Sounds of Spring

Steve Charles—I was walking back to Kane House after lunch today when I heard the high notes of an alto saxophone reverberating off the walls of the Schroeder Career Center and Professor Hall Peebles house. I looked down the sidewalk to see senior Jake Lundorf, barefoot and in shorts and t-shirt, strolling along the street on this 80-degree spring day and playing his saxophone.

What a joyous sign of spring—the sound of live music in the middle of the day. I was reminded of my own student days at Hanover, Butler, and Trinity College in Wales, where warm days were always accompanied by instruments or voices from the open windows of practice rooms in the music department. It’s a sound I’ve not heard here since Dan Hartnett used to haul his cello onto the mall.

Jake is a psychology major, but he wants to teach. He said he’d been inspired to play outside by Professor David Blix’s story of another musician who used to play in the arboretum on beautiful, warm days.

"I’ve been pretty quiet on campus my four years," Jake said. "But on a day like this …"

Jake was really wailing on that sax—the sort of jubilant, lung-burning howl that could make guitar player like myself envious of Jake’s gift if I wasn’t enjoying the sound so much.

He finished his playing in the arboretum in the place of benches, stones, and spring flowers called the Petty Patch. It was donated by Phil Coons and Elizabeth Bowman in memory of poet-botanist-professor Robert Petty, a man who wrote about the natural world "burning with life." He would have loved Jake Lundorf’s response to that fire on this beautiful spring day.

Thinking in Abstract Terms with a Hammer

Howard W. Hewitt – It’s not unusual to enter a Wabash College classroom and find students challenged by their professor to think in abstract terms.  That’s what Wabash is all about – getting students to grow and not only think critically, but think at times in an unconventional manner. (See photo album from Thursday’s class here.)

It is often impressive and enlightening to sit in those classrooms, for those of us who do it infrequently, and be overwhelmed at some of the young men’s intellectual exercises.

It’s just as interesting to enter an art studio in the Fine Arts Building and see students intellectually express an abstraction in art. After all, when we think of the word “abstract,” we often think of art.

Professor Doug Calisch challenged his 3-D Foundations class this week with a project he titled “Releasing the Theme from Within.”

He wanted the students to focus on the subtractive process. “Basically, that means carving, shaping, and removing material from a plaster block, in order to convey a theme or central idea,” Calisch wrote in the assignment sheet.

“Working in the subtractive method takes careful planning and a preliminary design work on paper. It also requires a kind of ‘backwards’ thinking – a deconstructive approach of eliminating mass and creating space in order to reveal the theme locked inside your block of plaster.”

And to keep the assignment as “abstract” as possible, the students drew their themes from a hat. One word was written on a note card and the student had to then create their work to reflect that word. The list included: expel, consume, stress, compression, fluidity, frozen, solitude, toxic, pure, aggressive, destroyed, caustic, strength, complex, and others.

A haze of white dust hung over the sculpture studio Thursday afternoon with the constant “chink, chink, chink” of chisel against plaster. But one of the interesting things, much like other art classes I’ve observed, is most of the students were not art majors. The class is a 100 level class.

It’s fascinating to see young men who probably would not define themselves as artists express abstract themes with their hands, a hammer, and a block of white plaster.

Ashcroft: Remarkable for the Students

Jim Amidon — Former United States Attorney General John Ashcroft spoke on the campus of Wabash College last Thursday evening. A crowd of over 700 people listened to him recount the days following the tragedies of 9/11 and the controversial Patriot Act that soon followed.

I don’t much care how you come down on Ashcroft politically. He tends to be one of those public figures who is either loved or loathed, and was referred to on campus last week as both a fascist and a patriot. Go figure.

What I do care about is the remarkable opportunity his visit provided for the students who were able to interact with him. To rub shoulders with someone of such great influence in our government — someone who will likely become an important historical figure — was a terrific opportunity for young men enrolled at Wabash.

Furthermore — and significantly more remarkable — it was a very small group of dedicated Wabash students who managed every single aspect of Mr. Ashcroft’s visit.

Now that may not sound like a “remarkable” accomplishment, but as someone who has planned and executed a good number of large-scale events, I can tell you what the students did truly is worthy of praise.

