Tom Roberts ’70: Fighting Spirit, Healing Words

Dr. Tom Roberts ’70, during his visit to campus last spring.

Steve Charles—A week ago last Friday I received one of those family phone calls you dread. My little brother tried to break the news with a joke—“I’ve got something in my brain and it rhymes with ‘rumor.’” Pause.

I felt a kick in the gut, then fear, then anger, which I expressed with an expletive, and then I asked a terrible question—“Are you scared?”

It wasn’t the response you hope to give a brother at a time of need. I’m not proud of it, but I understand it: Our mom died of lung cancer 30 years ago, and for her kids, a cancer diagnosis carries a single outcome and a series painful disappointments to get there.

A half-hour after the phone call, though, I was able to write something true and hopeful to my brother,  thanks to a conversation I’d had with a former Wabash chemistry major, Dr. Tom Roberts ’70, in April, for a story for this fall’s Wabash Magazine.

Tom had been on campus to reflect upon the implications of the new generation of “smart drugs” being used to fight and manage cancer. He and his team helped develop one of those drugs—Gleevec—at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard, and we’ve been following his progress since before those pills were featured on the cover of TIME Magazine in 2001 (The current issue has another story on the drugs’ success, “The End of Chemo.”).

At his noontime talk last spring Tom described how these drugs turn off molecular cancer triggers in tumors and prevent their growth, how a similar approach is being  applied to more complex cancers than the relatively rare tumors Gleevec successfully treats, how tumors mutate and the ways drugs must adapt to stem their growth, and how this approach could work for treating many cancers.

So I was able to write honestly to my brother that I knew doctors who were beating cancer, that I’d written stories about these guys, the targeted approaches they’re using, and the lives they are saving. I said I wished these guys were around when mom was fighting this monster, but I’m grateful they’re here now that he’s facing it.

I could also tell him that the oncologists I’d interviewed, like Gary Croghan ’77 at the Mayo Clinic and Bob Witherspoon at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, are compassionate men with a far better bedside manner and communication skills than the competent but emotionally distant oncologist that treated mom, a man my brother literally had to grab and hold in the hallway to get to talk with us.

I could draw from the interview in which Bob Witherspoon described advances in bone marrow transplants for leukemia: “I’ve had the great fortune to work in a field where we’ve gone from not being able to cure these people to being able to cure them.”

I remembered Gary Croghan (who treats the very type of lung cancer that killed my mom) describing meeting with his patients: “You meet with a patient for the first time for about an hour and a half. You’re giving them the worst news they’ve ever gotten in their lives. At the same time you’re trying to gain their trust. You have to read the family dynamics, see who has coping skills and who doesn’t. It’s one of the toughest things we do.

“I’ll explain the situation honestly, explain the options, and tell them that I’m glad to try to help. When they learn the odds, I’ll also tell them, ‘Look, I couldn’t do this job on a daily basis if I didn’t see people beat the odds.’”

It’s not the first time I’ve carried the words of Wabash men like a prayer.

This morning I was thinking back on my conversation with Tom Roberts. He said his own vocation has changed over the years. A Hoosier farm kid like many of our Wabash scientists, he described himself as a “lab rat” during his days at the College.

“But something has changed,” he said in his typically understated, self-effacing manner. “When I was 12, and even when I came to Wabash, I wanted to be a scientist; I wanted to find out new things. Working at a cancer institute, though, and seeing all the kids with no hair, the adults, too, and seeing all that they are facing, at this point my emphasis is more practical. I really would like to help cure cancer. Certainly, hanging out in a cancer institute, you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t respond to the problems of the patients.”

My brother’s “problems” may be just beginning, I know. He’s made it through surgery, is working through some post-operative pain and waiting for the pathology report, reading the messages and prayers from the now-784 folks who have visited his Caring Bridge site. Once glance at the and you’ll know he’s the best our family’s got; he’s the best fighter, too.

Those of us who love him feel mostly helpless. Not much we can do but pray and write and talk and spend too much time researching medical sites on the Internet.

At times like this, coming to work can seem the least relevant thing you can do. But this morning on my way to Wabash I found comfort, maybe even a tiny role in the process, working at a place that prepares the doctors and researchers who fight these battles alongside those facing cancer, a place which nurtures not only their technical skills and clarity of thinking, but also their empathy—men who bring that “always fights” attitude to the battle, a battle I believe my family will win this time.




In Harmony – Dick Strawn Turns 90

Professor Emeritus of French Dick Strawn, who joined the College in 1951, retired in 1987, but still teaches Wabash men. Here he enjoys a conversation with current students and staff during a video interview for the College’s Scarlet Yarns story project.

Steve Charles—Music has come up in almost every conversation I’ve had with Professor of French Emeritus Dick Strawn over the past 18 years. I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear it again when I interviewed him on camera at the end of May for the College’s Scarlet Yarns project.

But the frequency with which it arose in our conversation was not only surprising, but—well, musical. And some of both the funniest and most moving clips from the video focus on two of the College’s songs.

