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The Pillowman: Intense Theater at its Best

Jim Amidon — I slinked into the experimental theater Monday night to snap a handful of photos to publicize the Wabash College Theater’s production of the Tony Award-winning play The Pillowman.

Director Michael Abbott and scene designer James Gross always create intimate and powerful theater in the little black box of a stage and The Pillowman is no exception. In fact, it might be the best example of intensely gripping theater I’ve ever seen.

I was not fully prepared for the experience. My plan was to come and go quickly — getting the shots I needed for the website and local newspapers. But I soon found myself staring at the scene of an accident — not wanting to look, not wanting to stay, but unable to leave.

Be forewarned: The Pillowman deals with intense, mature subject matter and contains graphic language. Come if you want to experience the power of good theater; stay away if you are easily offended or uncomfortable with macabre themes.

I saw Paul Boger’s electric performance in True West in the Experimental Theater back in 1987, and I’ve seen a couple of versions of Glengarry Glen Ross down there, so I know how the space lends itself to intense drama.

From the very first scene with veteran stars Matt Goodrich and Spencer Elliott, I was hooked.

See pictures from Monday’s dress rehearsal here and here.

Abbott and Gross have created an environment where the audience is a witness — looking through one of those windows they use in police interrogation rooms. You’re there, in the room with the characters, but you’re protected on the “other side” of the glass.

However, there is no hiding from the intensity — of the performances or the subject matter.

Elliott turns in his finest performance to date (with a kind nod to The Elephant Man) as Katurian, a writer of graphic stories depicting dark, disturbing child murders. He and his brother Michal (played brilliantly by Luke Robbins) are under suspicion for the murder of a couple of children in the community.

Goodrich, as Tupolski, and Dan Masterson as Ariel, play a detective and street cop, respectively, and bring layer upon layer of intrigue to their complicated characters. They’ll stop at nothing — literally — to discover the truth behind the grizzly murders.

The Pillowman moves in and out of reality; at times the audience is listening and watching as Katurian tells one of his stories. The barriers of story and reality are blurred. As the play unfolds, it becomes clear that real life does, in fact, imitate art.

History professor Stephen Morillo, his wife Lynne Miles-Morillo, and daughter Dione have small roles in the play. And like they say, there are no small roles in the theater. The Miles-Morillo family brings uncomfortable creepiness to an already dark comedy.

By the time the Miles-Morillos had hit the stage, my couple of photos had turned into a couple hundred shots. The intensity of the play forced me to watch through my viewfinder — to distance myself by hiding behind the camera.

But there is no escaping The Pillowman.

Start to finish, the acting in Michael Abbott’s production is first rate, even stellar. Abbott has shown over the years he can make magic with large casts and sprawling plays. In The Pillowman — with a tiny cast of veteran performers — the powerful impact of theater is taken to a new limit.

The Chicago Tribune called the play an “unflinching examination of the very nature and purpose of art.” I agree on one aspect of that — the unflinching part.

The 2005 Tony Award-winner is brutal, even gruesome at times.  It gets inside you and stays with you. This play is not for the faint of heart.

I love good theater and I love the power of theater done well. Michael Abbott’s production of The Pillowman is good theater done very well.

Performances are scheduled for 8:00 p.m. February 25-28. Tickets are available through the Wabash College Box Office (boxoffice@wabash.edu) or (765) 361-6411.

A Scholar’s “Indiana Jones” Moment

 

Steve Charles—I’m not a fan of opera. I’m not enchanted by Baroque music.

Whenever I hear the term I can’t help thinking of Cogsworth the Clock from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and his line, “This is yet another example of the late neoclassic Baroque period. And, as I always say, ‘If it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it!’"

But I won’t miss the February 22nd performance at Wabash College’s Salter Hall of Hypermnestra by the Indiana University Baroque Orchestra.

Even though the title sounds more like a symptom or learning disability.

Even though it’s sung in German. (Don’t worry—there will be English “supertitles.”)

Even though it’s at 3 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon.

I’ll be there because this piece hasn’t been performed in 268 years. Crawfordsville is hosting its 21st century premiere.

(Note: An interview with Professor Larry Bennett about his rediscovery of Hypermnestra and this week’s historic performance will be broadcast this Saturday at 8 p.m. on WBAA-FM 101.3 and this Sunday at 4 p.m. on WBAA-AM 920.)