Thanks to a partnership with the Washington-based, conservative-leaning Young America’s Foundation (YAF), the editorial leadership of the Wabash Commentary was able to negotiate the former governor and senator’s visit. Alumni donations and support from YAF helped pay the various fees associated with the trip, but the students managed the effort. All of it.

The students worked out the details of the contract; arranged for transportation, overnight accommodations, and meals; contracted with local security people; booked rooms; wrote press releases; and served as gracious hosts to Mr. and Mrs. Ashcroft. The students even led an effort to get the former Attorney General into a political science class and purchased books for a book signing reception, two events Ashcroft wouldn’t normally do on this kind of trip.

Commentary Editor Brandon Stewart ’08, Managing Editor Josh Bellis ’08, Events Coordinator Tyler Gibson ’09, and Business Manager Trent Hagerty ’09 did the work of an entire staff of professional event organizers, and did so with gobs of political baggage to work through.

They have every right to feel enormously proud of their accomplishments.

Stewart introduced Mr. Ashcroft eloquently, and did so completely from memory. Not bad for a 20 year-old standing in front of a massive crowd while introducing one of the most controversial figures in the post-9/11 era.

After a few self-deprecating remarks, Mr. Ashcroft began to tell the story of what it was like to be in an airplane — on his way to a literacy event in Milwaukee — when news of the terrorist attacks came through on a private telephone aboard the plane.

I looked around at that moment and as far as I could see in the crowd, all eyes were fixed on the man President Bush would ask to ensure that such an attack would “never happen again.”

Throw out the politics; throw out the legislative and judicial debates about the validity of the Patriot Act.

At that moment — here, in Crawfordsville and at Wabash College — we were learning how the events unfolded that day and in the days that followed from the man who was front and center. This story wasn’t told to us by the New York Times or Fox News, but by the person charged to track down the perpetrators of the most unlikely attack ever on U.S. soil.

After an hour of some fresh, but mostly rehearsed remarks, the students of Wabash gave Mr. Ashcroft a standing ovation — not because they all support his politics, but because they appreciated the opportunity to meet him and learn his views firsthand. I was pleased when I turned to see Brandon Stewart smiling with pride.

As the PR guy, I’d like to say these types of opportunities happen at Wabash all the time, and in some ways they do. The College is committed to bringing to campus scholars of great acclaim and putting them in class with our students.

In reality, it’s not often that someone of Mr. Ashcroft’s stature — politically, internationally, and historically — comes to our campus. And it wouldn’t have happened if not for a handful of students, who worked tirelessly to create the opportunity for this community.

Over the years — to avoid being overtly political — I’ve almost never given public praise to the students of The Commentary. In this case, though, I give hearty congratulations to Brandon Stewart, Josh Bellis, Tyler Gibson, and Trent Hagerty for a job well done.

California Stories

Jim Amidon — My public affairs colleagues Steve Charles and Howard Hewitt are having a tough time starting their engines this morning. That’s because they flew in from the West Coast last evening and are a bit jet lagged from their quick four-day journey to San Francisco.

They’re dragging, yes, but they are also wearing proud smiles — and should be.

Last summer, Howard spent two weeks in California on assignment for Wabash Magazine, which Steve edits. The goal was to meet as many alumni as possible, learn about their lives, and tell their stories in a themed issue of Wabash Magazine called “California Road Trip.”

The issue, which we envisioned a full year ago, rolled off the presses late last week, thus the occasion for Howard to return to California with the magazine’s editor in tow.

Last Friday night, almost all of the people Howard interviewed separately in June came together to celebrate the achievements of their fellow West Coasters. It was a remarkable evening made even more special by new President Pat White’s first visit to the Golden State.

The magazine debut party was held at the John Pence Gallery in downtown San Francisco. The owner, John Pence, is a 1958 Wabash graduate whose life story is told in the magazine. A veteran of the Navy and former airline executive, Pence owns what is known as one of the “premier Academic Realism galleries in the United States.”

Hewitt also interviewed three first generation college graduates — Hugo Mariscal, Anthony Avitia, and Ernie Vela. All three are children of Mexican immigrants from Salinas, California, which is known as the “salad bowl of the United States” for its produce production.

Since graduating from Wabash, Mariscal, Avitia, and Vela have returned to Salinas. All are school teachers, administrators, or counselors, and they hope to introduce more young people to the wonders of a college education. Their story, though, is more about the challenges they face while educating young people in an environment of gangs, poverty, and violence.

