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Look Up

Kim Johnson – It’s always a great day when my “assignment” is to take pictures. Today was one of those days. I ventured out with a camera in each hand to capture the College in the fall. (Click here and here to view.)

I did this last year about this time and then again after we had our first blanketing snowfall in the winter. So today, while I still photographed the beautiful fall colors against the campus buildings, I also sought to find the photos I had never seen before – the stuff I’d been missing.

I recently read the blog of an acquaintance whose mother is just finishing treatment for breast cancer. In her blog she talks about walking the same path so many times we forget to look up and really see what’s there. So today, I looked up!

It’s easy to see the bricks and windows and how those come together to form the shape of the buildings but today I noticed weathervanes; I found ornate decorations and patterns within structures; I found great resting spots all over the arboretum. Ever notice the metal decorations (pictured here) on Center Hall? (Perhaps they have a purpose but they remind me of butterflies.)

I saw reflections in places I hadn’t noticed before – like in the face of the Milligan Clock – and it’s got four sides – that means four different reflections. The reflection of the Chapel can be seen in most buildings around campus and interestingly, it too looks different in each window.

As I wandered around “looking up” I noticed more people. I received more smiles and greetings. It made me wonder how many details I’m missing in the students, faculty, and staff around me. While I know there is a story behind the “butterflies” on the side of Center Hall, how much better must the stories be behind the people in Center Hall. I can’t wait to find out!

Wabash has always been the quintessential college campus in my mind – the look, the feel, the smell, the students and professors walking together deep in conversation. But today, it got even better!

Special Shout Out to HDNet

I spent last Friday with my colleague Brent Harris and a television production crew from the high definition network HDNet.

HDNet is owned by Mark Cuban, the Indiana University graduate, who owns the Dallas Mavericks (and who has hinted at purchasing the Chicago Cubs).

Many know Cuban for his passionate support of his NBA team. But he’s also been a generous philanthropist and has supported IU in a number of ways. He and HDNet have also been good to Wabash College and DePauw University.

This year, for the fourth time, HDNet will televise the Monon Bell Classic football game to a national television audience. For those who may not realize it, that’s a very big deal.

Schools the size of Wabash do not receive lots of national media attention or coverage. Most sports networks prefer scholarship athletic programs, big names, and big stadiums. Just look at the proliferation of Tuesday and Wednesday night college football games on television.

But Cuban and Executive Producer Darrell Ewalt seem to like traditions in sports and traditional sports rivalries. They’ve televised IU’s Little 500 bike race and have produced the Harvard vs. Yale football game in recent years.

And they like the Monon Bell Classic and the fact that two good colleges separated by 27 miles of Indiana highway knock heads each year with hopes of claiming a 300-pound steam locomotive’s bell.

Of course, all of us at Wabash are excited to welcome Ewalt and his production crew on November 15, and we hope to once again give the network a great game. Trust me when I say that watching a Wabash football game in high definition is really something — almost as good as being there live in person. Almost.

Last Friday, Ewalt sent a crew from Colorado to pre-produce some features that will air during the telecast. They spent some time in Greencastle interviewing my colleague Ken Owen, who has produced mini Monon Bell video features on every game played in the 114-game series.

At Wabash, the crew talked with Brock Graham, the talented student-athlete and co-captain of the football team. I’m never quite sure how to refer to Brock. He’s like a junior, but he’ll finish his studies at Wabash this December and graduate in just five semesters. This IS Brock’s junior year, but he’s eight weeks away from finishing up here.

Brock (left, blocking) really is a remarkable story — an honor student, captain of the football team, campus leader, and someone whose faith is the most important thing in his life.

Many of you will recall that Brock led a group of 21 Wabash students on a spring break mission trip to Botswana last year. His leadership is so inspiring that he simply presented his teammates with the idea and off they went — raising money for their trips and getting necessary passport work and immunizations completed.

Once in Botswana, the group put on a series of youth sports camps in the southern African nation on a Christian mission trip that none of them will soon forget.