I’ll be there because it’s being played on instruments built or restored to the specifications of 17th and 18th century instruments. We’ll get to hear what this music really sounded like when it was first performed in 1741.

But mostly I’ll be there is because this is the climax of a musical adventure that Wabash Professor of Music and longtime Crawfordsville resident Larry Bennett has lived since he re-discovered this piece in 1995 while doing research in Meiningen, Germany. This is Larry’s “Indiana Jones” moment, minus the snakes and poison darts. Events such as this don’t come very often anywhere in musical scholarship, much less to Crawfordsville and Wabash. 

So I’ll be there not only for the performance, but for Larry’s introductory remarks at 2:30.

If you know Larry at all, you know how over-the-top enthusiastic he can get about a beautiful piece of music. A wonderful singer in his own right, he brings that same passion to his scholarship. I’ve interviewed him twice about this piece of music. I’ve never seen him so excited about a performance.

Part of it’s the opera itself. Larry says, “It’s a darned good piece of music with all the goodies you expect in an opera— treachery, jealousy, love—along with awe-inspiring writing for voices."


Part of it’s the backstory. It’s too long to get into here, but let’s just say that the way this music was originally commissioned, then lost, has eerie similarities to themes in the opera.

But it’s also the sheer joy of witnessing a gorgeous piece of music, once discarded like a fine instrument left in a dusty attic for centuries, suddenly springing to life.

"It’s thrilling to hear a piece that you’ve looked at on paper for years," Larry told me not long after attending the IU Baroque Orchestra’s first rehearsals of Hypermnestra earlier this month. “The music sounds glorious!”

Of course, the only reason we’re even able to hear that glorious music today is because Larry found it. Scholarship sometimes gets a bad rap in our culture. We celebrate artists and performers but tend to overlook those who study and help us better appreciate, understand, and preserve that art and those performances. And in the case of Hypermnestra and 89 other works by Handel, Scarlatti, Francesco Conti, and others in the Meiningen Collection, Larry not only rediscovered the music; he helped the city of Meiningen save it for future generations. 

In the late 1990s, the collection was nearly scattered for possible sale at auction. The Meiningen Museum went to court to keep the pieces together. Their crucial piece of evidence was Larry Bennett’s article from a scholarly journal. When museum won the case, its music library curator emailed Larry.

“You have saved the collection for the city of Meiningen,” she said. “Political officials have praised the decision as a day of joy.”

Larry probably won’t mention any of this when he introduces the opera this Sunday. He’ll focus his talk on the opera, on its composer, the instruments and singers that will bring this once-lost music to life.

But as you enjoy all that, think about the months Larry spent poring over card catalogs, notes, manuscripts, and correspondence in that music library in Meiningen, not to mention the years arranging the piece via Finale software on his computer so that it could be performed. Imagine the thrill of discovery as he realized he had found music long-forgotten by the world. That’s the work of the scholar—finding new ways to understand the world, and reminding us of treasures we’ve forgotten.

So I’ll be there on Sunday, in part, to honor those scholars, and especially Larry Bennett, the man whose scholarship, teaching, and talents as a performer have been the foundation for the rebuilding of the Wabash Music Department since he arrived here 13 years ago.

I’m going because Wabash and IU are making history that day.

I’m going for the adventure.

But I’m also going for the music. Hypermnestra is a remarkable example from the late Baroque period. And, as Cogsworth and I always say, "If it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it."

In photo: Professor Larry Bennett works with students in the Fine Arts Center’s Fred Enenbach Room. 

 

Spaghetti Dinner Raises Nearly $3000

Howard W. Hewitt - Adult members of the Wabash and Crawfordsville community are often amazed at the philanthropic efforts of Wabash men. Wednesday night the students were amazed at the community’s generous heart.

Last year members of the football team went on a mission trip to Botswana, Africa. There are 15 student-athletes going back this spring break. The team held a spaghetti dinner fundraiser before Wednesday’s final home basketball game to help defray costs for each student going on the mission.

The students readily admitted they didn’t expect the out-pouring of support.

"First of all, all of us want to thank the Wabash community and the Crawfordsville community, as well, for their support tonight," said sophomore defensive lineman Chris Beedie, who is helping organize the trip. "It was truly awesome to get to see both communities come together to support our efforts over spring break. 

"Because of everyone’s generosity, we were able to raise a total of $2,760.56 for our trip to Botswana this year.  This was far more than we had expected and we are extremely grateful for how the donations will alleviate some of the costs for the trip this year. This took a huge load off of our personal fundraising efforts and will help us to invest in the lives of hundreds of children in Botswana in a few short weeks."