Dick turned 90 last week, celebrating the occasion over dinner and a long and enjoyable conversation with Michael Wright ’13. Those sorts of honest explorations punctuated with laughter are certainly one reason students and alumni—many who never took a class from him, as he retired in 1987 after 36 years teaching at Wabash—are drawn to this gentle and wise man. His is a name that comes up often when I speak with alumni. During a Chapel talk last spring, Professor Bill Cook ’66 cited a moment in Dick’s linguistics class that “challenged my simplistic assumptions and expanded my world view.” Bill took the class because, as he recalls, “I so enjoyed French 5 and 6 taught by Professor Dick Strawn that linguistics was one of those, ‘if he’s teaching it, I’ll take it’ decisions.”

Dick taught French, but his love and command of the English language would be intimidating if he weren’t so generous. I recall a phrase he used describe his wife, Doris—“not mawkish, but with deep sentiment”—that we included in a remembrance we published of her, Dick’s nuanced and precise use of language revealing both his love and one reason these two were such a good match for one another.

He is one of the group of professors (along with Ted Bedrick, Eliot Williams, Owen Duston, Don Baker, Vic Powell, Ben Rogge, Phil Wilder, Eric Dean, Lew Salter, and Harold McDonald) that President Frank Sparks hired in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a cadre, President Byron Trippet  wrote, “touch off in me the warmest feelings of respect, and even pride, for their association with Wabash.”

Dick actually dislikes the title “doctor” or “professor.” (That latter is a “loaded name” for him because his first violin teacher was called professor, like the con man Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man). He prefers, if titles must be used, Mr. Strawn: “It was good enough for Yale [where Dick did his graduate work], it’s good enough for me.”

As he mentions in our interview: “I’d rather be a student than anything else.”

To celebrate having this good man with us for so long in the Wabash community (Dick was hired by President Frank Sparks in 1951), I looked over the transcript of our recent interview and have excerpted here a few highlights from our conversation (including the candid musical assessment of Old Wabash that left students laughing so loud you can hear it on the video!).

We’ll have the longer story in the Fall 2013 issue of Wabash Magazine, but here are some of my favorite moments:

On the decision to consider the job at Wabash:
Doris and I had a three‑and‑a‑half year old boy and a baby on the way. I happily got wind of a job here, and there was the prospect of a job at UCLA. Hmm, Los Angeles? I wasn’t so sure. But Crawfordsville? Where’s that? Wabash College? What’s that? Never heard of it. We couldn’t decide.

So finally we did bibliomancy. [Grab] a Bible, shut your eyes, open it up, and put your finger down, and what it said was, “Do not go into the land of the stranger.” Well, thanks a lot, God! That was either UCLA or Crawfordsville.

Finally we decided on here because we were a small‑town family with small‑town experience. I did not like the idea of raising children in Los Angeles, so up we came.

On his interview for the job with Deans Byron Trippet and George Kendall:
I met briefly with Dean Trippet and briefly with President Sparks, who asked me what I thought of co‑education. I thought that was a curious question. Of course I was in favor of co‑education. It’s what I knew.

On the way back to the railroad station, Dean Kendall was asking me how [the interview] had gone. I said, “I guess it went well enough. I enjoyed meeting a number of people. I did have a kind of funny question from President Sparks. It was about co‑education.”

Dean Kendall said, “Did you not realize that it’s a men’s college?”

I said, “No, I did not realize that.”

On his and Doris’s life in Mud Hollow, the College’s faculty and student housing in the 1950s:
My first salary in September of 1951 was $3,600 and we could live on that, kind of.

That rent at the Hollow saved our financial lives and it put us right in the center of all that life there. We were young profs, student veterans back from the Second World War on the GI Bill. That was it. There was a young history teacher across the road, a student and his wife next door to us.

We all looked out for one another, took care of one another, babysat like crazy. There were lots of babies. It was a good experience.

Oh, you could hear everything. There were no secrets. We heard the neighbors and they heard us. One of Doris’s memories that she wrote about living in the Hollow recalled hearing our next door neighbor shout, “Here they come again.” She was talking about the roaches!

But most of us who lived there, at one time or another, stayed at Wabash, too—the Powells, the Salters, the Davises. We came to appreciate one another a little more deeply than usual.

On the joy of playing violin, bass, or whatever was needed with various groups at Wabash, including the Flat Baroque Ensemble in the 1960s:
We were just good enough that we could make the music work. We weren’t good enough to do the very difficult, elaborate kind, but we could make the music come into its own.

And when it works, by some magic, all the players are playing alike, understanding it alike, and that’s when the music comes into its own. You’re lost in it.

It has a lot to do, too, with physiology. It has a lot to do with breathing because when the music works that way, all of a sudden I find myself breathing differently. It’s in the whole body.

On “teachable moments,” one of the reasons the Strawns stayed at Wabash:
You can see it happening in students. They can’t mask it. Their eyes light up. They sit back. They breathe differently. Something physiological is happening, as well a psychological. That event, there’s just nothing like it, because it really is not so much because I made something happen. It’s because something did happen in that student. It’s incredible.

Interviewer: Sounds a little like playing music?

Dick: Yes, it really is.

On friendships at Wabash, especially professors Harold McDonald and Owen Duston:
We understood one another without saying much. We didn’t have to make explanations. There was a kind of harmony.

The 16th century essayist Montaigne had a close friend who died young, and Montaigne was trying to get at why he and this man were friends. Finally it comes out in the one sentence, which translates into English as, “Because he was he, and I was I.”