Brock hopes to attend seminary school next year and become a youth pastor. It’s nothing short of a true vocational calling.

That story — the Brock Graham story — will air during halftime of HDNet’s telecast of the Monon Bell Classic.

I couldn’t be more thankful to Mark Cuban and Darrell Ewalt for sending producer Bo Vongsakoun, and the crew all the way from Denver to celebrate Brock Graham, Wabash College, DePauw University, and the Monon Bell rivalry.

While Brock Graham is certainly a one-of-a-kind young man, he is in so many ways representative of the type students who live, learn, and thrive at schools like Wabash and DePauw.

And that’s why all of us at Wabash are grateful for HDNet’s commitment to celebrating our fantastic small college football rivalry and the talented young men who play in it.

Liberation Education

Steve Charles—On Sunday in Salter Hall, David Porter will play Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata, one of the most difficult pieces in the piano repertoire. He just published a book on Willa Cather. He gave a Classics lecture on the poetry of Horace last night. He’s been president of Skidmore and Carleton colleges, turned out more papers than a forest full of southern pine, and is currently professor of the liberal arts at Williams College.

In the first 10 minutes of our conversation (after graciously dismissing the fact that I was late) he glides through 20th century 12-tone music, the works of Cather, and a little Latin, and when I nod my head he says, “Oh, I imagine you know that one,” and I hope to God he doesn’t call me on it.

So what would you ask this person Professor Leslie Day calls “the quintessential liberal arts man”?

I pull out a question straight from Senior Comps—”Compare and contrast Charles Ives and Willa Cather.” He doesn’t miss a beat. Then, after learning more about these two artists in 15 minutes than I’d picked up in my previous 52-plus years of life, it’s time for another question. Since we’re talking in Trippet Hall, home of The Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash, I put to him the question the Center worked on for years: “Define the liberal arts.”

“Oh my,” Professor of the Liberal Art Porter says.

Have I found a gotcha question?

Then he smiles.

“Liberation,” he says. “Studies that liberate the individual to do things that otherwise would not be possible. Liberating from prejudices and ignorance, and opening doors to things they might never have thought could be interesting.

“I teach a course in Greek tragedy,” he says. “Most of the students have never read any of this, and it’s fun to watch the them because at first it’s frustrating for them—such strange stuff. But it opens doors for them, and they will find things there that will set their own mind free imaginatively.

“Here’s one definition of education: ‘That which remains after you’ve forgotten what you’ve learned.’

“I teach Greek, and we spend untold hours learning 600 forms of one everyday verb. I know that the majority the students in that class are not going to study Classics. Five or ten years out, they will have forgotten most of those things.

“What will remain? They will have learned a kind of intellectual rigor, problem solving, certain organizational skills that will transfer to all things. All of us are dealing in this modern world with huge complexities. So that’s the kind of field that liberates your mind, gives you skills you didn’t know you could have.”

Porter once held a dual appointment in Classics and music at Carleton College.

“They feed off each other,” Porter says. “The writing I’ve done in music has drawn on what I know from Classics, and my work in Classics is very much inspired by what I know of music. The two have been wonderfully cross-fertilizing.”

“I have found that working in a lot of different fields is very liberating because you realize these barriers that are built up can be transcended. And when you do, wonderful things happen. Taking a chance is part of liberation—you must be willing to take big chances.”

And that’s why David Porter is the Professor of the Liberal Arts.

He has a particular fondness for Wabash, too. His uncle was the late Robert Harvey, English professor and director of the Wabash College News Bureau. He recalls stopping by Wabash to visit “Uncle Bob” at least once a year throughout his childhood. And this is the second time he’s played the Concord Sonata here, The first was in the late 1960s, when his accompanist on flute was Mary Lou Mielke.

