A prayer for Susan

Steve Charles—It’s alarming how illness can slowly drag those we love out of our sight, out of the essential role they play in our daily lives. A friend and co-worker misses work a few days, then weeks, then months. You keep deluding yourself; she’ll be back someday, you say.

But the weeks pass, the latest project and deadlines preoccupy you, and soon you hear that this person who used to be so much a part of you is spending her days, every minute, fighting for her life.

That’s what Susan Cantrell, senior writer for our Wabash Public Affairs team, is doing today in Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. A series of health issues over the past several years have converged to put her there, but learning of her fight reminded me of how much we’ve missed her here at Wabash.

When I interviewed for my job at Wabash 12 years ago, Susan was the last person to talk with me. I’d been a nervous wreck meeting with all the deans and directors, but Susan’s disarming laugh and warm welcome put me at ease. Soon she had me talking about the things that mattered to me—things that, in my anxiety, I’d set aside trying to impress or figure out the deans.

As scores of Wabash students and professors that she has interviewed over the years will tell you, Susan creates a safe place for conversation. It’s both her vocation and simply who she is. She’s done it professionally as an aide for Senator Charles Percy, in her work with CBS in New York where she interviewed the social and political elite of the city, and she’s done it at Wabash as director of public relations and senior writer.

But she’s created that same safe space for years for her colleagues here at Wabash. And on that day 12 years she helped me to ask the one question I needed answered about Wabash.

“Is this a place you can believe in?” I asked her at the end of the interview. “Is this a place where the work you do can make a difference?"

Susan didn’t hesitate.

“Oh yes,” she said. She warned me that, like all institutions, Wabash had its quirks and flaws, some endearing, some enraging.

“But, yes, Wabash is a place you can believe in.”

Then, without realizing it, she proved it to me. She spoke about the people she loved here. “Love” is the only way to accurately describe it. Professors whose intellect, concerns for their students, integrity, or wisdom inspired her. Students whose curiosity and guts amazed her. Men and women, alumni and staff members whose knowledge or compassion had left her in awe.

She talked a little about the history of Wabash, but in terms of its people. (She had just written “The Pioneer Papers,” some of the best writing ever done about the College.) For Susan, Wabash has always been about the people. I left her office wanting to become a part of this place she so loved.

For 12 years as I’ve watched Susan’s roles at the College change, one thing hasn’t—her ability to show us why the person she’s writing about should matter to us. That, and her insistence that we matter to each other more than we dare say.

I’ve tried to learn that from her as she’s edited my work, written for me, or advised me regarding Wabash Magazine. I’ve tried to drink that in whenever I hear her laugh (probably the most recognizable laugh on campus), remembering how she truly delights in others and always takes time for them.

And now, writing this, I realize I’ve been in denial for many months, afraid to face the fact that it’s unlikely that Susan will be back working with us again, at least in the way we have worked together before.

I mourn that loss.

But Susan’s life has always been so much more than work. So call this a prayer—may Susan survive this latest illness, just as she has so many others. May she draw on the same power that creates that wonderful laugh of hers, and may she not be alone in her fight. May we see her again, soon, and begin to figure out together how we navigate that transition from co-worker to friend in this Wabash community that she loves. A transition we’ll all face someday.

For now, I’ll send a card. Cards and messages seem so inane and without power in the face of a debilitating illness. But Susan believes in the power of words, the surprising impact of the quiet, kind gesture. Her own words about Wabash professors, alumni, and students have been envelopes of light for so many during her years working here. She could use some sent her way now.


Susan Cantrell
Room B566
Methodist Hospital
Indianapolis, IN 46202

Don Smith: Some Little Giant!

Jim Amidon — Over the course of my career at Wabash College, I’ve been fortunate to meet some legendary Little Giants — men for whom buildings, programs, even streets have been named. I feel blessed to have known men like Bill Hays, Bob Allen, Barney Hollett, and Tom Hays, just to name a few.

There are others — countless hundreds of Wabash men — whose contributions to the college are deep and meaningful, but about whom less is known.

One of those giants was Don Smith, who died last Thursday.

My first memory of Don, I believe, is of his attendance at a Phi Gamma Delta fraternity party in 1983. Don was a committed Fiji alumnus, and his son, Adam, was a year older than me in the Fiji house.

I was saddened to hear that Don lost his courageous fight with cancer at the age of 70. Don was one of those iconic people you imagine will never age and certainly never die. He did, after all, attend a fraternity party while in his late 40s.

Don was fraught with health issues throughout his last decade, though he never used his health — his cancer — as an excuse. In fact, each time I saw Don in the last five or six years, he first asked about my health and how long I had been in remission. Together we joked and laughed about all things urologic.

"It" — what ever "it" means — was almost never about Don Smith; Don’s life was always about Wabash and Wabash people. And in my case, Don taught me how to deal with a health problem… and move on!