There’s no further getting at it. With Owen Duston and me, that was it. We never felt the need to say it.

It was something of the same thing with Harold McDonald. We were simply in tune. Singing the same music in harmony.

On good teaching and learning:
I came upon on a letter from a student who was reminiscing about Owen Duston and who set down in so many words why Owen was a good teacher for him: It’s because Owen would take anything that any student said, and work with it.

Owen never said, “Oh that’s stupid! What would make you think that?” Instead, he took whatever the student said and then said, “Where does that come from? Where do you get that idea? What happened to make you see it that way?”

The first thing you know, that student who said some pathetic comment was discovering that he could make his own responses to whatever the topic or text in front of him. All of the sudden the student realized that he was being educated.

On Professor Bill Placher ’70:
He was a real force, not only because he was an alum, but because of the quality of his soul. I’ve never known a more unselfish man. He didn’t have an agenda. He just liked to have people become themselves. He thought the College was the place where that happened.

On his practice of corresponding with former students:
Yes, I have, to my benefit. Why, I don’t know, except that I’m an unquenchable writer of notes. I ought to be more careful about that because sometimes I fire off a note that I ought to discard before I send it. I just can’t quit I guess. I have these vignettes in my head, views of student when they were students, and I get to wondering, Where are they? What are they like now? What’s life doing with them, and to them? What are they doing to life?

On the intriguing fact that many of the alumni (and current students) who correspond with Dick were not students of his, and many attended Wabash after he retired:
It has been a tonic. Thank God I’ve had that, because they kept me in touch with the world. It’s psychological food.

On defining the College:
I wouldn’t. I would be happy to say I can’t do it. I think the College happens. It happens over and over with luck, and it’s in the encounters between students and teachers, students and students, teachers and teachers. It’s the way we rub off on one another, or don’t, on this very small ground—and thank God, it’s small. It’s small enough that we can really sense one another. We don’t get lost.

On traditions:
I don’t think the College exists in those little comedic flares known as the traditions. Who knows how they started, but we keep them going because we like to think that there’s no end.

Yeah, some of them are fun. Some of them are hurtful.

On “Old Wabash”:
First of all, “Old Wabash” is a dumb song. It’s straight out of the French review. It’s a can‑can song. [Dick hums a can-can tune]. And the skirts go flying!

The “Alma Mater”, on the other hand, is perfectly beautiful and unique. My tears come when I hear it, though I have never sung it. It is not my Alma Mater. I won’t sing it. I don’t have an alma mater. I have several alma maters. I am the child of so many mothers it isn’t even funny.

But I think it’s a beautiful song. I think the words are beautiful, I think the sentiment is beautiful. Now there is a piece of college lore and tradition that I would preserve. Partly because it’s music, and music does something that nothing else can do.

Interviewer: So hearing Alma Mater brings tears, even though Wabash is not your alma mater?

Mr. Strawn:  They are tears of belonging to that long, long line of people going to school. I am a student. I’d rather be a student than anything else.


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.



Workshop Inspires “Amazing Moments”

Dan Simmons ’70 listens to a student writer during last week’s Wabash Writer’s Workshop.

Steve Charles—“You just witnessed the single most amazing moment of my life.”

I’ve worked at Wabash almost two decades, seen many young lives transformed, but I’d never heard those words here until Lucas Zromkoski ’15 said them to me during last week’s Wabash Writer’s Workshop.

I should have seen them coming. It was the second day of the three-day intensive workshop and Lucas had just spent more than an hour listening and taking notes while five of his peers and Dan Simmons ’70, the College’s most dedicated and successful professional writer, critiqued Lucas’s short story, “Shatter.” The students were honest, meticulous, tough, and helpful with both their praise and criticism.

Simmons was taking it down to the word.

“I’m going line by line here, but that’s what I do when I like a story,” he said before he offered specific suggestions and wondered aloud about word choices to improve the piece. Lucas listened intently, jotting an occasional note for his revision, determined to make the story better. When Dan finished, fellow student writer Nick Gray ’15 offered his own suggestions.

Then Dan looked at Lucas and said, “God, this is good. Congratulations.”

Lucas calmly nodded his head and joined the students walking out the door for coffee and snacks. A few seconds later, though, he returned to the table. This young man, who a day earlier admitted he’d wanted to be a fiction writer since he was a kid, turned to me with eyes as wide as Christmas morning and said it: “Mr. Charles, you just witnessed the most amazing moment of my life.”

It was that kind of week, that kind of workshop. And it started, of course, with another story.

At dinner before the sessions began, workshop co-organizer and Wabash English professor Eric Freeze had heard more about Dan’s career before he became the professional writer of science fiction classics, mystery, horror, fantasy, and mainstream novels. For 18 years Dan was an elementary school teacher, creator of the APEX program for gifted and talented students. But even back then, Eric learned, Dan would tell stories, beginning a tale at the start of the school year and spinning it daily in such a way that kids who were sick and supposed to be home showed up at class anyway so they wouldn’t miss anything.

