Spring Cleaning

Jim Amidon — The phone rang last Friday morning and in my haste to answer it, I knocked over a freshly filled cup of coffee. The resulting splash covered my entire desk, my shirt, and my pants. The phone got a good dousing, too

Because I was on the phone with Wabash President Pat White’s assistant, Carolyn Goff, I couldn’t exactly express the frustration I felt. Just as well, though — screaming wouldn’t have salvaged the now-soggy documents, books, and assorted materials that are stacked 10 inches high across my messy desk.

As I began to mop up, I realized it was time for a good spring-cleaning of my office at Wabash College. The office tends to be a depository of, well, everything — from boxes of DVDs to recruiting materials to CDs loaded with tens of thousands of digital photographs.

While in that spring-cleaning mindset, it occurred to me that I had gathered a number of newsworthy tidbits — not really enough to fill a full column, but good stuff nonetheless. I’ll roll a few of them out under the title “Did you know?”

Did you know that Steve Charles, the talented editor of Wabash Magazine and the College’s director of publications, was recently honored with an Addy Award? The regional award was presented in Lafayette last month and honored the magazine’s stunning graphics and design.

Did you know that Center Hall, the oldest, regularly used classroom building at Wabash, turned 150 years old a couple of weeks ago? College Archivist Beth Swift did the homework on this, and scoured the archives for any references she could find to the building’s age. When her research was complete, she discovered the first official meeting ever held in Center Hall occurred on April 11, 1857.

(If you wonder what kind of shape the building is in, stroll through Center Hall and walk the staircases that have been worn down by millions of steps taken by Wabash men and their teachers for 150 years; it will take you back in time.)

Did you know that this is the final week of classes at Wabash? Final examinations begin a week from today and graduation is again on Mother’s Day, May 13.

Did you know that award-winning Theater Professor Jim Fisher is leaving Wabash after 28 years of teaching, directing, and acting at Wabash? Later this summer, Jim will become the chair of the theater department at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Not only has Jim consistently been one of the College’s most productive scholars, he has a rare and wonderful ability to bring out the creative best in Wabash men, which has been evidenced time and time again when he has directed plays at Wabash. He will be missed.

In light of the horrendous tragedy at Virginia Tech a week ago, did you know that Wabash has a Safety Committee that meets monthly to review the College’s emergency preparedness and safety protocols? Led by chairs Julie Olsen and Bobby Horton, the committee deals with everything from radiation safety in our science labs to how to respond to natural disasters. The committee recently launched an auto-dialing system that can almost instantly contact every student at Wabash — on his cell phone — in the event of an emergency. Hat’s off to Brad Weaver and the IT Services group for putting this amazing system in place.

Did you know that Wabash’s Admissions Office received an all-time record 1,436 applications for admission this year? Dean Steve Klein and his staff have consistently raised the bar in terms of their ability to engage talented young men in conversation about the true benefits of a Wabash education.

Did you know that Wabash’s baseball team beat the College of Wooster last weekend? It’s a big deal because Wooster came into the game undefeated and ranked first in the nation. Sophomore Joey Niezer pitched a complete game in the 4-3 win, and was named the conference’s Pitcher of the Week for his efforts.

Did you know that 18 of the 21 men inducted into the Wabash chapter of Phi Beta Kappa this year hail from Indiana? Phi Beta Kappa is the nation’s oldest honorary fraternity and membership is offered only to the very top students in the College’s graduating class. This year’s inductees include men from tiny Indiana towns like Ladoga, Cicero, Ossian, and Clinton!

Finally, did you know that coffee stains are almost always permanent when the liquid life is left to dry on snazzy dress shirts and pants?

A Student and His Teachers

Jim Amidon — At Wabash we celebrate just about everything. We celebrate the accomplishments of our scholars, athletes, and artists. We threw a birthday party for Center Hall last week on the occasion of the 150th year of the building’s use. We celebrated our new president just as we celebrated our outgoing president a year ago.