Don (with wife Nancy right) was a remarkable person. He did an MBA at the University of Chicago and was a hospital administrator for the early part of his career. He then partnered with a friend to create the Henderson & Smith Corporation, which owns and operates a number of health care facilities primarily in Indiana and specifically Carmel.

Over drinks and smokes at my Wabash graduation party in 1987, Don counseled my parents on how to find a reputable nursing home for my grandmother. It was sage and honest advice, which was helpful for my family.

Honesty, though, is what you always got with Don Smith; he never was afraid to ask the especially hard questions.

He was wealthy, yes, but he never came across that way. To me, Don just seemed to be “one of the guys."

Don could also be stubborn at times, and he was a die-hard, no bull republican. He probably stuck out for his conservative beliefs in these increasingly progressive times, but he always put his money where his mouth was, and supported the things he loved with all his heart and all his treasure — especially Wabash College.

Don was elected to serve on the Wabash Board of Trustees on the weekend of his son Adam’s graduation in 1987 and served the Board until 2003.

Perhaps his biggest contribution to Wabash came when he chaired the Capital Campaign for Independence and Excellence that was started in 1987. That fund-raising drive raised a then-record $42 million, money which bolstered the College’s endowment, and renovated the Fine Arts Center, Lilly Library, and Detchon Center.

It seems almost ironic now that conservative Don Smith would drive the campaign that resulted in stunning new arts facilities, a greatly improved library, and the Detchon Center where the cultures of the world are honored and learned. His exemplary leadership was for the benefit of Wabash and certainly enhanced the College’s commitment to the liberal arts.

More recently, Don was a powerful force behind the construction of the new Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house. Not only did he make the largest financial contribution to the project, he convinced dozens of other alumni to join him in the effort.

I saw Don last spring when he was in remission from cancer and attended a Board of Trustees meeting, and again when he returned to campus last fall for the dedication of the Phi Gamma Delta Psi Chapter house.

Even in the final months of his life, Don’s foremost concern was for the men of Wabash. And on the day the new chapter house was dedicated, it was clear by the look on his face and tears in his eyes that his dreams for generations of Fijis had been realized.

Don Smith was Some Little Giant!

More Than Basketball

Jim Amidon — Because Wabash College has a reputation for hiring coaches who are as strong on ethics as they are with X’s and O’s, athletics will always play a critical role at the College.

Coaches like Rob Johnson, Gail Pebworth, Max Servies, Mac Petty, and Chris Creighton — to name only a handful — recruit young men who share their values and their love of sport. The former, in many ways, is even more important than the latter. Talent, of course, never hurts. But talented athletes without integrity have no place at Wabash College.

What got me thinking about all this was a very brief conversation I had with Bob Brock, who coached basketball here from 1953 to 1964. Coach Brock, pictured below, remains the only coach in Wabash’s storied basketball history to take teams to the NCAA playoffs in four consecutive seasons. His 1960-61 team is pictured below.

I went to Coach Brock’s house to take his picture, which will be used in a program at this weekend’s alumni basketball festivities. Wabash welcomes former players back to campus every year, but this Saturday is very different.

In addition to the normal alumni game, Wabash will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 1982 National Championship team with a mini-reunion.

But before any of that gets started, many of Coach Brock’s former players — men either retired or nearing retirement — will return to Crawfordsville to honor their former coach.

Imagine that for a minute. Almost 50 years after they left Wabash, the players will return to say “thank you” to the man who coached them in basketball.

Imagine Bob Wedgeworth, for example, clearing his busy schedule to come from Syracuse, New York to be with his former teammates and the coach who meant so much to him when he was 20 years old. Wedgeworth is the president of ProLiteracy, which is the world’s largest non-governmental literacy organization, a position he’s held since his “retirement” as the dean of the Columbia University and University of Illinois library systems.

Think about Jim Cumming, another of Coach Brock’s players, returning to campus to say thanks to the coach who helped shape his values and ideals. Dr. Cumming is a pediatrician in Indianapolis, and is routinely listed as one of Indy’s “Top Docs” by Indianapolis Monthly.

And then there’s Bill Boone, longtime Crawfordsville High School teacher and coach, who has spent the early years of his retirement trying to track down old friends and teammates from his years at Wabash. He’s discovering that all of the men of the “Brock Era” have soared to amazing heights.

The list of remarkable men who were influenced by Coach Brock goes on and on, and includes names like Charlie Bowerman (former Vice President of Phillips Petroleum), Dr. Sherman Franz an award-winning psychiatrist), and Rusty Nichols (Hanover College President).

As Coach Brock and I recalled the men who are returning to campus this weekend, a smile crept over his face. He looked up and said with conviction, “I’m more proud of my players’ accomplishments in life than I am of anything we did in basketball.”