The young men had worked prior to Wednesday’s event to line up sponsors to help defray the costs of putting on the dinner. Those sponsors were: WalMart, Buffalo Wild Wings, Burger King, Wendy’s, Dairy Queen, Long John Silvers, County Market, Papa Murphy’s, Fantastic Sam’s, Ace Hardware, Sears Optical, McDonald’s, Subway, Auto Zone, Kroger, Sears, Sherwin Williams, Shelter Insurance, Tropical Tan, Great Clips, GFS, Town and Country Hardware.

"This list really shows how invested the Crawfordsville community is in Wabash College and how many businesses were willing to help send a group of Wabash Men to Africa over spring break," Beedie said.

Two Students’ Perspective on NBA Basketball, Careers

Howard W. Hewitt - One of the great things about Wabash College for staff as well as faculty, is working with so many great young men. We bring a different skill set, life experiences, and perspective to their education.

And once in a while we even can offer opportunities others can’t. For example, Career Services has had a great night out to a Pacers’ game for a couple of years. The group learns about sports marketing before the game, then stays to see the Pacers play. Last year Sports Information Director Brent Harris hooked up Bachelor photographer Clayton Craig ’08 with game credentials to shoot photos from the floor.

We were able to do that again this year and set up Alex Moseman ’11 with credentials for Tuesday’s game against the Cavs. Bachelor writer Jonathan Torrez ’10 was along on the trip to write about it for this week’s paper. I asked both guys to share their experience.

Moseman -  While I don’t really have a desire to ever go into to the field of sports marketing, the talk was still interesting. The Pacers’ Vice President of Marketing talked about his experience creating ad campaigns. In a nutshell he defined marketing as creating demand. I listened to his talk and snapped a couple obligatory photos for the Public Affairs office, awaiting the real reason for being at the game. 

See Moseman’s pictures here.

Howard Hewitt and Brent Harris worked their magic again. They had gotten me a press credential for the floor for the game. Picking up the credential was an adventure all on its own, finding my way though a couple “secret doors” then going through two security checks I finally was able to pick up my pass. While that was exciting in itself, the chance to shoot from the floor was made all the better by the fact that the Pacers were playing the Cavs, meaning that I would be literally inches away from Lebron James.

While I’m not a fan of the NBA, I still appreciate and respect the athletic abilities of NBA players. And someone who can command as much respect as an athlete and a leader as Lebron James is worth getting excited over.

During hafttime I got a chance to talk with a Sports Illustrated photographer. Both of us being sports lovers had the same reaction; he said being a photographer is really a non-job, "someone has to do it and I’m glad to be the person.” 

It reminded me that of the 900 students at Wabash I was the only one who was given a chance to go to the floor for the game. In a sense it gave me even more of a drive to take pictures professionally some day.

Torrez - I really cannot start without mentioning this first: THE PACERS BEAT LeBRON!  I experienced my first NBA game while researching my career options at Conseco Fieldhouse. Only at a place like Wabash would I have experienced such a breath-taking moment. 

A group of Wabash men signed up with Career Services to attend a seminar in Indianapolis to discuss our career choices in sports marketing and sales with Steve Gregory, VP of Marketing for the Pacers.  We had a great talk about life in marketing:  the different career paths to reach the top,  the daily tasks of a marketing agent and creating business while dealing with the current economic crisis. 

Career Services, directed by Scott Crawford, has done amazing things.  Even while driving, Scott was discussing internships and full-time jobs with students. I have gone to Career Services myself a couple of times in the past and they helped me fix my resume, apply for grants, discuss my future goals and plans, and see what they could do for me next. 

My first NBA game – ever – was an exciting one to watch. The game came down to the final .2 seconds with LeBron James fouling Danny Granger, who in turn made the winning free throw. The game was miraculously close with the Pacers short-handed and the Cavaliers trying to get a win after a home loss against the L.A. Lakers. 

The atmosphere in the building was electrifying near the final minutes.  It was one of the greatest sports moments of my life and I am glad to have spent it with the fine men of Wabash. 

Applications at an All-Time High

Jim Amidon — Interest in Wabash College is at an all-time high.

Last Thursday, the Wabash Admissions Office received its 1,456th application for admission. That breaks the previous record of 1,450 applications set two years ago.

Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Steve Klein said that applications have been running 15-20 percent ahead of last year since the start of the recruiting season in August.

When I heard about the new record, I scratched my head and said out loud, “What gives?”

With the nation’s economy in shambles, how could a pricey, private college like Wabash see such a spike in applications?

Common sense would suggest that high school seniors are applying to more colleges and keeping their options open for the best financial aid and scholarship packages.

Yet when I compared Wabash’s surge in applications to other peer institutions around the Midwest, only a couple of colleges and universities were up in applications this year. Many were either about even with last year or way down.

So I sat down with Dean Klein and asked him what he thought was driving interest in Wabash, especially in such tough economic times.

"We’re doing things well,” he said of his veteran staff. “We recruit students the old fashioned way — person to person. Maybe that kind of approach is more resilient in winds of change in the market. We build interpersonal relationships with students and their families that endure. As we build those relationships, we’re also utilizing new technologies — our website, blogs, Facebook, and even YouTube. What it boils down to is a fully integrated, campus-wide approach to recruiting.

“Maybe our success comes from having to work so hard over the years to meet the challenge of recruiting at a college for men,” he told me. “We really do work hard. We go a long way to get to know our prospective students, getting them to complete their applications, and getting them to visit our campus.”

He’s right. I’ve met college admissions professionals at other schools who are astonished by the effort Wabash’s admissions and coaching staffs put into the recruiting process. Klein sums it up correctly, I think.

“We have a good program, a very hard-working staff, and we have a staff that is truly committed to Wabash College; it’s more than just a job to them.”

In our conversation about the record number of applicants this year, Klein’s tone turned serious.

“We’re in unprecedented circumstances this year,” he said in reference to the economy. “We usually rely on historical data in building our freshman class; we have predictive models that indicate the percentages of our admitted students who will enroll here in the fall.

“This year is unpredictable.”

The increase in applications doesn’t necessarily mean Klein’s troops will hit their goal of 250 new students in August. This year more than most, high school seniors and their families are likely to make decisions based solely on finances.

Colleges are in a lesser position to offer financial aid because the investments used to fund financial aid were hit hard by the stock market drop. And in a year when families are likely to have greater financial need you get what Klein calls “a real wild card year.”

“It’s more important this year than ever that we help families understand the value of a Wabash education,” he said.

The value is tangible and has been the backbone of the Admission Office’s recruiting strategy for a decade. Relationships with professors are the heart of the Wabash experience, and the impact of those relationships — challenge, insight, support, and guidance — lasts far beyond the four years students spend on campus.

Wabash’s value includes a connection to generations of alumni across the country and across career paths. Wabash has long been committed to off-campus study and immersion learning experiences. Students have access to paid internships and externships on and off campus. And underlying all of the Wabash experience is the fundamental culture of trust and responsibility.

To bring in the class, the admissions team will now concentrate on getting students to visit campus during Honor Scholarship Weekend in March. “That’s a time when we provide a great weekend when they can get to know us better,” Klein said. “The better they know us, the more open they become to Wabash and commit to becoming a member of this community.”

The economic crisis has put higher education leaders like Dean Klein in uncharted territory where historically accurate predictive models are rendered meaningless. Still, Klein and his staff are excited about the coming months.

“We’ve always been able to do what it takes to get the job done,” he said with a smile emerging on his face. “We’ll keep working hard, moving forward, and see what happens, and as a result we’ll be that much smarter heading into next year.

And that’s a “Wabash Always Fights” kind of attitude, indeed!

A Meander through Kentucky

Steve Charles, Nashville, TN—My last two interviews of a five-day road trip will follow a relaxing meander yesterday back down to Nashville from Louisville via Bardstown and the Bluegrass Parkway.

Professor Emeritus of Classics John Fischer had recommended a stop at one of the bourbon distillers in Bardstown, as I’d never tasted bourbon before.

After that pleasant surprise, I headed south to the Abbey of Gethsemane, where one of my favorite writers and teachers, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, had lived. Our alumnus Andrew Dits ’06 had visited one of the poet/monks there many times (and wrote about him for Wabash Magazine in 2006), and I’ve wanted to visit since I first began reading Merton’s work in the 1970s.

Paging through Merton’s books in the gift store and walking the 2,400 acres surrounding the abbey were pleasures I had anticipated, but my conversation with 84-year-old Brother Camillus was not.

