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Robert Cooley and the “Medicine of Life”

Steve Charles—I can’t recall a single encounter with Professor Robert Cooley during which he did not surprise me. Sometimes with an opinion, sometimes with something he’d recently read, often with an encouraging or kind word, and occasionally with an autobiographical fact (for example, his talent as a “coloratura whistler!”). The conversations often sent me scrambling for a text, and once inspired a major change in my life. His intellectual curiosity was contagious.

Even his death surprised me, though it shouldn’t have. We knew this was coming. But I was hoping for another of those conversations, and Bob’s rallying from cancer and various complications spoiled me into believing there would be more time. As my wife said when I told her the news, “We’re not ready to lose him yet.”

So when I went to the College archives to find comfort in reading more about him, I had to smile when, once again, and even in death, he surprised me.

First, in a Montgomery Magazine article from 2003 written by John Waye. I knew Bob and Mary Angela had parented many foster children and adopted four of their own. I didn’t know that Bob had himself been adopted:

“Bob was an orphan, adopted at 20 months by a miner and his wife in the steelmaking center of Bessemer, Alabama. His father was a tough, down-to-earth man who went to work at the age of 12 and rose in the mine, where he became its superintendent…

“The young lad proved to be a brilliant and hard-working student, a Boy Scout in his Baptist church’s troop from the age of 12, he rose through the ranks to Eagle and was involved as a junior scoutmaster. He worked on his studies, his reading, and music, especially choral work. He was a boy soprano in certain choral groups…”

Bob’s academic ranking in high school earned his recruitment for the Navy V-12 program, and Waye’s article discusses his bachelor’s degree in biology, his flight training in the near-impossible-to-fly PBY42s (and those take-offs from and landings on aircraft carriers I’d heard him describe so well), his reconnaissance flights over Korea and China at the beginning of the Cold War, and his law degree.

But my favorite anecdotes involved his meeting and courtship of Mary Angela:

“Back home from college he went to a favorite high school teacher and asked her if there was any girl from the high school that he would like to carry on a conversation with. She immediately recommended Mary Angela Perry. They began dating on a double date to a Sunday evening church service, then back to one of the girls’ house to sing hymns around the piano. Within six weeks they both knew that the other was the one they would later marry.

“But that proved to be much later. Mary Angela was still two years from finishing high school and wanted to graduate from college before marrying. Bob was getting ready to start his junior year at the University of Alabama and took a lot of ribbing from friends about “robbing the cradle, but he and Mary Angela knew their own minds quite well and never wavered. Bob countered their banter with, “Oh, she’ll grow up!”

And, of course, she did.

But the most moving words I read in Bob’s file were those of the late Professor Paul Mielke, Bob’s friend and colleague in the mathematics department, who spoke at his retirement reception in 1999. Printing that talk would make a good remembrance, but I’ll share a few excerpts here. It’s such a pleasure to read not only for what we learn about Bob and about his and Paul’s friendship, but because you can almost hear Paul speaking as you read it—and you can almost see Bob’s reaction (as Paul notes early on, “my friend eschews encomiums,” and Paul does his best to tone it down.)

Here’s Paul Mielke:
“From 1962 until my retirement in 1985 we enjoyed a continuous conversation wherever we were, his mind always in tune, his sentences sensibly structured with precisely chosen words. It mattered not at all that our teaching methods were disparate—his Socratic, and mine didactic. We enjoyed our differences civilly, with good conversation at the center of our life together.”

Paul also joined Bob, for a while, “in his relentless program of physical fitness:

“Robert patiently accommodated me in traversing as many as 3,000 meters a session, always charitably matching my pace.”

Paul spoke of “Robert’s intense regard for the proper use of language, a characteristic of his that I have most cherished.”

And there was music, always a part of Bob Cooley’s life:

“Robert and I enjoyed music together. Wendell Calkins conceived the idea of forming a madrigal group, so on Monday evenings a dozen or so of us gathered in the Goodrich Room to sing madrigals. I sat on Robert’s right and depended upon him to read the notes, and after a few passes I could do a passable job of matching his unerringly accurate melodic line, though my voice was no match for his.”

Paul makes reference to some academic politics on campus, and how his friend Robert’s “calm, kindly demeanor, and acerbic wit tided me over several intracollegiate tiffs.” He concludes with a quote from Ecclesiasticus, then his own words: “’A faithful friend is the medicine of life.’ Robert’s has been the medicine of kindness and companionship. May you all enjoy such good medicine as I have had from him.”

There will be a celebration of Robert Cooley’s life at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Crawfordsville on New Year’s Day (Saturday, January 1) at 1 p.m., and I’m looking forward to hearing more stories, learning more facets of this truly singular man.

Yesterday Mary Angela and I were talking—about Robert’s accidentally flying over a Russian port during the Cold War, among other things. Near the end of our conversation, the subject of her beloved’s faith came up. She mentioned that once, when confronted by another man’s theology, Bob summarized  his own the way he’d heard it summed up in the words of Jesus for years in services at St. John’s: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And the second is like unto it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”

It was the first time I learned something about Bob Cooley that didn’t surprise me at all.

Saying Goodbye to Our Unsung Heroes

Jim Amidon — Last Thursday, Wabash College paid tribute to retiring faculty and staff who collectively have served the College for nearly 350 years. And most folks around here have little appreciation or understanding of their myriad contributions to the success of the College.

Kathy Day

Sure, Bill Doemel’s 40 years as biology professor, computer center director, and leader of Trippet Hall and the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts are, perhaps, well known. But most of the people recognized last week are unsung heroes. They do the difficult, time-consuming work that makes a school like Wabash run like butter.

