Steve Charles—Filmmaker Ted Steeg ’52 spent his first years after Wabash in Greenwich Village, sharing an apartment with screenwriter Dan Wakefield and immersing himself in the “alternative society” of the New York City of that day—the new journalism of the Village Voice, the writing of Kerouac, Salinger, Mailer, and Ginsberg, the music of Thelonius Monk and Mabel Mercer, and the efforts of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement.
“Being in New York in the 50s was like being in Paris in the 1920s and 30s,” Ted said. “It was where it was happening; all the new stuff was happening right here.”
Not the typical Wabash man’s life of the 50s, perhaps, but no film I’ve seen has captured the spirit of Wabash and a liberal arts education as well as Steeg’s documentary, “A Way of Life.”
The music of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” plays as it opens with scenes of the frontier Wabash would be carved out of, and it just gets better from there. It is beautifully filmed (there’s a vividness of color video just can’t capture), creatively shot, and it gives you a chance to see and hear the Wabash of the 70s and some of the men who made that community.
We see Wabash legends like Eric Dean, Fred Enenbach, and Eliot Williams. We sit on the College mall as President Thad Seymour reads awful poetry with a straight face on the infamous Elmore Day, then we watch him welcome with sincerity the new class on Freshman Saturday.
It’s almost like seeing your family’s best lost home movies; that is, if Steven Spielberg was the one in your family who liked to play with the camera.
I got to know Ted Steeg during his service on the Wabash Magazine Editorial Board a few years ago. He always had creative, workable ideas, several of which still drive the way the magazine is put together. But seeing this film, I understand even better how fortunate we were to have him on that board, and how fortunate the College is to have his documentaries in our archives.
Archivist Beth Swift will be showing “A Way of Life” tomorrow at 7:30 in Salter Hall as part of her presentation “Wabash in Pictures and Film”, itself a part of this week’s Founder’s Day celebration marking the 175th anniversary of the College’s founding.
If you want to see some of those legendary names from the College’s history and get a better sense of where we came from, you ought to be there. And given all the talk of tradition on this campus, it’s fascinating to look back at the 70s and see what tradition was then—what has gone away, and what is very much alive today.
Watching Ted’s movie, I couldn’t help notice how often he used the word “independence.” He calls Wabash “a way of life, of character, independence, and excellence.” It emphasizes the fact the College has no government or church support. The College’s goal is to educate men to be “independent, free-thinking individuals.”
Independence. That’s Ted Steeg. That’s what he went to New York to find, that’s what he brought back with him to make this film. As his friend Dan Wakefield said of their venturing to the City: “We had decided to take risks, and we had come to New York to become the best we could be.”
Photo: Ted Steeg during the ceremony marking his donation of his films to the College archives. Ted’s most recent appearance in film was in front of the camera, as he and Dan Wakefield were interviewed for the 2004 film New York in the 50s.