There are other, smaller, often unnoticed celebrations that happen almost every day. Some of the most profound examples are when students race to their advisors’ offices to say they got into med school, law school, or landed a really cool job.

Those are proud and celebratory moments for our faculty. There’s a sense of real accomplishment when a teacher learns of a student’s success. Wabash classics professor Jeremy Hartnett called last week and told a story so good it should be celebrated.

Two weekends ago, Wabash hosted the Indiana Classical Caucus, a conference of college and high school Latin, Greek, and classical studies teachers. A significant part of the program was a series of presentations by current college students of ICC member schools. Wabash senior Kyle Long organized and executed the program, and presented a significant research paper titled “The Transformation of Liberal Education in Rome.”

Good students can’t hide at Wabash, and I’ve known about Kyle for several years, but admit I do not know him well.

It’s safe to say, though, that the state’s top teachers, professors, and students in classical studies know all about Kyle Long — from his curious intellectual research to his ability to plan a state conference and moderate undergraduate research sessions.

“His presentation stole the show at the meeting,” Professor Harnett told me. “College professors asked him for copies of his paper… It’s been a pleasure to watch Kyle’s intellect bloom during his time at Wabash.”

Another of the teachers in attendance was Jeremy Walker, a 1992 Wabash graduate who teaches Latin at Crown Point High School. Jeremy Walker taught Kyle Long as a high school student, and as Kyle says, is the person responsible for his intense interest in classical studies.

“Jeremy Walker is the most passionate educator I’ve ever had the privilege of learning from,” Kyle told me. “His return to campus left me with feelings of both nostalgia and progress.”

The feelings were mutual.

“Before my own presentation,” Walker said, “I was moved to share that Kyle had been my student in high school and that I had just realized a new high that I had never experienced before as a teacher. It was a moving and meaningful experience to see a person that you had initially trained present and impress your own peers and realizing just how much he had grown as a person and a scholar under the watchful eyes of professors who had helped guide me so much in the past and still today.”

What an incredible educational loop. Jeremy Walker learned from Wabash teaching veterans Joe and Leslie Day, David Kubiak, and John Fischer. As a teacher, Walker inspired Kyle Long, who would come to Wabash and become a star student in the Classics Department.

One of Kyle’s most influential college professors is another product of the same Wabash Classics Department, second-year professor Jeremy Hartnett.

“Jeremy [Hartnett] taught me something that transcends the Classics: how to write well,” Long says. “Jeremy has the ability to draw my words out of me in a way I didn’t think was possible.

“He simply refuses to let me settle and I am forever grateful for his ardent interest in creating for me a truly liberal education.”

While this is a wonderful story of professors motivating talented students, who eventually become their impressive peers, there was a bump in the road.

During his freshman year at Wabash, one of Kyle Long’s friends was killed in a car crash. Long dropped out of Wabash and looked for direction. His old high school teacher, Walker, got him pointed in the right direction and helped him re-enroll at Wabash a year later.

“It wasn’t easy for him that first year,” Walker said. “All of his friends and pledge brothers were now a year ahead of him. He felt a little lost, but eventually he settled in and started to grow and develop.”

Professor Hartnett says Long’s presentation stole the show at the conference. For Long’s high school teacher — who had been with him since the start of his education and helped him through difficult times — the pride was overwhelming.

“I’m not sure I could have been prouder of Kyle if he had been my own son,” said Walker.

Malaysian, Paraguayan Teas a Hit

Howard W. Hewitt – International students bring a distinct flavor to the cultural atmosphere at Wabash College. Often they bring a more literal flavor by sharing native cuisine.

Two International freshmen made presentations Thursday in Detchon Hall to help inform about their native countries. In past years, the presentations were often strictly about the students home countries and traditions.

This year Paraguayan Juan Cricco and Malaysian Barry Ooi elected to focus on native tea to share their homeland’s culture.

Cricco shared the more-than 500-year-old tradition of Terere or Yerbe Mate. The tea is a social drink used by all classes of people throughout the country. There is ritual to the sharing of Terere among friends and a legend the tea was first planted by two Goddess female children.

