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The Bloom of Remembrance

Blooms on the magnolia tree between Hovey Cottage and Kane House given in October 2008 “in loving memory of Susan Veatch Cantrell” by her friends Cynthia Sommer, Mary Kummings, Diane Tapia Quinn, Sandra Ramsey Fanning, and Susan Shearer Rickett.

Steve Charles—Last week I stopped by Class Notes Editor Karen Handley’s office to let her know that the magnolia tree planted in honor of Susan Cantrell by her friends was blooming. She smiled, but I could tell something was wrong. Which didn’t make a lot of sense to me. We had just finished proofing Karen’s section in this issue of the magazine, classes were winding down, evening events were almost over, music was throbbing from a couple fraternity houses, and spring was finally here. I was feeling pretty good.

But Karen had just proofread the In Memory section of Wabash Magazine. It was an unusually long section this time, and we’d lost a number of alumni Karen had worked with or written about during her 30 years at Wabash.

“Maybe it’s just part of getting older,” she said. “But I know these guys.”

Part of Karen’s job is gathering and editing the obituaries for each issue, often resolving conflicting information from multiple sources, searching the Internet for a fact or story that somehow defines the person to make these short pieces more than just a “death notice.” It’s a thankless task and usually anonymous, unless we get a fact wrong. That’s about the only time she hears about it.

Many college magazines avoid the problem altogether. They simply list the name of the “deceased,” the class year, and date of death. But for Karen—who in our Class Notes insists on listing not only the names of babies born to our alumni families, but the baby’s weight and length and brothers and sisters (“That matters to the parents,” she insists.)—a name, class year, and date of death isn’t enough. Not in a community where fewer than 200 men graduate every year, where so many faculty and staff teachers spend most of their careers. And often, Karen really does know these guys, at least by name from a Class Note, or—as she noted when we lost long-time Class Agent Dutch Friese ’48—from receiving their Class Agent letters.

It was a beautiful day outside, but nothing I could say could shake Karen’s lingering sense of loss, and I realized that, in varying degrees, she goes through this every time we publish. I’m the fortunate one in the process—I take Karen’s obits and go online to add to them or to find remembrances or ask others to write about their friends or write about them myself and I often hear back from grateful family members. At the minimum I have the satisfaction of getting to learn more about the person than I knew before; I am often amazed by the alumni I meet in the loving words of others.

But none of that happens without Karen’s conscientious and faithful hard work. Hers is the historical record. And there’s power in those names and details she gathers. Our production schedule makes it inevitable that most of our remembrances are published four to six months—or even a year—after the person’s death. It’s a time when everyone has gone back to work, back to their daily lives, and a most difficult time for close family members who feel like the person they so loved is being forgotten. I like to think that when a spouse or child of our alumnus opens that issue of the magazine and reads that name, they know their loved one is not forgotten, not by his alma mater. Karen makes sure of that. She knows these guys.

And every issue of Wabash Magazine is bound and placed in the College archives, so that years, decades, perhaps even centuries from now, someone will open those bound volumes searching for a name and, thanks to Karen, they will find it.

I wish I’d been able to cheer her up last week, but I left more grateful than ever for her work. And I thought you should know that when we lose someone here, the name is carried with great care, even a measure of grief, by a woman determined that the person you love will not be forgotten.

The names and remembrances that Karen gathers are like that flower on the magnolia tree that our colleague Susan Cantrell’s friends planted for her; its bloom reminding us of our friend is too brief. But it comes back, year after year. As long as the tree lives on, we will always be reminded of Susan. As long as Wabash lives on, so will our memories of those in the Wabash community that we’ve lost, and you can thank Karen Handley for that.