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For Which I’m Thankful

Jim Amidon — The sun was piercing through the window blinds in my office late last Friday afternoon as I watched a steady stream of cars taking Wabash College students to their homes for Thanksgiving break. It had been a long and exhausting two-week stretch. The filtered sunlight and my warm office conspired against me — I found myself drifting off in reflection… though what I really wanted was a nap!

Thoughts, memories, people, and events lazily made their way through my mind, and for a solid hour I thought about nothing more than why I am thankful.

I am thankful for the strength, resiliency, and dedication of my Wabash co-workers. I am blessed — the College is blessed — to have talented, hard-working employees who strive on day after day to provide an unparalleled living and learning experience for the students enrolled here.

We are not perfect; we are educators in every sense of the word who constantly teach and learn. It is our job — our business — to encourage our students to reach their full potential.

I am thankful for Wabash’s alumni, whose love of and dedication to alma mater goes beyond my ability to shape into words. From the alumni who helped Wabash raise a record Annual Fund to those who helped recruit an amazingly talented and diverse freshman class, to the alumni who give of their time, I am grateful.

I am reminded of one particular example of that dedication. Two weeks ago, Tom Fisher, Wabash Class of 1991, took time away from his job as Indiana’s Solicitor General to come speak to Todd McDorman’s freshman tutorial class. Tom has argued three cases before the United States Supreme Court, including successfully defending Indiana’s Voter Identification Law.

Yet he spent 75 minutes in the middle of Monon Bell week answering questions from a room full of wide-eyed 18- and 19-year-olds. “What did you do when you were on campus?” “What’s it like waiting for a Supreme Court decision?” “What would you do all over again at Wabash?”

It was an open and often brutally honest conversation, during which I observed the students seeing themselves in Tom Fisher; they were actually seeing — or at least imagining — their own futures. It was very cool and it was the kind of “Wabash moment” that occurs all the time around here — thanks to the generosity of spirit of Wabash’s alumni.

I’m thankful for Wabash’s teachers — all of them. Yes, I am thankful for those at Wabash who go by the title of professor and whose day-to-day work sustains this great institution.

But, as Professor Dan Rogers reminded the community in a Chapel talk last Thursday, getting an education stretches far beyond the classroom. A full and complete Wabash education includes chance encounters with people who work in the Business Office or a tough conversation with a coach after a difficult defeat. And in that respect, I continue to be a student at Wabash, constantly learning about myself and my place in this world.

I am thankful for my friends in this community who know that Wabash has had a difficult fall, and who cast a smile in my direction, extend a handshake, or provide words of encouragement… just when I need them the most.

This is a nurturing community filled with wonderful teachers and learners, doers and do-gooders. We are blessed with good public schools and caring teachers; churches, ministers, and congregations that honor all of our religious beliefs; and agencies, public and private, that look out for those so that they may not stumble.

Finally, I am thankful for my family. My immediate family here includes my loving wife, Chris, and my inspiring daughter, Sammie, without whom my life would have little meaning.

My extended family includes co-workers, friends, fellow board members, community volunteers, and kind souls who stop me on the street to say how much they look forward to reading these weekly words on Monday mornings.

While I reach this Thanksgiving holiday a bit ragged and worn, I am more than ever reminded of how fortunate I am to serve Wabash, live in this community, and have a family, near and far, that supports me.

May you find a peaceful hour this holiday week to drift off in your own sun-soaked reflection, and may you re-discover the everyday blessings that sustain you.

A Very Special Veterans Day

Jim Amidon — I grew up not so much in a military household, but in a family with a long military history. My grandfather fought in France in World War I. My father, Jim Sr., served in occupied Germany just after World War II. My oldest brother, Bill, enlisted in the Army during my senior year of high school, and another older brother, Steve, enlisted a few years after that.

Veterans Day has always been special in my family. Patriotic and proud, we were raised to hang a flag in front of the house, sing National Anthem with pride, and remember the veterans who fought and those who died so that we could enjoy the freedoms we often take for granted.

My daughter Sammie’s school had a Veterans Day celebration this morning. All of the fourth graders were asked to invite a veteran from their family or a friend to take part.