Thin, no more than 5’6”, and wearing the Trappist’s traditional habit and belt, he has the same dry sense of humor my grandfather had. Sitting next to him listening to his stories, I felt tension and anxiety leaving me like a sigh.

He told me about entering the monastery when he was 15, in 1940, how he knew so clearly this was what he wanted that he even turned down a vacation on the Jersey shore (he lived in Philadelphia, and the shore was his favorite vacation spot) and got on the bus for Kentucky.

He nearly drowned in a crowded swimming pool when he was a boy, saved only because the lifeguard had kept his eye on him and plucked him out of the water just in time. “You can drown as easily in a crowd of people as you can alone,” he said.

He asked me if I’d ever seen a sandbar. "You know, when the water levels just right," he said with a grin, "it looks like the people on the sandbar are walking on water."

He told of his 20 years working in the infirmary, about the way Trappists honor their dead with a 24-hour vigil. I asked him if they embalm the bodies, “I wouldn’t want that done to me,” he said, laughing. “It’s a good thing the people they do it to are dead.”

He suggested I walk the grounds, recommended a couple of trails, told me about the time he got lost out in the hills, and he told me that if he was younger he’d go with me and “take you up the hill the hard way.”

But mostly he told stories. And I carried those stories with me as I walked the hills and forests around the abbey, in the karst region of Kentucky where huge caves are right beneath your feet and the streams and rivers run underground like veins and arteries under the skin.

Brother Camillus told me nothing specifically about his beliefs or theology. I know him only through 20 minutes of his stories. He just lent me those stories, trusted me to come to my own conclusions. Remarkable hospitality. What a wonderful and generous way to get to understand a person. I didn’t want to leave. Shook hands with him twice.

“You do that again, and you’re going get blisters," he said, smiling, and he put his arm on my shoulder, then patted my back as I left.

That’s how it’s been on this trip. People generously lending and trusting me with their stories. The old adage “every person has a story” is a crock. I cringe when I hear someone say, “that guy is a great story,” as if people can be reduced to the tales we tell. People are more, much more than stories, and the stories we tell are just one way we have of coming to know one another.

But they are my favorite way, and I’m grateful the alumni I’ve visited on this trip have trusted me with some of theirs.

Today I’ll meet Lindsey Wilson College President Bill Luckey ’82 and his wife, Elise. I’ve admired Bill’s work at this growing Kentucky liberal arts college ever since Professor David Polley’s wife, Debbie, told me about him after they attended his inauguration almost 10 years ago.

Then I’m heading over to Belmont University—where one of the 2008 Presidential Debates was held—to photograph Nick Ragsdale, a  biology professor and researcher there.

Then it’s back home after meeting with 10 alumni in four days, convinced more than ever that trips like this are essential to our work, that as important as writing and photography are to the work of Wabash Magazine, listening is the most essential.

Interesting irony: Next week I’m getting my hearing tested!

 

In photos: a sycamore tree in front of the Abbey of Gethsemane; Professor Nick Ragsdale.

Visiting Louisville Alumni and John Fischer H’70

Steve Charles, Louisville, KY — Began the day surveying the battering the forests of Kentucky took during last week’s ice storm. All along the road between Nashville and Louisville the trees looked like they’d had their arms and heads lopped off. You couldn’t even pull over on the shoulder of the road. It was blocked by fallen trees for miles.

Which is a lousy way to begin talking about a great day. 

Click here for photos.

Started with lunch at John E’s Restaurant on Bardstown Road with the founder of Mission Critical Inc. Phil Deamer ’67, and three Wabash men he hired right out of college—Mark Gehl ’98, Brian Harrington ’99, and Scott Salai ’06. Phil is a programming genius, and each of these men’s stories is too rich to even start to go into here. I’ll unravel them as I transcribe the tape later today. But again the theme of generativity — of passing along what matters to the next generation — was there.

There is an art to the kind of computer programming Phil Deamer did, the work that has made much of what we do today with technology possible. Mark told me about sitting alongside Phil at the computer for hours, watching him “code.” I couldn’t help but think of the days when journeymen luthiers passed along their craft to apprentices who watched them work in much the same way. Today, Mark is teaching the next “apprentices” a new version of that work.

Phil intentionally hired liberal arts graduates — four from Wabash — and once he hired them, he “gave them the vocational training they’d been wise enough to avoid.”

Like I said, too much stuff to even begin writing about here.