He plays this “greatest piece of American music” once again this Sunday at 4 p.m. in Salter Hall. It’s a challenging listen, Porter admits. But he’ll talk us through it. “I never play Ives without pre-performance comments,” he says. If he can talk music the way he does Cather and Ives, prepare to understand a piece of music like you never thought you could.

He promises that the final movement, complete with guest flutist, is, appropriately “transcendent.”

In photo: Professor Porter enjoys teaching at Wabash.

Wabash Always Gives Back

Kim Johnson - Since I returned from maternity leave earlier in the week, I have been sorting through mail, responding to e-mail and phone messages, and catching up on the latest news on the Wabash website.

I scanned through the news stories and photos that had been posted since I left and found a recurring theme. Wabash gives back.

While I always knew that, I guess it took looking at several weeks news to see just how frequent the faculty, staff, students, and even alumni, serve the Crawfordsville community and their home communities. Every time I turn around I hear another example of how Wabash is giving back.

As I think about just the last few months, several noteworthy events come to mind. Freshmen split up in groups all over town during orientation to help area not-for-profit organizations. Area alumni set out last weekend for WABASH Day where they worked for Habitat for Humanity, Park & Rec, the Family Crisis Shelters, the Lew Wallace Study, and the Vanity Theater.

During the summer the Business Immersion Program students worked with Christian Nursing Service to make recommendations for the advancement of its organization. And now faculty, staff, and students are supporting MUFFY (Montgomery United Fund for You) with fundraisers, residential drive assistance, and financial gifts. Wabash students were even selected to participate in the annual campaign video.

These are only a few examples of the awesome impact this Little (but) Giant campus has. It’s great to be part of such a caring community.

Photo above: Summer Business Immersion Program students during the recording of the MUFFY campaign video.

Think Globally, Write Locally

Steve Charles—Several years ago, my friend and boss Jim Amidon ’87 took a tour through several of Montgomery County’s manufacturing plants. Pace Dairy and Crown Cork and Seal Company were among them, I think, but it was watching steel being poured and rolled out at Nucor that left him breathless. He came back lit up like that glow we see over the Nucor plant at night when they open the roof and steel is being poured.

“It was like being dropped into the center of a volcano,” he said.

Jim he wondered aloud if such a place—and interesting locations and people throughout Montgomery County—might inspire our creative writing students on campus. It might get them to look beyond themselves and catapult them into wonder, using writing as a way to learn and begin to understand the world around them up-close and personal, all the while honing their writing skills. Give them some of that life experience so often lacking in many young writers’ work.

Jim also hoped it could acquaint them with the county in which they were living and the people with whom they share this part of the state.

I tried the idea out on a friend on the faculty back then, and nothing came of it.

But Jim was right. And last week author and Butler University professor of creative writing Susan Neville’s reading Thursday in Center 216 proved it. (See a photo album here.) She created an entire book out of such tours, and, like Jim, she had visited the Nucor plant.

Here’s a sample of what she wrote in her book Fabrications: Essays on Making Things and Making Meaning:

“The part of the mill that houses the casters that turn pure molten metal into red-hot slabs of steel is as large as the inside of the largest cathedral… Now and then these giant hooks move from one end of the building to the other carrying big kettles of melted iron ore and carbon… You imagine it falling from the ceiling with you standing underneath it. You’d ignite. You’d be ash. Not even your bones would remain.”

And:

“Think of how it feels to run along subway cars and look down at the tracks, and then imagine those cars filled with tons of sun—not sunlight, but sun plasma itself. Imagine how tightly you’d hold onto your child’s hand or, metaphorically, your own.

“And then we enter another room.

“It’s beautiful. This is where the steel in fact looks like a river. Because it’s slightly cooler, you can see some gray in the orange, a very fluid stare-at-it-for-the-rest-of-your-life mix of colors, but still glowing liquid lava.”

I asked the author after this amazing reading if she ever took her students with her on these factory tours. She said she had them visit various professionals, especially those with unusual trades. A taxidermist, etc. But she hadn’t taken a student with her while researching the Nucor article. She seemed to like the idea.