Ooi gave a presentation on Chinese herbal teas and specifically one called Oldenlandia. The tea is used for medicinal purposes, often to reduce fever.

He told the students, faculty, and staff gathered the tea has been a part of pop folk medicine lore since the Chinese Revolution.

He served up a warm version of the tea at the conclusion of the short program.

Having the students on campus brings a diversity of culture many schools lack. When the young men can share something from home, it heightens our understanding of not just the young men but another culture.

Joyful improvisation

Steve Charles—It’s not every day that a jazz Hall of Famer hears college kids play and instantly asks them to sit in with his band.

Especially not in Crawfordsville.

But that’s what happened Wednesday at the spring concert of Wamidan, the College’s world music ensemble. (Click here and here for photos from the concert.)

Indiana Jazz Hall of Famer Larry Clark’s group, Profile Unlimited—which also features jazz masters Frank Smith and Peter Kienle—was the guest act for the evening. Arriving early to set up, they caught part of Wamidan’s final run-through. Clark was especially impressed with the drumming—so impressed that he invited Bernard Meyer ’08, Taz Ahmed ’07, Teye Morton ’08. and Steve Hernandez ’08 to join his group for rehearsal. They then accompanied Profile Unlimited for the first two Afro-Cuban numbers of their set

“These drummers are amazing,” Clark told the Salter Hall audience later in the evening. “You don’t find drummers like this many places. You should be proud of them.”

The whole ensemble did us proud Wednesday night.

It was the final concert for four seniors—Crawfordsville High School’s Alix Hudson, whose is both an instrumentalist and a dancer; Fisayo Oluwadiya, co-founder of Wamidan’s musical partnership with Depauw and whose beautiful singing and spirited dancing have been highlights of Wamidan concerts for the past three years; James Boyd, a talented musician who has done practically everything for the group and was Wednesday night’s emcee; and Taz Ahmed, whose CD with his group, AJOB, was the number one CD in Taz’s home country of Bangladesh earlier this year.

That’s a lot of talent, and we’ll miss them next year.

But one of the highlights of Wednesday evening bodes well for next year’s edition of Wamidan. It came during the Honduran dance Steve Hernandez had introduced to the group. Teye Morton and Bernard Meyer were among the dancers in the piece. They’re great drummers, but less comfortable dancing (on stage, at least). But the Honduran dance needed them, so Bernard and Teye were good sports about it and helped out.

Still, I knew Teye wasn’t that happy about it.

So I was really surprised when he and Bernard broke into an improvised set of moves at the end of the piece. They had tall of us cheering them on.†It was the kind of spontaneity and teamwork we aim for in Wamidan, and it was especially rewarding to see these two students take that risk as dancers. They turned our performance into a party, and the improvisation kept coming throughout the night.

Much of the credit for the freedom they felt to experiment that night goes to visiting professor David Akombo, whose work with the ensemble concluded with this concert.

His last words to the group before the performance: "This is not a competition. Just go out there, relax, and enjoy yourselves."

But it’s also interesting that all this improvisation occurred on the night a Hall of Fame jazz player was in the house.

Helping Larry Clark set up his drums during the intermission, I asked him what he thought of what he’d seen and heard the first half of the concert.

“Beautiful,” he said. “Just beautiful."

In photos: (top right) Taz Ahmed enjoys his collaboration with Profile Unlimited; (lower left) Hall of Fame drummer Larry Clark.

Administrative Assistants Win Award for Wabash

Jim Amidon — One of the really neat parts of my job at Wabash College is to share good news about the people and programs that make the College unique. Usually I focus my attention on the students and faculty at Wabash, and occasionally I’ll shine a light on impressive alumni I’ve gotten to know.

I find it particularly enjoyable when I have the opportunity to pay tribute to the men and women on the administrative staff — the over 100 pros who do everything from keeping the heat on to copying syllabi to recruiting students and raising scholarship dollars.

Sometimes many of us on the staff side of the College have a hard time seeing how our work supports the mission of Wabash — to educate young men to think critically, act responsibly, lead effectively, and live humanely.