But among the things I learned today was that hosting four Wabash men for lunch not only yields stories, but it’s a lot of fun, too. The guys were patient and great sports as I photographed them in various places around the historic restaurant (the owner and staff were so welcoming and helpful in this, too.)

Had a little time to interview Mark Gehl after the gathering. He personifies something I’ve noticed in all these guys — they don’t go through life with blinders on, trying to put the world in a box they can understand. That same wonder and openness I remember in Mark from his student days is even stronger now. And I tend to learn best alongside those asking questions, as opposed to those sure of the answers. It was a wonderful conversation that made me convinced I need to do this sort of trip more often. Wabash Magazine reaches alumni where they live. How can I edit it if I don’t know that place, if I’m so focused on the campus alumni left, and not on the lives they live today? I have a lot to learn.

So I went to visit John Fischer H’70. He turned 70 yesterday. I’ve wanted to see his house, especially the rooms that Michael Bricker ’04 designed, for years, and John invited me in, along with his two dogs, Zach and (I think, Zeke, but I’ll have to check out the names with John.) Zach met me at the door carrying a stuffed pig! John’s hospitality and wisdom were the perfect end to a great day in Louisville. I’ve posted a few photos here.

 At the end of the day, I got the last hotel room in Elizabethtown, KY. The hotels are packed with electrical workers restoring power to the area and residents who still don’t have electricity. I went to grab dinner at Arby’s so I could download photos at 10 p.m., and the guys with Alabama Power (who have come up to help) were just getting in from 18 hours working in 10 degrees and high winds getting the lights turned back on. I’ll think of them the next time I think I’ve had a tough day at the office!

Visiting Nashville Alumni

Steve Charles, Nashville, Tennessee — I dragged the bad weather and single-digit temperatures in Indiana down here with me. Nashvillians don’t seem happy about the winds and ice, either. I escaped both by ducking into the San Antonio Taco Company across from the Vanderbilt University campus. Very “college-townish” — steel tables, plastic lawn furniture chairs, strips of red/orange and light blue neon along the top the of wall, old b/w photos of Texas and Mexico interspersed with the logos of Corona, Dos Equis, Heineken!, and “the Kenny Chesney Poets and Pirates Tour, 2008.” Chicken and cheese enchiladas and rice taste great; Boulevard wheat beer equally fine. Good place to check my notes.

Just finished talking with Joe Lopez ’96, assistant director of the university’s Center for Science Outreach who is also “co-investigator” with the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt, “dedicated to enhancing scientific and technological literacy through the establishment of unique partnerships between University scientists, K-12 educators and students, and the local and global science community.” Which means that Joe and his colleagues at CSO gives young students a chance to really “do” science, not just read about it.

If I’d had an opportunity like that, instead of the way science was taught when I was a kid, I might be a scientist today. Not that that would be a good thing for the world. Joe could be the poster boy for the liberal arts. He’s done scientific research, earned a Ph.D in biology and a masters in education. Developed curriculum and taught programs for CSO, and now he’s doing administrative work, too, and finding, to his surprise, that he enjoys it.

His colleague at CSO, Harvey Sperling, says Joe’s agility across the disciplines is extraordinary and “speaks well his liberal arts education.” Joe calls it “academic ADD!” But listening to him talk about his path, it seems he just enjoys a challenge, seems surprised at how much new things interest him. My favorite story from our talk: Joe was ABD (All But Dissertation) for his Ph.D and had moved to Texas to finish writing when he took a job tutoring third graders in the public school. He noticed the portable classroom he was working in had a bunch of unused science equipment, and he asked the principal if he could use it to introduce his third graders to science. By the end of the year, the part-time tutor had a much bigger job, taking not only the third grade classes into the lab but all of the classes; working with the to grow a school garden, teaching them the fun and wonder of doing science. This from a guy who before he started “didn’t even like kids.” 
 
Later in the day I went  to see Ben Whitehouse ’99, now Tennessee Assistant Attorney General Ben Whitehouse. Ben grew up in Nashville, so this job (he’s been here about a year) is a homecoming for him after Wabash, grad school at Knoxville, and as a member of the Navy’s JAG Corps (which took him to Texas, Yokosuka, Japan and on the aircraft carrier U.SS. Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71)).