Sammie couldn’t invite my brothers, both of whom live in Alaska, and my father simply couldn’t make the trip from Florida.

So Sammie asked Tom Runge, Wabash Director of Alumni Affairs and my friend, to join her at Hoover School today. Tom, Class of 1971, had a long and illustrious career as a pilot and squadron leader in the United States Air Force. He happily agreed to come as Sammie’s “uncle” to the Hoover celebration… even though he had to change plans for his trip to Evansville for an alumni event tonight.

See pictures from the Veterans Day Celebration here.

Tom wore his flight suit and leather bomber jacket. He walked proudly into the school with his helmet, oxygen mask, and a picture of the jets he used to fly.

The cafeteria was crowded with fourth graders and veterans. I was told that it was the largest group of veterans ever to attend the annual event — maybe 40 total.

The veterans represented at least six decades of service in combat and peacetime. There were men and women from all of the branches of our military — helicopter and jet pilots, a Navy SEAL, infantrymen, cooks, and commanders.

After about 200 fourth graders sang a series of patriotic songs, all of the vets were given a few minutes to introduce themselves and talk about their experience in the military. Some fought back tears as they remembered their good friends lost in the line of duty.

One very young man has spent his military career searching for hidden bombs in the deserts of the Middle East — and he has to go back again in nine months. I’m not sure the students fully understood what that meant — it sent shivers up my spine, and I could see the pain on the faces of the other veterans, who hung on that soldier’s every word.

At the conclusion of the program, the veterans spread out across the cafeteria so all the students could meet them. Tom Runge had a very long line of kids who wanted to meet him — and to try on that helmet and oxygen mask.

It was a really proud moment for my daughter and me. That Tom took the time out of a very busy schedule in one of his busiest weeks of the year is simply remarkable — but not nearly as remarkable as his service to his country and to Wabash College. We’re fortunate to have men like Tom in our ranks — as alumni of the College and citizens of this country.

Thanks, Tom.

Photographers Back in Class

Jim Amidon — It’s early on a Tuesday morning and I’m gazing blankly at my daily schedule that lists an endless series of meetings with visits to five classrooms dotted between.

The classroom visits are part of the Public Affairs and Marketing Office’s all-campus photo shoot. We first tried this two years ago, essentially choosing a week (or two) and inviting ourselves to as many different classes taught by as many different professors as possible.

See our growing number of photo albums: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen and eighteen. And check back for new additions through next week.

Two years ago we logged about 3,000 photos from about 45 classes. This year, while we won’t get in every professor’s class, we hope to photograph about 70 by the time we’re all done.

The five I shot on Tuesday (and four on Monday) are part of 20 or so I have scheduled over the next several days.

Back to Tuesday morning: My mind is racing with thoughts of all the work I’m missing by going to class (strange thought at a college, huh?). I trudge through the Fuller Arboretum with my 20-some pound camera bag up to the Fine Arts Center. When I get to the Theater Green Room in the basement, there are three guys playing video games projected on a large screen.

The room is pretty dark, and of course I’m worried that I won’t get any decent shots in the near darkness with flickering video game light.

Freshmen file in and toss their backpacks on the floor. The video game continues. A few minutes later, Professor Mike Abbott comes in, says hello to the students, and stands at a computer station dialing in posts from the Moodle site. He doesn’t notice that I’m there.

I come to find out that Professor Abbott has his students do almost all of their work online through the Moodle system — it figures, this IS a Freshman Tutorial about the narrative of video games, a high-tech universe in which our students live… and, come to find out, learn!

Minutes later, the gaming stops and the professor strides to the other end of the classroom and begins to ask the students about their latest assignment.

Assignment? They had been asked to play a new video game (maybe a Beta version, not sure) and to analyze the narrative of the game and how both the features of the game and the narrative itself compared to previous versions of the same game.

Unlike some of the classrooms I visited on Monday, the conversation was electric and passionate. I think on Monday, the students saw me, saw the camera, and clammed up. Not the freshmen in Professor Abbott’s class. They jabbered on continuously, speaking a language completely foreign to me.

“I shot that guy,” one said. “I blew up the bomb,” said another, as the students talked about the choices they made as they worked through the game. The discussion was open, honest, and raw. And I loved every minute of it.