Two of Wabash’s administrative assistants, Sharon Metcalf (right) and Rochella Endicott, don’t have that problem.

Sharon, Rochella, and their colleagues across campus are surrounded by students and professors, so they know how their work supports the mission of the College. They see it in the eyes of the students every day.

In fact, they know it so well that they submitted a nomination on behalf of their colleagues, which has resulted in Wabash winning the Award of Excellence from the Indiana Division of the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP).

Sharon tells me that the IAAP is the leading and largest professional association for administrative support staff.

There are more than 40,000 members and 600 worldwide chapters of the IAAP. Wabash College was selected from the eight chapters that make up the Indiana Division.

The IAAP says its Award of Excellence is given to a company (college in our case) that “demonstrates quality support for secretaries, administrative/executive assistants, and related office professionals."

Sometimes we get so caught up in the education of young men that we fail to recognize that Wabash is a pretty good place to work.

We’re in good company, too. A past recipient of the same Indiana Division award is Eli Lilly and Company, which annually is ranked among the top places to work in the United States.

What makes the award and the eight-page nomination sent in by Sharon and Rochella (left) so special is its substance. Sure, the award does suggest Wabash is a good place to work in terms resources, training, recognition, and promotion.

Moreover, Rochella and Sharon were able to document clearly how administrative assistants fit into the overall vision and mission of the College; how they very much feel a part of the wonderful experience students have while enrolled at Wabash.

“We believe that Wabash has much to offer its employees in its physical resources and cultural activities, but also in the way it is recognizing and accepting the changing roles that administrative assistants play in the daily operations of the College,” Sharon said.

That’s heartening. And it’s probably a great reason why visitors to the College, whether they’re stopping through or attending a conference, say how impressed they are with the people who work at Wabash. It is not at all uncommon for our guests to tell me how surprised they were that every person at Wabash seemed to be on the same page; how everyone had a sense of ownership of the College and its mission.

Wabash and its IAAP members will be honored at the annual state meeting, which will be held in Lafayette in early May.

Three cheers for Sharon, Rochella, and all of the outstanding administrative assistants and secretaries who are the backbone of the College’s administration.

By going so far out of their way to lift up Wabash in their national organization, they have once again demonstrated the strong sense of community that not only supports our mission but enhances it.


New Ways to See

Steve Charles— “Listen: there was a goat’s head hanging by ropes in a tree.”

That first line from her prize-winning poem “Song” was my introduction to the much-honored poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly. “Song” is a powerful, beautiful work that haunts me still. And any poet who starts with the command—“Listen”—like an apostle, or a village shaman—is not to be trifled with. I respect anyone who can so finely choose her words and craft her work. But a poet with such vision, with words that cut straight to the heart, and images that keep me up at night? Maybe not the person to bring to your kid’s birthday party.

So yesterday I walked with trepidation into the class in which Ms. Kelly planned to critique and “workshop” poems by students of our own poet, Marc Hudson.

I hadn’t seen their work under Marc’s teaching. Would it be like the post-adolescent drivel that so often populates undergraduate poetry collections?

Would Ms. Kelly rake the little “arteests” over the coals?

A revelation was at hand (and it was no rough beast.)

We have student poets at Wabash!

I’ll give you a few lines to taste.

From Bernard Meyer’s poem, “The Breaking”:

    I feel like the ocean that remains silent
    when the drowning body screams
    as it is swallowed whole—feeling,
    in essence,
    the part of the witness,
    and the murderer.

From Neil Cook’s “EVV,” named after the Evansville airport:

    There is no train station
    in my hometown. There are
     freight trains, but no
    place to go to say goodbye.
    Nowhere to run along
    outside the window, waving
    and crying and shouting, "I love you!"

From Nic Bitting’s “Winter Waters and Skies”:

    A red-tailed hawk circles above me
    painting his wings into
    winter sky.