This from the writer of what the Indiana Center for the Book named the Best Book of Indiana for 2008—Sailing the Inland Sea: On Writing, Literature, and the Land.“

Neville was the second of three authors brought to campus as part of the Indiana Writers Series, a collaboration between Wabash Professor of Modern Languages Greg Redding ’88 and textile artist and former Wabash Theater costumer Laura Conners, now facilitator of the Quality of Life in Indiana Grant that funded the writers’ visits. (See photo albums from their visits here and here.)

Michael Martone opened the series, arriving on campus the day of Chapel Sing, a fitting convergence for one of our most unconventional authors. Indiana Poet Laureate Norbert Krapf wrapped things up last Monday. All three are “regional” writers with plenty of national audiences. Krapf—who grew up in Jasper, IN, moved to New York but found himself writing about his home ground and moved back to the state in 2004—writes, “I have always believed that any story set deeply in one time and place, if told well, speaks for other times, places, and people. A sense of time and place travels and settles well. A life lived deeply anywhere resonates beyond the context of its specifics.”

But we begin by paying attention to those specifics. The details of life and the place in which we live. All three of these writers do that so well in their own way. But to hear Susan Neville read aloud what she saw in Montgomery County about was a revelation. I was reminded of the author and conservationist Terry Tempest Williams’ visit to Wabash a few years ago, when Mike Bachner ’70 and his wife, Pat Galloway, led her through Shades State Park.

“An inverted mountain,” was the way Mike described the topography there to Williams, who wrote about this hike with Mike and Pat and read the piece to the Wabash community during her formal presentation here in Salter Hall.

“I will never think of Indiana as only a domesticated landscape of cornfields,” Williams wrote. “Wildness resides in the heart of America, here, now. An inverted sense of wonder.”

Mike stopped by my office after that reading, as boyishly excited as I’d ever seen him, insisting that Williams’ writing had given him a news lens through which to see this land and water he’d loved for almost 40 years.

“This is an awakening for all of us, two natives and a newcomer,” Williams wrote of her afternoon with Mike and Pat. Mike wasn’t really surprised that such a writer had seen beauty where he lived. After all, Mike had come to Wabash and stayed here, “beguiled,” as he freely admitted, by the creek and the land. He wasn’t surprised. But he was, with all of his being, grateful.

He hadn’t expected to have such a large “role” in Terry’s essay. But how could she write about that place without him and Pat? “A life lived deeply anywhere resonates beyond the context of its specifics,” Norbert Krapf read to us this week. Mike was life lived deeply. Deeply here. He would have been as excited as I was at these readings by Indiana writers.

This world feels off-kilter. We lose our center, pave over our souls. I sometimes feel as though I’ve tapped into the Matrix, twitching like Pavlov’s dog at email prompts and the latest national economic or political news, caught in the Web. Writers who stand still long enough in the places where we live to notice the things we’re missing can save us. Can help us, as Mike said in his only Chapel speech, “to revel in this moment of our lives. Be sure you know a few things that bring you joy. Make those things why you are here.”

Perhaps that’s why I left these three readings so invigorated, why I’m so grateful for Laura and Greg bringing these Indiana writers here for us. They gave me a new lens to see those things that bring me joy. I imagine they’ve planted such seeds in the minds of our students.

I remember walking home after Neville’s reading, the railroad bed’s gravel crunching underfoot and my signed copy of Sailing the Inland Sea in my pack. The wind had kicked up some dust and smelled like fallen leaves, a semi growled and clattered over the railroad crossing, and I’d just dropped off at Jim’s house a book in which Neville describes her journey through the Nucor steel plant. I wanted him to read how right he’d been. Two preschoolers were chasing a brown scraggly dog across the parking lot of the pet store that burned down earlier this year, an old man and two women chattered in Spanish in raised tones from a porch where a couch and easy chair were pushing out the railing. Fresh from Neville’s reading, all these things were fascinating. I stopped and watched (until the old man on the porch wondered why I was staring at him—“lo siento” is my best practiced bit of Spanish). When I got home, my neighbor invited me in to drink a toast on the day he had given his wife her wedding ring. “To Nancy,” we said, and emptied our glasses

I could hear Mike as I walked across my yard in this one season many people wish they were back in Indiana: “Be sure you know a few things that bring you joy. Make those things why you are here.”