So the next night at a public reading that kicked off the workshop, Eric referred to Dan’s penchant for in-class storytelling, concluding: “It’s an astonishing story, not only for how it reveals Simmons’s talents for narrative, but also for what it says about his abilities as a teacher. What it also taught me, what it continues to teach me, is that narrative has a transformative power. It locks us together in a dance—teacher-student, author-reader—and we are changed by that interaction. It is an ancient thing, this storytelling, which dates back to our ancestors, like fire. I’ve seen Dan bring that fire now to our students, and I hope over the next few days of the workshop, to continue to see it burn.”

Then Dan recalled how he wrote in his spare time for years, how he was about to give up when he “gave it one last shot,” attended one last writer’s workshop, and was ‘discovered’ by the writer Harlan Ellison, who told him, “You know you’re a writer when another writer tells you you’re a writer, and you, Simmons, are a writer.”

Then he shared why he was at Wabash that week, volunteering his time, despite the fact the proofs for his novel, The Abominable, were late and waiting on his desk back in Colorado.

“I’m looking for a few good men to be professional full-time writers,” he said, noting there are fewer than 500 such writers in the world. “The world needs writers, and we need a Wabash novelist for the 21st century. I believe that Wabash, the quintessential liberal arts college, is the perfect incubator for the 21st century novelist.”

He said the move from amateur to publishable professional writer was analogous to an electron moving from one orbit to another, a quantum leap very few have made.

Then he and the students went to work.

They shared favorite writers, discussed character and the free indirect style described in James Woods’ How Fiction Works, read passages from Hemingway, James, Flaubert, and others (with Simmons interjecting historical background from each like the rabid researcher he is). They broke down paragraphs by thought units, analyzed word choice and sentence cadence. Dan showed the proper format for submitting manuscripts, the mistakes editors look for to reject stories.

After the first critique circle (to gain admission to the workshop, each student had submitted a manuscript) I could tell something special was happening. Eric has been developing a community of writers since he arrived at Wabash five years ago, training them to be generous with both their praise and detailed criticism, to be thick-skinned enough to hear those things about their own writing, separating themselves from their work so they can get better at the craft.

Lucas Zromkoski talks with Dan Simmons during a critique circle at the Caleb Mills, as Nick Gray, left, listens.

“I’m thrilled when one of my students says they’ve been fiddling with a scene or a sentence until they felt like they were going blind,” Eric said when he received tenure last year. “Something clicks. When they start to feel that compunction, that drive to push themselves to get better, that’s when I know that they’ve become writers and no longer students looking for a grade.”

So the professor had his students ready. Simmons seemed pleasantly surprised.

“That was damned good,” he said after the first circle. “I think you’ve done this before!”

He told Stephen Batchelder ’15, the writer of that piece: “Reading this story made me realize I had to do this workshop, not because you needed my help, but because this story was bold. You have a powerful voice, and a lot of courage.

“There’s some fire in every story this group submitted for this workshop, and for you, that fire was this boldness.”

The story wasn’t finished; it has a long way and many revisions to go, as do all the pieces. But in their critiques Dan and the students had pointed ways forward, and Stephen seemed eager to rewrite.

It was the sort of interaction those at the College who know Dan have envisioned for years. Folks like Alison Kothe and Pat White knew that, regardless of his continued financial success (Dan’s book, The Terror, is in development for a series at AMC), the best gift the College’s greatest practitioner of the art and craft of writing could give was his time with our students.

That goes beyond teaching. When I returned to photograph the sessions after what was supposed to be a short break, I found Dan, the six students, and Eric at a round table in Detchon, laughing and sharing stories way past the allotted 15 minutes. A similar scene was repeated at lunches, with Dan’s wife, Karen, present, and at the final dinner on Saturday night.

Participant Ryan Horner captured one of the intangibles of such moments when he noted, “the workshop took an inaccessible alumnus celebrity and made him accessible to us. We spent three days learning from the best, and then in our free time held wide-ranging conversations that revealed the down-to-earth personalities of Dan and Karen.”

In one of the those conversations, students heard how Karen had encouraged her husband to keep writing, even when he was ready to quit, how she was his not only his best friend but most trusted reader. “Maybe some day you will be so fortunate to find that person,” he said.

Chet Turnbeaugh wrote: “Working with Dan has encouraged me to continue writing—not only the short story I submitted for the workshop, but, in general, to push towards new creative horizons that expand the possibilities of my imagination.

Christian Lopac wrote: “The things we learned showed me the challenges associated with writing, but the workshop also illustrated many of the things necessary to make the ‘quantum leap’ Dan spoke of.

Pictured with Professor Eric Freeze and Dan Simmons ’70 are students from the first Wabash Writers Workshop: Nick Gray, Lucas Zromkoski, Chet Turnbeaugh, Stephen Batchelder, Chistian Lopac, and Ryan Horner.

Eric summed it up: “In his Thursday night talk, Dan mentioned that improvement in writing usually happens in creative spurts, like an electron jumping a valence to a higher orbital plane. I saw this improvement firsthand during the workshop. By the end of the experience, Dan was saying that students were producing publishable work, probably the highest compliment that a writer can pay to a student. The workshop was so successful, with many of the students saying that this was the most intensive and helpful experience of their careers, that we anticipate continuing to offer these workshops in the future.”

And Dan wrote in an email after his return to Colorado, where he was working through the frustrating task of responding to copy edits to his novel The Abominable: “That frustration fades away when I think of how much fun the three days with the students were . . . and what great young men they are. I’m honored and humbled to have had the chance to work with them.”