I know Coach Mac Petty shares the same pride in his former players, men like Pete Metzelaars, who is fresh off helping the Colts win the Super Bowl as an assistant coach, or Chris Denari, who is the television voice of the Indiana Pacers, or any number of the doctors, lawyers, and CEOs who’ve worn the Wabash uniform.

That’s the attitude that drives Wabash’s athletics program and always has. While winning games does matter, teaching young men how to compete to the best of their ability, to be leaders, and to live lives of worth and value are the most important aspects of sports at Wabash.

All of which merits a grand celebration.

Reflections on the Inauguration Weekend

Jim Amidon — More than a week has gone by since Pat White was inaugurated as the 15th president at Wabash College. That’s enough time to reflect on the entirety of the weekend and lift up a few of the more memorable moments. By the end of the festivities, Wabash hosted a total of 11 inauguration-related events and fed more than 3,000 people. There were elegant dinners for 660 and 720 people; an arts event; receptions; a Celebration of Student Research; sports; and the formal inauguration ceremony itself.

Lots of good memories; lots of good feelings.

The weekend kicked off with a Celebration of the Arts. Theater professor Michael Abbott conceived the idea of collaboration between students and faculty, showcased through creative writing, musical performances, visual art displays and demonstrations, and a couple of plays.

While every performance was amazing, for me the highlight came when four students — Braden Pemberton, Sterling Carter, Dustin Foster, and Spencer Elliott — starred in a play called “Sandwich,” which was written 20 years ago by none other than Patrick White.

Directed by Professor Jim Fisher, the play was riotous fun with laugh-out-loud line after line. The best part was watching President White’s expressions —†and those of his family. It was a perfect way to honor the president and demonstrate the collaborative process of the arts.

Friday night, nearly 500 students dressed up in shirt and tie and spent the evening at a formal dinner. Repeat, 500 college guys elected to spend time paying tribute to their new president on a Friday night!

Two things made Friday evening special, even remarkable. First, students planned and executed the entire event. Bryce Chitwood and Josh Bellis turned Knowling Fieldhouse into a winter wonderland with more than 400 lighted luminary candles, 50 pine trees, birch clusters, and two snow machines. With Brett Gann coordinating things, almost a dozen students participated in the program — giving speeches and tributes to the president.

Second, the College’s VIPs — trustees, alumni board members, and class agents —†were spread evenly among 84 tables. Each of the VIPs served as a table host and note taker, and the conversations were focused on the students’ dreams for the future of Wabash. By the end of the evening, there were 80 notepads filled with ideas, which will be keyed in as an important part of Wabash’s strategic planning efforts later in the spring.

Friday evening marked the first time in decades when that many students were involved in close, personal conversations with Wabash’s most influential alumni.

Saturday morning, about 150 people gathered in Lilly Library to pay tribute to former President Andy Ford, who returned to campus with his wife Anne. The occasion was the unveiling of Andy’s official presidential portrait, which will one day hang in the Pioneer Chapel with Wabash’s 13 previous leaders.

At 4:00 Saturday afternoon, we had squeezed the last of about 800 people into the hard, wooden pews of the Chapel. The academic processional — comprising almost all of the Wabash faculty, the trustees and administrators, and about 40 college presidents or their delegates — provided academic formality, pomp, and excitement for the occasion.

The “moment” for me, though, came when in his inaugural address President White asked his college buddies in attendance to stand and be recognized. I counted 13 men, I think, who have shared friendship with President White for more than 30 years. It was a terrific example of the kind of lifelong bonds that are formed among young men in their college days, friendships that endure through good times and bad.

The formal festivities ended Saturday evening with a gala attended by more than 700 people. The fieldhouse, only hours before a winter forest, had been transformed into a Mediterranean garden, complete with palm trees and fountains. The space was stunning, to say the least.

Planned entirely by Amy Williamson, Mary Jo Arthur, and Kevin Nanney, the evening came off without a hitch. Much thanks goes to Campus Services, too — David Morgan, Charley McCormick, and Tim Riley and their crews — for a quick turn-around in difficult circumstances.

The “moment” Saturday night came when Paddy, Molly, and Katie White walked to the lectern to tell the crowd about the other side of President White — the guy they know only as “Dad.”

Finally, looking back at a glorious weekend of celebration — of the College, its traditions, and its new president — a person who had never before set foot on our campus provided some of the most moving words of all.

Paul Harder, one of Pat White’s college roommates, spoke in Chapel Thursday. He finished by saying of his good friend, “The fully conscious person, the humanist, the idealist capable of being skeptical without being cynical, the lover of words, your new President, sees the beauty of your souls and the beauty of this place you all love. This is where Pat White belongs.”

Indeed, Paul. We think so too.