And Susan Neville—“Know this. Every place on earth is filled with stories.”

In photo: author Susan Neville during her reading at Wabash.

Steve Charles: Editor, Writer, Listener

Jim Amidon — About midway through my career at Wabash College, I was promoted to a leadership position in the public relations office and not long after I had to conduct my first personnel search — for the editor of Wabash Magazine.

I had worked with several editors in the previous eight or nine years, so I had some idea what the job entailed — produce the alumni magazine every few months and crank out a range of Wabash publications, from calendars to handbooks to invitations.

My colleagues and I interviewed several talented candidates over the course of a week or so. One of them wowed me with her amazing gift for artistic, creative design, which was something Wabash had never boasted. Another candidate had a range of talents, but I figured we had the only true generalist we needed in the office — me.

The third candidate was scared to death when he came in for the interview. He nervously squirmed in the chair aside my desk, and at one point had moved from the chair to the floor in a crouched position as we talked about the College and the job.

That person was Steve Charles. And I almost didn’t hire him.

See, with a strong Type A personality like mine, having someone in the office so obviously nervous and shy might be akin to mixing oil and water. Fortunately, I sensed in Steve a clear desire to find a place he could believe in; a place with a mission and people who genuinely cared about students and teaching and learning.

A found a person who would eventually teach this talker his gift of listening.

I offered Steve the job, and all these years later it still stands as the best decision I’ve made in my professional career; probably my biggest accomplishment.

The proof came on Saturday at the Homecoming Alumni Chapel, when the National Association of Wabash Men named Steve Charles an Honorary Alumnus.

To those who don’t know, that’s a really big deal. And it’s an even bigger deal when you consider most people are granted the honor for lifetime achievement. Steve’s been at Wabash a little over a dozen years.

But what an impact he’s had.

He took a pretty standard alumni magazine chalked full of “grip and grin” photos and class notes, and he turned it into the quarterly journal of Wabash College.

Through his diligent work, unbelievable ability to listen carefully, and his desire to fully tell a person’s story, he transformed Wabash Magazine into a must-read for our alumni and their families, and a whole slew of other people with little or no connection to the place.

Because I work with Steve every day and contribute to the magazine, perhaps I have been slow to realize how popular it has become with our constituents. Maybe the way in which Steve writes and edits and photographs for the magazine has become such a part of the culture of this office that I was unaware of the far-reaching impact the magazine has on our alumni, from coast to coast and around the world.

So when it was time to write the citation that would officially make Steve an honorary alumnus, I — for probably the first time in my life — struggled for words. So I reached out to a pair of alumni, Time magazine’s Tim Padgett and award-winning fiction writer Dan Simmons — to provide their sense of how much Steve has meant to Wabash.

Simmons wrote, “For me, Steve Charles has been not only a fine editor and avatar of fine writing, but is also a living link to the College I once loved so much. When that affection for Wabash has threatened to wane for me, my connection with Steve Charles has not only kept it alive but renewed it — by reconnecting it to the living, breathing, and constantly changing place that Steve chronicles so brilliantly in the pages of Wabash Magazine.

Padgett said, “Part of the reason is that Steve is so talented at listening to people and learning their stories. His deep, patient intellectual curiosity is a perfect complement to the college he’s writing about.”

Both men know good writing and good editing, and both have had difficult relationships with their alma mater. Both say Steve Charles and his work with the magazine has kept alive in their hearts and minds the love they have for Wabash. And that, indeed, is a gift worthy of high praise and high honor.

Or, as we like to say around Wabash, Steve Charles is Some Little Giant!