I knew Ben at Wabash primarily through his work on radio with my colleagues Jim Amidon ’87 and Brent Harris. Walking into the John Sevier Building security and seeing him at work was a real eye-opener. Not only seeing the important cases he’s working and writing, the souvenirs and awards on the wall. But even during his Wabash days Ben had a deep understanding of the importance of community, of the essential though sometimes unglamorous things that need to be done to keep a community alive. Listening to his JAG stories, seeing him at work here in his hometown, noticing a photo on the wall where he’s with his colleagues in the Boy Scouts, leading a group of young men and women on a wilderness cleanup project, I got a better sense of where that understanding comes from. “I enjoy handling cases that have a community impact,” Ben says. Nashville is lucky to have him back home again.

And Ben gave me the line that may best describe this trip so far. He’s been in scouting since his “bobcat” days, mentors young men today (even brought three up to the Bell Game this year). He had the pleasure of seeing one of the young men he’s mentored enter law school this year, and the boy’s mom told Ben he’d been the boy’s inspiration.

“There’s nothing better than to see a kid grow up like that,” he said. To watch him become a man, perhaps do things greater than even he had imagined.

Even though I’ve had nothing to do with any of these alums education, I feel much the same way as Ben does as I meet these students 10, 11, 12 years out of Wabash, going to the places where they are doing things greater than they had likely imagined at Wabash. It takes the Wabash education beyond rhetoric and into the day to day effect these guys are having in their new, or old, communities.

I keep thinking of Al Pacino’s line at the end of Scent of a Woman, when he tells the teachers at the school where his young friend Charlie is attending, “You hold this boy’s future in your hands. It’s a valuable future. It’s going to make you proud some day.”

And so it does.

A Visit with Deon Miles ’97

Steve Charles, Sewanee, TN—Just checking in from a road trip to Kentucky and Tennessee, where I’ve been interviewing and photographing alumni for the upcoming “39 Under 39” issue of Wabash Magazine.

The guy on the right here is Deon Miles ’97. Or, I should say, Associate Professor of Chemistry Deon Miles. (Click here for a photo album). In 1997 Deon was featured as our “Works in Progress,” having just given the Commencement Address, won practically every prize a chem major could win at Awards Chapel, been basketball manager for a team that included Chad Tabor and Josh Estelle, and mentored kids in the Malcolm X Institute’s KQ & K program. We titled the feature “Finding His Place at Wabash,” and Deon had done just that like few Wabash students we’ve known.

I spent four hours with Deon this week at the University of the South at Sewanee, and Deon has found his place there, too.

Back in 1997, Deon said in that same article that he hoped one day “to be a teacher at a small liberal arts college,” and that’s exactly what he does today. I had the pleasure of watching him teach an upper level chem class in Spencer Hall, Sewanee’s beautiful new science building that has the same attention collaborative learning areas and “serendipitous space” that were built into our own Hays Hall.

To call Deon’s teaching style active is an understatement. Never in one place for more than 10 seconds, never more than 8 feet away from the students, he moves from the dry erase board to the computer to the screen and through the room, watching his students to make sure they’re getting what he’s saying, keeping them engaged with questions, challenging and joking and then letting them come up with the answer. Visual, auditory, kinesthetic and tactile learning styles—Deon teaches to them all.

Even I could learn chemistry from this man! Deon earned tenure at Sewanee last spring—that must have been an easy decision for the Dean and tenure committee.

Professors wear academic gowns when they teach here. Deon has adorned his with what must be 40 or so pins of all sorts—“to take some of the heaviness out of it,” as he says, not wanting artificial space between him and his students.

Along with his teaching expertise, Deon brings Sewanee cutting edge research in nanoparticles, similar to the type Wabash’s Lon Porter works with. In fact, Deon and Lon have had some interesting exchanges about the research at conferences and by email.

My favorite story from Deon (I’ll try to get this right without going back to the tape): A freshman in his General Chemistry class came to his office after doing poorly on a test and “slapped a drop slip on my desk,” wanting to withdraw from the course.

“Not you,” Deon told her. He knew she understood the fundamentals of the course, she had both the aptitude and interest to be a chem major, in fact. But she’d hit an obstacle, felt overwhelmed by what she deemed a failure on one test. As Deon said a couple times during our conversation today, “I make mistakes, and so will my students. Everyone does.” And Deon thought this student was about to make another.

So he looked her in the eye and said, “No, not you. Maybe some of the others in the class, okay. But not you.”

The student didn’t know what to say.

“Why don’t you take this back, take the weekend to think about it, and if you still want to drop the class next week, see me then,” Deon told her.

