Steve Charles—I didn’t know what to say.
Chet Turnbeaugh ’14 had shown up at the Class of 1964 Reunion in Littel Lobby to give President Hess a poster he’d made as a thank-you gift, and the new grad had been mingling with guys coming back after 50 years in the world. Now he was leaving Wabash for that world, we were shaking hands goodbye, and I—who had watched Chet’s transformation from awkward freshman to bold, thoughtful, and creative graduate—couldn’t think of what to say.
Chet is a talented and caring young man who has taken big risks. He may accomplish a lot in the world. For his sake and the world’s, I hope he does. But he’s a good Wabash man whether he does or not. He’s going into the arts, a tough and often thankless way to make a living. I wanted to offer good words, a way to thank him for what’s he has come to mean to us. And he seemed to be waiting for something wise.
But all I could manage was a nod and a goofy smile. I’ve struggled in similar ways saying goodbye to my sons. “Stay in touch,” I told Chet. Oh, how original! How moving! I just don’t do goodbyes very well.
As Chet walked away from Wabash I waved—upping the awkwardness quotient—then turned around to my work of photographing the 70-plus-year-old men who had come home.
I have a love/hate relationship with the Big Bash Weekend.
I love meeting alumni, hearing their stories at Scarlet Yarns and colloquia. I revel in welcoming back friends; I love catching up and seeing how we’ve changed, how quickly our friendships are renewed.
I love Big Bash one-on-one.
But I hate the crowds. I feel a practically pathological anxiety in gatherings of three or more. I deal with that anxiety by doing my job as a photographer. I shoot most of the big events through 85mm or 135mm telephoto lenses, breaking the “mob” down one person at a time. Then I can see my friends again.
And I publish those images to encourage other crowd-anxious souls, hoping they’ll overcome their concerns and attend reunions. Taking this work-like approach in the midst of friends has its consequences. I often block the very connections that make Wabash Wabash. A wall against the very story I’m trying to tell.
On Saturday, seven Wabash guys and a professor tore that wall to pieces.
I saw Andy Dreitcer ’79 in Lilly Library and called out to him. I had covered Andy’s work on reconciliation for the College’s Pastoral Leadership Program, and we had reprinted a heartbreaking and illuminating personal essay of his in the magazine. I yammered at Andy for so long Saturday he almost missed Alumni Chapel Sing.
At Chapel Sing Kent Merrill ’64 caught up with me as I was taking photographs. I had enjoyed Kent and Midge’s hospitality years ago during a visit to their home outside of Knoxville, TN, where I’d photographed the beautiful furniture the retired doc had made. I’d had a blast taking pictures in his shop. As Jim Durham ’64 would say later that night of his longtime friend, “Kent’s been a person of compassion and integrity since I first got to know him in the 6th grade.” Kent’s stopping me there at Alumni Chapel Sing made me feel remembered and I held on to that sense of belonging throughout that big event.
Last spring we shot a video on campus with Jeremy Robinson ’04 about his former student Francisco Huerta ’14. We’d told other stories about Jeremy’s teaching, but this one brought it all full circle. I felt the pride Jeremy’s Wabash teachers would have felt if they’d been there with us, so I gave him a hug afterward, told him how proud we were of him. A bold thing to do, given I wasn’t a professor. But if Bill Placher or Dan Rogers had been there, I’m confident they would have done the same—I did it for them. Jeremy was back again for Big Bash Saturday and returned the favor on his way to present a colloquium session on teaching, a kind gesture in the middle of a long day that reminded me why I love this place and that I belong here.
At the Psychology Reception, Visiting Professor Teresa Aubele-Futch and I were talking about one of her students and co-researchers, Brad Wise ’14, who hopes to attend graduate school in 2015. Although the professor will be teaching at St. Mary’s College next year, she’s taking Wise to a conference next fall to co-present their research and make grad school connections. “But you won’t be a Wabash professor then,” I said. “I believe in him,” she told me.
Rev. John Sowers ’99 was a compact force of nature when he was a student but our exchanges then were mostly light-hearted. Saturday for our Scarlet Yarns audio project he talked about how his friend and mentor Coach Max Servies ’58 had also been a surrogate grandfather to him. Then John’s classmate and fellow preacher and pastor Josh Patty talked about the ongoing relationship he has with the late Professor Bill Placher ’71 through Bill’s books and I had to wipe the tears off my viewfinder. I reminded Josh about the time he had listened to me bemoaning the rambling nature of my talk to group of Wabash alumni in Pittsburgh after I’d decided to ditch my script and go “off the cuff.” He had told me then that our presence is the gift we give each other, and often the script gets in the way. He said I didn’t have to be perfect, just had to show up and be genuine.
Then Jesus Campos ’04 showed up at the Scarlet Yarns table. Jesus was my son’s pledge brother, we’d had him over for Thanksgiving when he was a student, and he had struggled mightily with the English language and Wabash academics when he arrived here from Texas. Talk about overcoming the odds! On Saturday he expressed his gratitude to Wabash and the many people who had taught and supported him here. It was joy to hear him speak, and fun, too, as we reminisced about his pledge class’s antics. I’ve rarely felt better about being a part of this College community.
Jesus is helping others now as a social worker in Philadelphia. He said some of his Wabash classmates don’t feel as though they deserve to come back for their reunions. They’re not successful or rich enough to give back the way they want to or feel they should. They think they haven’t done enough in their lives to be worthy of being embraced by their teachers and their classmates. Jesus and I talked about ways to help them see that’s not the point of a reunion: You don’t come home because you have money to build another room on the house; you come home to be with your family.
I got so caught up in the conversation as we walked out of Lilly Library that I forgot my camera and barely made it in time the cover the Class of 64 50th Reunion Dinner. There Steve Cougill ’64 was the final speaker during an evening of stories. He had attended Wabash for six semesters but hadn’t felt like he really was part of the class, didn’t “deserve” to join them at their reunion. His Kappa Sig pledge brothers and all his classmates were happy to see him.
“It’s just been wonderful being back with you guys again,” Cougill told his classmates. “At the Chapel Sing today we were singing “Old Wabash” and I could hardly keep singing because I was getting choked up, just being back with you again. It’s been a great experience, and I hope you guys all come back for our 55th.”
So now I know what to say to Chet Turnbeaugh: “Come back.”
“No matter what befalls you, think about your friends and the teachers who believed in you and come back.
“Don’t wait until you think you have achieved or earned ‘enough’ to come back. We knew you when you were dreaming and struggling, singing out of tune the world’s longest fight song, and those friends and family embraced you then. How much more so now?
“Whether you’ve ‘made it’ or you’re down on your luck, come home. Whether you graduated from Wabash or left after a semester, if this place has meaning to you, come home.
“Don’t wait until you’ve got hundreds or thousands or millions of dollars to give to your alma mater. As my friend the Rev. Josh Patty ’99 might say, ‘The present you bring is your presence.'”
If Wabash teaches us nothing else, she teaches us that. And she reminded me over and over again at this year’s Big Bash.