Kathy Day’s desk in the Business Office isn’t even visible when you walk in the door. But without her attention to detail, the College’s financial books would have holes all through them. Kathy worked as “payment coordinator,” which means she was largely responsible for making sure our partners and vendors got paid for their work.

John Culley

John Culley, a 1969 Wabash graduate, has been the College’s comptroller for two decades. I have no idea exactly what a comptroller does, but I know that each year Wabash’s financial records are carefully scrutinized and audited, and every year John is congratulated for his immaculate bookkeeping. Beyond that, John is a living Wabash history museum/dictionary/fact finder. Got a financial question about Wabash? John could always be counted on to answer it.

Marcia Caldwell and Debbie Bourff have been mainstays in our print shop and mailroom for well over 20 years. Marcia and Debbie have processed (literally) millions of dollars in postage and run tens of millions of copies, always with a smile and helpful suggestion. Debbie also managed reservations for scores of campus rooms and buildings, and is singularly responsible for helping hundreds of people get married in the College Chapel.

Over the years, when I have needed data for public records, I go to the registrar’s office, usually with a poorly worded description of what I need. It never mattered to Linda Wilson, who as administrative assistant to the registrar, was responsible for the safe keeping of our most precious data — the academic records of the College. I’ll miss her helpfulness, accuracy, and efficiency!

Kathy Tymoczko

When there have been requests for information stored in our very complicated database system, Datatel, it’s been Kathy Tymoczko who has been able find it. She not only knows the system inside and out, she’s been a national leader and teacher in helping people across the country learn to manage their data effectively.

When our pre-med freshmen show up for their biology labs, everything is carefully laid out the way it should be — from beakers to tweezers to the objects of dissection (not to mention tens of millions of fruit flies). For a student, the work of organizing and preparing labs seems to happen by magic — presto! But for more than 25 years, that work has been carefully orchestrated by Cindy Munford, probably the least-know, most valuable player in our biology department.

Carolyn Harshbarger and Guyanna Spurway combined for well over 60 years of service to Wabash’s Advancement Office. Together they processed millions of dollars in Annual Fund gifts, wrote more thank you notes than you can imagine, and were the behind-the-scenes forces that kept a rapidly changing Advancement Office together for more than three decades.

Carolyn Goff served two presidents as the smiling face and chief organizer of the president’s office. Her careful attention to detail with our Trustees; her ability to manage at least 30 projects simultaneously; and her compassion made her a one-of-a-kind person.

Nancy Doemel

Two of my oldest and dearest friends at the College are Nancy Doemel and Steve House, who are both retiring this month.

Nancy ran the Wabash overseas study program at Aberdeen, Scotland for as long as I can remember, and any alumnus who studied there has very fond memories of Nancy.

I’ve known her best as a colleague in Advancement and, particularly, as an incredibly effective grant writer. Alone, she is responsible for helping Wabash secure more than $30 million in grant funding. No matter what her role — fund-raiser, volunteer coordinator, or grant writer — Nancy was great at her work because of her love of Wabash and her knowledge of its history.

Steve House

Steve House spent more than 20 years as an assistant football coach. During my time as sports information director, few people were more kind to me than Steve. I thought of him as a father figure, and soon realized that dozens and dozens of Wabash football players thought of him in the same way. I can’t begin to estimate the number of meals Steve and Judy served to football running backs or defensive linemen, but it’s probably several hundred. And keep in mind, those guys eat a LOT of lasagna.

Wabash has thrived for 177 years because of the devotion of a small group of dedicated people. While I’m sure the beat will go on starting in January, in some ways we will be a lesser place after the retirement of these good colleagues, devoted friends, and care-takers of the College.

Veteran Sports Writer Visits Tutorial

Tom Bambrey ’68 - Last summer, when I assigned “Heaven Is A Playground” as one of the books for my Freshman Tutorial, American Values and American Sports, I had no idea what would happen soon after. 

The students presented Telander with a Wabash sweatshirt

The book, published in 1975, tells the story of urban, playground basketball in New Your City, and introduces a group of playground legends – some of whom were playing college and professional basketball, some of whom would never escape their urban circumstances.  Written by Rick Telander, then a young sportswriter who spent a summer in Brooklyn researching the book and learning about the importance of basketball to urban youth, “Heaven Is A Playground” has been recognized by Sports Illustrated as one of the great sports books of all time.

Telander is the senior sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, a former Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated, and multiple winner of the Illinois Sportswriter of the Year Award. He has also written eight books.  He is also widely known for his television appearances and his perceptive writing about sports.

The students organize for a group photo.

Through a series of events, Telander learned that his book was part of the Wabash College tutorial.  Telander offered to drive down from Chicago to meet with the class.  Wednesday evening, he met with the group, explaining how he wrote “Heaven Is a Playground.” He shared old photos and his original notebooks from his summer in Brooklyn. Answering questions from the class, Rick gave the eager freshmen a first-person account of what it is like to be a writer, what it was like for a 24 year old to walk into street basketball and learn about the players and their culture, and how he has maintained those friendships over the years.   He also shared his ideas about how to enjoy life and strive for success. 

The final moment of the evening came when Rick noticed one of the students wearing a Beta Theta Pi pledge pin. Telander, a member of Beta Theta Pi at Northwestern University, began discussing the Beta house at Wabash. When last seen, he and the three Beta pledges were off to Beta Theta Pi before Telander drove back to Chicago.