Today that student is a junior and a chemistry major. I saw her in class today (she’s in a couple of the pictures in the photo album I’ll post with this blog.) She clearly enjoys what she’s learning. May have found her own place at Sewanee.

I hear it all the time from Wabash alumni talking about our professors: “She saw something in me that I hadn’t seen in myself before” or “He believed in me.” Deon says a Wabash professor did that for him. Now he’s doing the same for his own students.

This is going to be a great trip!
 
 
 

Let’s Hear it for the Boards

Jim Amidon — There are dozens of ways in which Wabash College is unique among the nation’s colleges and universities. At the top of the list, though, is the dedication and loyalty of Wabash’s alumni — and particularly of its alumni leadership.

Last Thursday, members of the Board of Trustees and the Board of Directors of the National Association of Wabash Men began returning to campus for their mid-winter meetings.

Both boards serve different and meaningful functions. Both are made up of some of Wabash’s most distinguished alumni — including heads of large corporations, small business, doctors, lawyers, and educators.

Some attended classes on Friday morning. Others received updates from President Pat White and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Steve Klein. The business of the weekend had to do with the economic crisis and its impact on Wabash, and how alumni can step up to insure Wabash will
continue to provide an incredible liberal arts education for the students enrolled here.

What I found most fascinating was Friday night’s dinner. The Trustees, Alumni Board members, and their guests dined with students — about 120 of them. The alumni leaders spread themselves out — a couple at every table — to talk with the students and without agenda.

I don’t know if other colleges and universities do this or not. After all, there is some risk in allowing such free, unscripted dialogue among students and Trustees.

But Wabash’s alumni leaders know that the College exists solely for its students. If the leaders are to work with President White and his administration to navigate through difficult times, it’s important they
have a keen understanding of the Wabash experience from the students’ perspective.

I was fortunate to be at Friday’s dinner. At my table were three impressive alumni from three different eras.

Mark Shreve, Class of 2004, works with international study programs in Italy, recruiting students and college partners for those programs, as well as marketing them. He’s also a mentor and friend to dozens of current students.

Mike Rapier, Class of 1987, is president of Liberty Paper in Arizona. His company is holding fast in this tough economy but he’s had to slow production in order to keep his workforce in tact. He and his son,
Matthew, flew in for the Alumni Board meeting, then flew to Tampa Bay for the Super Bowl. A long-time Arizona Cardinals season ticket holder, Mike was excited to be chosen in the ticket lottery.

And, interestingly, Mike’s company manufactures the paper the NFL uses for those real-time pictures generated on the sidelines and used by coaches and players.

Kevin Clifford, Class of 1977, was also at our table. Kevin is president of American Funds Distributors in Los Angeles. He’s one of several Wabash Trustees and Alumni Board members whose companies are feeling the full brunt of the economic downturn. He’s in the thick of it at a very high level.

So there we were at dinner with a couple of Wabash’s international students, Victor Meng and Juan Cricco. Victor is a senior economics major from China and Juan is a junior math major from Paraguay. Both are very sharp students.

Kevin and Victor chatted about emerging financial markets in Asia; Victor has studied them and Kevin’s company has offices in Japan and, maybe someday soon, in China.

Juan, Mark, Mike, and Kevin chatted about the recent election, mistakes the McCain campaign may have made along the way, and President Obama’s economic stimulus package.

They also talked about Wabash. When such loyal and generously supportive alumni sit down and ask students what they like most and least about Wabash, something special happens. Plans and agendas begin to form; strategic directions are charted.

Victor said his biggest concern is that the College’s emerging partnership with Fudan University in China might suffer because of the financial crunch. Juan’s biggest concern is more of a practical day-to-day issue: the Sparks Center dining room can’t accommodate the large number of diners, especially at lunch time.

Those were just a couple of the topics covered at one table. Trustees and NAWM Board members had similar conversations at 25 other tables. Students spoke, the alumni leaders listened, and everyone learned something important — Wabash works for its students and alumni are dedicated to meeting their needs, now and in the future.

That dinner was remarkable. Even more impressive was the large number of alumni leaders who returned to campus — on a miserably cold and snowy weekend. Many traveled from New York, California, Arizona, and even overseas to attend the meetings, share their insight and advice, and
partner with the administration in moving the College forward in uncertain times.

Is this alumni passion and loyalty unique in all of higher education? I can’t say for sure.

But I can say it sure is rare to have so many bright, innovative, and creative alumni who are so generous with their time, their talent, and their treasure. Wabash is fortunate, indeed.