What’s next? Dan has a couple of generous and once-in-a-lifetime ideas, and both he and Eric have imagined a weeklong workshop for a time when the College is not in session, addressing a frustration voiced by Zromkoski, who after the encouraging yet challenging critique of his story wanted to get to work on a revision immediately, but admitted he had a 20-page paper, Japanese homework, and a yearbook to finish in the next few days.

‘What if we had an entire week to focus only on our writing?” he wondered aloud.

Right now, though, I’m savoring what I witnessed last week. I’ve seen inspiring things during my time at Wabash. I was 20 feet from Kurt Casper when he grabbed Ryan Short’s tip to the end zone and won the Monon Bell with “The Catch.” I was here when the College cancelled afternoon classes and converged on Detchon Center for the first Celebration of Student Research, Scholarship, and Creative Work. For more than a decade, every time Bill Placher wrote a book, I got to be one of the first to interview him, a personal lesson in theology and faith from a master writer.

But I’m with Lucas on this one: In my life at Wabash, I just witnessed the single most amazing moment.

Seniors Floyd, Grant See Connections

Steve Charles—Last week about this time afternoon classes were cancelled and students were presenting their work at the 13th Annual Celebration of Student Research, Scholarship, and Creative Work. It was our largest ever, with more than 90 presentations. But here’s one that didn’t make the show.

It’s about to show up in your mailbox, and much of it is the work of two Wabash students.

Senior Ian Grant spent last summer interviewing alumni at the Big Bash Reunion, covering events, and reviewing, scanning, and organizing thousands of historic photos (some not seen for decades) from the old News Bureau Archives. As our first intern for Wabash Magazine, he also served as an editorial assistant for an edition comprising some of those archival photos. And as the internship was a partnership between WM and the Wabash English Department, Ian also meet with Professors Eric Freeze and Marc Hudson and spent at least one hour a day writing his own work, separate from the magazine.

It was following one of those hour-long writing sessions in the Scarlett Inn—after two or three spontaneous conversations with alumni, faculty, and staff on the way out—that Ian turned to me and said, “I never realized how connected people are here.”

The moment he said that, I knew we had chosen not only the right student to be our first intern, but a poet/writer who would become practically a co-editor of this issue of the magazine. His way of seeing connections drove not only his own section of the edition, but our creative approach to presenting these photos and inviting alumni, faculty, students and staff to share their own stories.

Senior Riley Floyd already had a sense of the depth of these connections. He had walked into my office last year after studying at Oxford University and noticed two large oars hanging on my wall. As I finished a phone call he studied the oars, and after I hung up he said, “I didn’t realize you had studied at Oxford.”

I hadn’t. The oars had belonged to Wabash President Byron Trippet ’28; he’d brought them home from Oxford in 1934, a gift of his fellow rowers on the Jesus College team. They were hanging in my office because no one else had wanted them.

Riley stood there with his mouth open. He didn’t know much about President Trippet, or that he had studied at Oxford and rowed on the same River Isis that Riley had rowed on during his own time there.  It didn’t take long to persuade Riley to check out the archives and Trippet’s experience and to write about his own, and Riley connected it with yet another: Wabash Professor of History Steve Morillo had rowed during his time at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in the 1980s.

“It’s one boat rowing, and I’m just a part of it,” Riley writes in a personal, thoughtful, reflective piece that makes a fitting conclusion to this issue of the magazine.

I wish I’d figured out a way to include both Ian’s and Riley’s Wabash Magazine work in last week’s Celebration of Student Research, but I couldn’t even attend. I was in Midland, Michigan doing a press check on the very issue that includes their remarkable efforts, watching it flash by my eyes at the rate of 50,000 impressions per hour as the web press made fast work of months of thought, collection, writing, photography, art direction, layout, and proofing.

But I’m proud of this issue of Wabash Magazine because of the way of seeing that these two Wabash seniors bring to us. The connections they made. It’s a very inward-looking edition, asking for stories from alumni, faculty and staff from their own histories and recent pasts. Yet others may wonder at the connections between people here.

Researcher and nationally known speaker Brene Brown says that what ultimately gives meaning to our lives is that very sense of being connected. The Wabash community is a petri dish of connections—a place that reveals and inspires them practically every waking moment. That may be our greatest strength, the hidden secret behind so much of what we do well, the sense of being cared about that our students talk about.

Brown defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued.”

When I think of it that way, watching Ian’s sudden realization last summer of this place he’s a part of, and hearing him say, “I never realized how connected people are here,” was one of the most rewarding and reaffirming moments of my 17 years at Wabash.

I hope his way of seeing—and Riley’s—comes through in the edition of Wabash Magazine about to arrive in your mailbox. It’s something to celebrate.

Learning How to Sit

Steve Charles—Yesterday I did one of the wisest things I’ve done in a long time.


I missed the chance to actually be a day early on deadline on Wabash Magazine for the first time in 17 years. I came to work in the morning, finished an interview with Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts Director Charlie Blaich, then drove to Indianapolis and learned how to sit. Something my dog Jules mastered long ago.