Imagine a magazine that pays tribute to a wealthy art gallery owner AND three of the eight Wabash men from Salinas who are first generation Americans!

(Actually, Steve does a wonderful job in every issue of Wabash Magazine to lift up a full range of Wabash people and their experiences — CEOs and poets alike.)

I would love to have been in the gallery with Steve, Howard, and the other 50 Wabash alumni and friends who gathered there. I know for a fact it was the first time such a diverse group of Wabash’s California alumni have been together.

When Wabash officials usually travel to California, it tends to be for very specific alumni events in major cities, and usually there’s a good bit of fund raising cultivation going on.

Perhaps that’s why this trip — and Howard’s trip in June — is special. Wabash went a few thousand miles to honor in story and photos men who truly do make a difference in their communities, and returned almost a year later to again celebrate the Little Giants of California.

Howard kept a blog site of his experiences last June. After spending an evening with Avitia, Vela, and Mariscal, Howard wrote, “The thing that’s tough to explain here is the appreciation they felt for a visit by someone from Wabash. They talked about it in my presence and when I was not around, as well. The sincere gratitude and the time they took to share their stories were really special.”

Maybe it’s the power of the stories — and our chronicling of them — that really sets Wabash apart from so many other colleges and universities.

For almost a dozen years, Steve Charles has been preaching the value of our individual histories, our stories, and our lives. And he’s practiced what he’s preached. He listens carefully as others talk; picks up subtle references that illuminate someone’s life; and honors every person — every story — with dignity and grace.

I’m so proud of the work Steve and Howard do on behalf of Wabash College. I think you will be too when you see their collaborative efforts and read the wonderful stories of our West Coast alumni. Give me a call if you want a printed copy of the magazine. Or, just go online and access all the stories and photos at

Barnyard Smells, Cat Urine and Good Wine

Steve Charles – Wine is Howard Hewitt’s hobby, his avocation.

So after the San Francisco reception to †roll out the winter issue of Wabash Magazine, we’re getting a bite to eat at the Cafe Andre. Click here to go to Wabash West – and read about the reception and see photos.

Howard’s now into his wine thing. He orders a sauvignon blanc and, when our cute brunette waitress brings it, begins to discuss "the notes" with her.

“Citrussy, maybe a hint of grapefruit,” he says. I think the waitress is indulging him, but then she really gets into it. So into it she says, “Let me bring our Haughton blend and see what you think." Like Howard’s a real expert. And I have to admit, he’s pretty good.

But I’m beginning to realize that Howard’s wine hobby is not only a sly way to talk with pretty women about sensual things, but a great way to get free stuff.

She brings the wine, pours, then leaves us to savor it.

Howard swirls the wine in his glass, reminds me to hold the glass by the stem so I don’t change the taste with my body heat from my hand,†then shoves his nose into his glass like he’s going to snort the stuff.

He seems baffled.

“You know, I struggle to put words to this,” says Howard, who never struggles to put words to anything. “I think that whatever a person says they smell, well, that’s right.”

“Well this wine smells like paint,” I say.

“Shut up.”

“It does. Like paint. Or paint thinner.”

"Shut up."

“No, I mean, I love the taste, but it does smell like paint."

"Shut Up."

The waitress returns, she and Howard start chatting,

“I think it smells kind of like paint,” I interrupt. I’m looking at the waitress, but I’m pretty sure Howard is rolling his eyes. She laughs a little. Did I mention she’s really cute?

“You know, I’ve heard some people say that Sauvignon Blanc smells like cat pee,” she says.

"Smell is the sense of memory," I say, not knowing what I’m talking about. "There are professional smellers, you know," I add. What an i idiot. But I’ve got her attention. She brings up Diane Ackerman’s book, History of the Senses, which I’ve read, and we begin talking about it, recalling a favorite passage, getting along wonderfully.

Then Howard chimes in.

“I’ve heard Pinot Noir described as having a ‘barnyard smell’," and he and the waitress go back and forth sharing uncomplimentary ways of describing the stench of wine. I think I might be on to something with this unconventional approach.

“You know,” I say when the waitress leaves, "I love this wine, but it does smell like paint."

“Shutup,” says Howard.

Saturday we’re going to visit Steve Pavy at one of the most prestigious wineries in the Napa Valley. I’ve got a lot to learn.