At some point, I dropped the camera and thought to myself: This might be the perfect Freshman Tutorial subject. Imagine taking something the freshmen love (video games) and asking them to probe deeply into the subject matter, ask questions, understand not just how the games work, but the stories they tell.

Freshman Tutorials are designed to introduce Wabash to what we do and how we do it — take a subject, get as much primary source information as possible, study and analyze that information, discuss it at an intellectual level, and write about it in clear, concise papers.

If you start with political theories of the 1800s, you may have a hard time igniting the passion. Start with something like video games (or baseball or survival horror, as some professors teach), and the students dive in with the energy and passion necessary not just to learn, but to learn the “Wabash way.”

I left the Tutorial to spend some time with James Gross in his scenography class, where students were building models of theater sets, many choosing very different styles. Each was working independently trying to figure out scale, size, and shape. Professor Gross walked the room, leaning in here and there to help the guys understand what he does so brilliantly for Wabash theater productions.

Minutes later, I’m in a tiny music classroom with two senior students and Professor Vanessa Rogers. I often mention to prospective students (and I’ve written about it, too) that at Wabash, it’s not uncommon to have classes with a half-dozen students or fewer. This was a classic example of how that’s not hype, it’s real and wonderful.

I ended my Tuesday on the familiar third floor of Center Hall in Professor Marc Hudson’s creative writing poetry class. The guys write poems and submit them for “workshopping,” which means they read their poems aloud, the other students study them, and they talk about word choice, phrasing, structure, and beauty.

It was a great way to end the day — and to keep me fired up about the other dozen or so classes I’ll visit over the next several days.

Young Soccer Team Has Bright Future

Jim Amidon — The Wabash College soccer team had a strange schedule this year. The Little Giants played only eight home games, but they came in bunches — they opened the year with two straight home games then played four of the last five at Mud Hollow Field.

In the middle was a stretch of 12 games during which they played at home exactly twice over the course of six weeks.

That would be a brutal schedule for a veteran team. Coach Roberto Giannini, however, had a very young team in this 2008 season.

The team’s three leading scorers were all freshmen. There were games this year when Coach Giannini started eight rookies at 11 positions.

And while soccer novices will say that the high school and college fields are the same size and the rules are largely the same, there is a very big difference in the pace of the game and the skill level of the players — even at the Division III, non-scholarship level.

Giannini’s troops learned and grew as a team in the line of fire with little in the way of home crowd support.

The future of Wabash soccer is indeed bright. The team graduates just four seniors, so while the season ended just two days ago, Coach Giannini will hit the recruiting trail knowing his nucleus is intact and with a full head of steam.

Giannini is a native of Italy and is full of passion and emotion for the game of soccer. You can see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice, and witness it at practice and on game days.

Yet in spite of his off-the-charts passion for the game, he is even more passionate about the players themselves. He’d like to win, sure, but he’s more interested in working closely with his players as they learn valuable life lessons from the game they all love.

This was a season full of such lessons. The Wabash soccer team had a record of four wins, five losses, and two ties when tragedy rocked the campus the day after Homecoming. His team is peppered with freshman players who either lived with or were close to the young man who died.

Somehow, Coach Giannini helped them gut through a 3-3 tie on the road two days later before the emotional bottom fell out. The team would not only lose its next three games, it would lose them by a combined score of 15-1.

That’s why my heart filled with pride when the Little Giants came home on October 18 and beat a scrappy Franklin team 1-0. One goal was over-ruled late in the second half, but the team stayed focused and came back to boot the game-winner and snap a long losing streak.

Overcoming long odds. Playing as a team. Relying on teammates as brothers. Persevering in the face of overwhelming adversity. Staying focused. Playing with mind, body, and heart.

Those are the lessons that the young Little Giants learned in the 2008 soccer season. Coach Giannini and his great assistant Jeff Oleck are to be commended — not so much as coaches — but as teachers.

The overall win-loss record indicates improvement over past years, but moreover it represents promise for the future. Having endured the most difficult few months of their lives, the Wabash players grew enormously as a team and as people.

And unlike the wins and losses, the lessons learned this year will stay with these Wabash men all the days of their lives.