My wife and I sat with my best friend and his family while his wife had surgery for breast cancer at St. Francis Hospital. Two skilled surgeons and their teams operated for more than four hours, and we just sat there. Huddled with our comfortable chairs arranged in a square, talking about trips we’d taken, laughing at the various challenges we’ve each been facing as we get older (You know you’ve become a senior citizen when your conversations begin with how often you get up in the night to pee), catching up about our kids, anything else that came up.

Nothing, really.

I remember observing such moments as a kid when I accompanied my parents or grandparents to the hospital, or to gatherings after funerals, to sit with their friends. How could they stand to sit for so long?

Didn’t they have anything better to do.

Now I understand that they didn’t; they were already doing the most important thing they could do—sitting.

There’s this scene in the film Lars and the Real Girl, where a painfully shy young man whose mother died giving birth to him has turned away from all relationships and orders an inflatable doll online to be his life partner (I know, I know—but watch this movie some time to see a writer and a director turn something potentially perverse and maudlin into just the opposite). At the end of the movie when the doll is ‘dying’, a group of older women from Lars’ church brings food and stays with him as he takes a break from being at his vinyl beloveds bedside. He sits on the couch in his living room as one of the women knits, another embroiders, another looks up every now and then and smiles. Lars finally asks, “Is there something I should be doing?”

“No dear,” one of the women says. “Just eat.”

“We came over here to sit,” another says.

‘That’s what people do when tragedy strikes,” another says. “They come over and sit.”

“Don’t you feel a little better?” the first woman asks.

Lars looks down at his food, at the small gathering of knitting and embroidering women, considers this, and nods.

Lars has to learn this from women, as I did from my wife. When we first heard about the surgery, CJ said, “I’m going to be there.” I felt the same instinct. But when the day finally arrived, one obstacle after another threw itself at my plans.

Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts Director Charlie Blaich
photo by Kim Johnson

What finally convinced me to go was something Charlie Blaich said when we were talking about the deeper purpose of a liberal arts education, how “Wabash will be doing great work if it can play a role in this process of helping you become a good man, and help you with habits and things to think about that will keep you reflecting upon that process the rest of your life.

“We’re always becoming men—it’s not like you get the stamp of manhood when you graduate.

“A good man tries to do good by the world, to serve others,” Charlie added [excerpts from the interview will be featured in the Spring 2013 issue of Wabash Magazine]. “They are loving. They stand humble before the world and hope to have a positive influence, but don’t claim things too overtly for themselves.”

As I transcribed Charlie’s words, I knew that on this particular day, being a good man for me meant setting aside my anxiety about online magazine and blog deadlines and concerns about my viability as an employee here, driving to Indy, and doing nothing.

Even when I had no power to change the outcome of the surgery and or help in any material way.

Any doubts I had about this truth were put to rest soon after we’d arrived, when my friend thanked me for showing up. I dismissed it matter of factly: “Where else would we be?” Even as I remembered how close I’d been to not coming at all.

“Still,” he said, “I really appreciate it. The little community and all, just sitting. People used to do this all the time for each other. Not so much anymore.”

Yet in the waiting room there were several huddles like ours: People sitting—some talking, some silent, all these prayers in the flesh for someone in an operating room just down the hall.

After the surgery and the doctor’s report CJ and I were trudging up to my friend’s wife’s room with her sister, Lisa, when a volunteer said, ‘You’re all immediate family of the patient, right?”

“Yes,” I answered without thinking.

“It’s a new policy, you know. Immediate family only,” she insisted, looking quizzically at me, then Lisa, who nodded. When we got on the elevator Lisa said, “Well, you’ve been part of our lives long enough—you might as well be family.”

The most tangible reward of sitting is getting to see the person you’ve been thinking about all that time after the operation—she’s alive, awake, safe. At least one part of her ordeal is ended. We walked in with about 12 others into the room, each of us wearing our pink visitor sticker (So much for another rule: “Only two allowed in the room at a time”) She smiled for a second when her youngest son Luke told her that he had done the laundry for her that day. I looked around the room at this family doing the most mundane thing families do at such times and to be in the middle of it all felt miraculous.

I was remembering that scene this morning when I realized that CJ and I really had been the only “non-immediate family” there that moment. The family could easily have asked us to wait outside and we’d have understood; we had no ‘right’ to be there. But gathered up in this moment of grace, trust, and gratitude, there we were. And it finally made sense—Where else could I be?

This morning it’s time to get back to work, and later today or tomorrow (depending on when the print copies arrive) I’ll be posting the Winter 2013 issue of Wabash Magazine. I’m proud of the writing and thought that seniors Ian Grant and Riley Floyd put into this; the work that Tim Sipe ’78, Karen Handley, Howard Hewitt, Pat White, Ethan Hollander, Christie Byun, Pete Prengaman ’98, Tom Runge, Greg Castanias, Beth Swift, and David Phillips contributed; the photography of Kim Johnson, Quentin Dodd ’94, Jim Amidon ’87 and others that so enhances this issue. I’m lucky to have had such creative, talented, dedicated collaborators on this project. I’m looking forward to telling you about that work. In some way, it’s about unexpected connections we have to each other, present and past, and it’s a little risky in its own way. Not too far off from yesterday’s lesson.

We mean more to each other than we ever dare say. But if getting older brings any wisdom, it’s that we’d best find a way to say it once in a while. If not in words, then by doing nothing, with those we care most about. Maybe we should add to the Wabash curriculum an essential lesson for a liberally educated person of any age: learning how to sit.

