural process of maturation that occurs on this campus — particularly this campus — and it usually happens early in the senior year. It should not surprise you, either, that every time the Wabash Board of Trustees meets, the College Life Committee does the bulk of its business while talking with students.

To tweak the famous advertising slogan: “When Wabash students talk, administrators listen.”

On their way out of Crawfordsville, Wabash seniors try to pass along their newfound wisdom to freshmen and sophomores. But those younger guys — like the seniors a few years ago — don’t listen. They, like generations of students before them, will only come to realize how truly special their Wabash experience is when it’s almost over.

Know this, Wabash Men of the Class of 2006: You have left your mark here. Now go forth and change the world.

Godspeed.

Dead Week and Finals: The Year Winds Down

Jim Amidon — Remember what it was like during final exam week back in your high school or college days?

I don’t remember a thing about my Wabash College final exams. I remember the week itself quite well, but the exams have long faded from memory.

Perhaps what I remember and what I don’t is due to the fact I’d been going hard for 16-18 weeks. Finals week meant finishing three or four papers; cramming hard to make up for weeks of procrastination; pulling all-nighter’s; and mixing coffee with hot chocolate and dark cocoa with hopes of getting an extra hour of studying in before falling off to sleep. (Recall that those were pre-energy drink days.)

We’ve changed a few things at Wabash over the years. Last week was what we now call “dead week,” which might be the most poorly defined week of the year. “Dead week” is anything but dead. It’s the most lively, thriving week of the year. From a tribute to donors on Sunday through club banquets, academic awards ceremonies, student films, senior cookouts, student art exhibits and installations, and even a faculty rock band concert, last week was jam-packed.

The term “dead week,” though, suggests something different. It’s a week when professors aren’t supposed to give extra tests or assign papers in advance of finals week, which started Monday. It was a great concept a few years ago when students actually convinced their professors to go for the idea.

Perhaps I would be more accurate in suggesting that “dead week” was a great idea in theory.

In reality, “dead week” does not provide for extra study time for final exams. In reality, students use the week to wrap up experiments, complete papers, and finish projects that were supposed to be done weeks ago.

As smart as our Wabash men are, they all hold Ph.D.’s in procrastination. The sunny and warm weather of the last month surely hasn’t helped.

So this is an odd week. The students will be going through a sleep-deprived ritual not unlike how I described my finals weeks of 20 years ago; all-night study sessions and copious amounts of caffeine-laden drinks.

For the students, it is the most important week of the year. But for administrators at the College, people like me, this is the deadest “dead week” of the year. Those of us who spend the year supporting, celebrating, and nurturing student excellence can only sit back now; sit back and reflect on the year. The students are now done with us.

President Ford, early in his career at Wabash, once told me that he didn’t like summers on college campuses. I thought it was a curious statement at the moment. Then he said something like, “When there are no students here, there is no energy.”

The energy that is Wabash is slowly slipping away this week; students holed up in their study rooms, library carrels, and secret study spots preparing for final exams. There are no activities, no art openings, no sporting events left this year.

We will have one final burst of energy before we close the books on the 2005-2006 school year: Commencement.

A week from Sunday, we’ll once again have our spirits lifted — our batteries recharged — when the president rings out the Class of 2006. He will say something like, “Go forth and be good men.” We will applaud with vigor to honor of these “good Wabash men.”

We shall be uplifted knowing they are well prepared to tackle any challenge life presents. And we will anxiously await the third week of August when it starts all over again.