Entrepreneur Hao Liu ’11 “Booming”

Hao Liu ’11 in front of Kane House on the Wabash campus, 2010

Steve Charles—I wasn’t surprised to read in the current Chronicle of Higher Education about Hao Liu ’11 and the SIE International Summer School program. He co-founded the school when he was a sophomore at Wabash, we featured him in the Spring 2011 issue of Wabash Magazine, Wabash professors have traveled to Shanghai to teach in SIE, and retiring Professor Melissa Butler H’85 has been named the first dean of the program.

I also knew that Hao’s was the first such program in China, and was doing very well.

But I had no idea how well!

The Chronicle calls SIE the first of a “booming enterprise.

“SIE’s success has spawned a slew of competitors,” Chronicle reporters Beth McMurtrie and Lara Farrar write. “New ones are popping up seemingly on a monthly basis.”

And it all started here at Wabash when Hao “realized that Chinese students had little opportunity to take classes for credit at home during the summer, unlike his American counterparts.”

And another of the programs—Summer China Program—was co-founded by Hao’s friend and Wabash alum, Xianwei (Victor) Meng ’10.

In our interview with Hao in the Spring WM, the Wabash philosophy major mathematics minor talked about starting SIE, the differences between doing business in China and the U.S., and the formative two years he spent between his high school and Wabash exploring the business world.

But one part that interview which didn’t make the final feature makes a lot of sense now. I’d asked Hao what first interested him in coming to the U.S. for college:

“When I was a boy, I was not particularly interested in coming to America, though I was constantly influenced by American popular culture, especially music and movies,” he said. “Then in high school I read a book called Harvard Girl by Liu Yiting. It introduced me to American college life and I found it fascinating. I started to do research about how to apply to American colleges.

“I like the spirit of freedom prevailing in the United States, and American entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Peter Thiel were my idols. I became more and more interested in having the education which led to the success of those entrepreneurs.”

So Hao Liu came to Wabash.

Read the Chronicle article here, and our 2011 interview here.

Kothe Nurtures, Honors Relationships

Alison and Charlie in Kane House, her last day before retiring as the College’s Director of Development.

Steve Charles—I just glanced out my Hovey Cottage window to see that Alison Kothe has driven out of the Kane House parking lot (with her labradoodle, Charlie) for the last time as the College’s director of development.

After un-retiring three times to help us successfully complete the $68 million-plus Challenge of Excellence campaign, she’s finally taking retirement seriously this time.

She’s deserves this break. I’m happy for her. But there’s a lump in my throat as I watch her leave.

For 11 years Alison has brought (and taught) a deep understanding that advancement work is ultimately about honoring relationships—honest, heartfelt, mutually beneficial relationships. For Alison, many of those friendships will endure well past her tenure here.

Her work focuses on one person, one moment, at a time. She’s an extraordinary listener and observer. She not only “got” this place, she loves it, and she cares ferociously about our work of teaching and learning and the future it can bring. She holds herself accountable to the relationships she developed with alumni and their families, inspired others to try to be equally caring, and tried her best to teach me to do the same. I will miss her reminders.

My friend Susan Cantrell (who knew Alison from working in Illinois Senator Charles Percy’s office) told me we were lucky to have her here when she first arrived at Wabash in 2001, and Alison has proved her right every day. She eventually took up Susan’s role of having the most recognizable laugh on campus. Not hearing that hearty laugh in classrooms and at campus events and meetings will feel a little like losing them both.

Alison doesn’t like public attention; she didn’t want a fuss made about her retirement, doesn’t trust gushing sentimentality, and she slyly dodged any efforts at a reception.

And that’s fitting, as her best work was always behind the scenes. I glimpsed some of it when I interviewed or visited alumni like Bruce Baker ’66 or Karen and Dan Simmons ’70. But it also came alive in hundreds of face-to-face conversations and emails and phone calls with alumni, students, and faculty; in unexpected kindnesses; in the creative ways she found to connect alumni with the College; in being an advocate for what alumni cared about and finding who at today’s Wabash they would benefit from knowing; in mending fences and listening when alumni were disappointed with their alma mater, then finding a way to begin healing that relationship.

I talked with Alison today for a story I’m writing for the next Wabash Magazine and learned that it was one of Wabash’s legendary professors who directed her toward her vocation at Wabash. So I’ll probably start the story something like this:

Alison Kothe says Wabash Professor John Fischer gave her “the greatest gift” of her working life.

Twelve years ago she had just left an unsatisfying job with a bank when she sat down with Fischer. He had been her brother Jim’s faculty advisor at Wabash and had become a family friend. Fischer told her about an opening in development at the College and suggested she “try something completely new.”

 “John said with a sweep of the arm, ‘Child, come to Wabash,’” Alison recalls. “So I did.”

And Wabash is so much better for it.

Miles ’76 and the Art of Connections

Mark Miles ’76 talks with WM at the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership offices in Chase Tower.
photo by Joni Jeffries

Steve Charles—I love it when writers, poets, and artists come to campus, especially the Q & A sessions that follow readings and openings. It’s a chance to ask these accomplished practitioners of their art: How’d you do it? What inspires you? How did you put this all together?

I felt similar anticipation visiting Mark Miles ’76 last week in his soon-to-be-vacated office in Indianapolis’ Chase Tower. Here’s a man whose work helped elect a mayor and a senator; brought to Indy the Pan Am Games, the catalyst for the sports-fueled renaissance of the city; reshaped and revived (and renamed) the RCA Championships, then led the international organization of tennis players that play there; brought the Super Bowl to town; harnessed the power of Central Indiana corporate leaders for visionary initiatives; and is on track to help get a mass transit plan passed in the legislature—in Indiana!

I wanted to know how he does it: How does he pull people together to get such good things done? Does he consider his work a vocation and, if so, what is that calling? What could students and young alumni learn from a career trajectory that reads like the College’s mission statement: to think critically, lead effectively, act responsibly, and live humanely? And what about his latest challenge: Today is Miles’ first day as CEO of Hulman & Company, parent group of the Indy Racing League and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

I learned two of Miles’ gifts the minute we met: He puts others at ease, and he listens well. In the midst of moving with an office half in boxes, he welcomed photographer Joni Jeffries and me. He gave us more than the allotted hour and a generous conversation which will be part of an article you can read in the Spring 2013 issue of Wabash Magazine.

One of my favorite exchanges from that conversation came about after Miles’ ability to see potential connections between people reminded me of the way poets and writers see the world:

Miles: Sometimes I’m in a room with people who are clearly much brighter, and I’ll be amazed at how they don’t connect the dots and see where that’s going to go.

You have a different way of seeing the world.

Miles: It’s like chess—an ability to see where things are going.

Can it be taught?

Miles: I think it can be learned; I don’t know if you can teach it. You can absorb it.

Miles named former Lilly Endowment, Inc. President, former World Food Programme Executive Director, now Indiana Pacers President Jim Morris as a mentor, recalling a conversation with him as Miles was beginning his efforts with the Pan Am Games:

Miles at his now-old office in Chase Tower.
photo by Joni Jeffries

“I thought we were going to talk about the Pan Am Games, and he starts telling me about the canal that we’re going to try to get developed, what we’re going to do in terms of housing at Lockfield Gardens, and 20 other things I can’t remember. My head was swimming. He has this ability to think of all these irons in the fire, and how we could connect them, and how they might have a greater relevance in a bigger context. A really extraordinary guy—that vision, that skill set. That’s a good example of someone I learned a ton from.”

Our students, faculty, and alums could learn a ton from Miles. So will I as I write the story. Thanks to him, and to Executive Assistant Linda Whitaker, for fitting us in during this busy time of transition.

And Miles’ vocation?

“How about ‘challenge hunter,’” he said.

Read more in the Spring 2013 WM.

Woods Teaches the Calling of Music

Steve Charles—I was photographing the Wabash Chamber Orchestra’s final rehearsal of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony for its fall concert last Sunday night when a familiar string of notes played with unfamiliar beauty stopped me in my tracks.

Deborah Woods plays the second movement of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” during rehearsal for last Sunday night’s Wabash Chamber Orchestra Fall Concert.

I’d forgotten that the solo in the symphony’s second movement, one of the most compelling and recognizable tunes in music (think “Going Home”), is played on  English horn. I’d forgotten how powerfully that instrument conveys both yearning and hope. And I’d forgotten what a gifted and accomplished musician that soloist—former senior administrative assistant to President White and now Wabash grants coordinator Deborah Woods—is.

Even in the flurry of a rushed final rehearsal, Deb played Dvorak’s melody with such precision and power that I felt as though I could have been in any professional symphony hall in the country.

And she has played in a few. She completed her undergrad work at a music conservatory, earned her master’s in music performance at Northwestern. She taught oboe for 17 years at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. Before she wrote grants for Wabash, she was associate director of development for grants for the Columbus Symphony in Ohio.

Having such a dedicated professional in the orchestra bolsters Director Alfred Abel’s confidence in the ensemble. “No doubt Alfred Abel programmed this piece, in part, because Deb could showcase what is among its finest moments so beautifully and capably,” Wabash music department chair Professor Peter Hulen told me following the concert. “She exemplifies how music can be an enrichment to one’s own life and the life of the community.”

Those who have worked with Deb in the president’s office or in advancement may not have realized she is a professional musician, that she teaches oboe and English horn here, or that she could hold an audience spellbound Sunday night with her playing. The vocation of a musician and teacher in our culture has many facets, but it’s all one gem. Showing how they all fit together in a way that enriches her life and our community is another way Deb Woods teaches students, and all of us, about the power of music. Somehow it’s all connected.

And there are several such folks, a story behind every instrument, in this orchestra, which Peter calls one of the College’s best-kept secrets (though the nearly full house at Sunday night’s concert suggests the secret is getting out.) You can start with the director.

“We are so fortunate to have Alfred Abel,” Peter says. “He is a perfect match for Wabash. He is patient, dedicated, and skilled at eliciting the very best out of our players.”

And those players include a new freshman concertmaster, his brother on viola, and three new student double bass players. With the support of new and continuing excellent players from the Crawfordsville community (this orchestra has long been a remarkable partnership), the group just keeps getting better. Take a look at the photos from that Sunday afternoon rehearsal in this album.

Better yet, mark your calendar now for April 21st and the Orchestra’s spring concert.