And this image from Nick Gregory’s “After the Storm”:

    Quiet now
    The aimless bodies drift apart
    Two white puffs rare across blue sky
    Sprout trails of fabric that hang
    and writhe like the drowned folds
    Of a wedding dress lost at sea.

And Ms. Kelly is as generous and skilled a teacher as she is a poet. She told the students she was impressed with the variety and freshness of their work. She involved the entire class in the discussion, and the student poets seemed inspired. Cook and Meyer were still talking about the session an hour after the class, which Marc and Ms. Kelly extended so that we could workshop more poems.

“She opened my eyes to the whole poem in ways I hadn’t seen," Marc said about her work with Bernard Meyer. And Marc is the finest nurturer of young poets I know.

After such a day, and after Ms. Kelly’s reading last night, I was reminded of a line from a 1980s Bruce Cockburn song, “Maybe the Poet”:

“Maybe you and she may not agree, but you need her to show you ways to see.”

Brigit Kelly does that for me in her poetry, and did so with her teaching and reading Thursday.

But as a 52-year-old man, I was surprised to have my jaded eyes opened by men 30 years my junior.

It’s part of the exhilaration of working here. Students you think you know surprise you— they get better at what they do, more aware of themselves and their world, become wiser before your eyes.

My faculty friends speak of the genuine pleasure of learning from their students. I think I got a taste of that yesterday.


In photos: (upper right) Brigit Pegeen Kelly talks with students as she signs books following her reading; (lower left) Neil Cook and Bernard Meyer take a closer look at their work following Ms. Kelly’s workshop.

Rare Opportunity, Part 1

Howard W. Hewitt – The Wabash classroom experience is often enhanced by alumni and guests. The ‘real-world’ speakers bring additional credibility and context to the message students are hearing daily from their professors.

Stephen Buckley, managing editor of the St. Petersburg Times, is on campus through Thursday afternoon sharing his journalistic experiences and tips on writing and reporting. He’ll be speaking at 8 p.m. Wednesday night in Baxter. His speech, knowingly or not, fits in well with President Patrick White’s call to join a ‘grand conversation.’

Buckley’s speech is titled, “Sex, Lies, and Video: Public Discourse in the Age of the Internet.”

 The former Washington Post reporter and foreign correspondent spoke to Tobey Herzog’s Business and Technical Writing class Wednesday morning. He offered up tips for a good newspaper feature.

His message about a formula which will work for such stories, and other stories as well, was punctuated by what I’ve found myself telling student journalists. “It’s not like this is difficult,” Buckley told Herzog’s class. “It’s the critical thinking you bring to the task.”

No, journalism isn’t brain surgery – but it’s really difficult to do it well, and that was Buckley’s morning message.

Buckley is a personal friend of Religion Professor Jon Baer. His visit is sponsored by the Religion and English Departments, Lecture Committee, Malcolm X Institute, and Multicultural Committee. 

Being in that classroom this morning reminded me what a rare opportunity our students enjoy. The College brings these people to the classroom to not only re-enforce basic principles they may hear from a professor, but to bring the rich context of experience that is invaluable.

Many of the speakers face Baxter 101 or Korb with only 20-30 or 50 people in attendance. I often sit there thinking of what a great opportunity many of our students, faculty, and staff miss. Indeed, it’s a rare chance to enrich your education, student or not, to not take advantage of people as dynamic as Stephen Buckley.

Rick Sasso ’82: Surgical Pioneer

Jim Amidon — Like most people, I have bad days; days when the creative engine doesn’t fire, when I type responses to critical emails I never send, and struggle to put a happy face on the public image of the college. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen very often.

When I get in one of those ruts, I try to remember why I’m here and why I’ve spent my life in service to the college — the students and alumni who make Wabash truly special.

After a crazy first three weeks of March, I had one of those professional life preservers thrown my way. Steve Charles, the amazingly talented editor of Wabash Magazine, was talking with a colleague about an alumnus who will be featured in the forthcoming June issue. They were frustrated because they had no good photos to illustrate the story of groundbreaking surgeon Rick Sasso ’82.

I shouted across the hall, “Steve, call his office and see if I can get into the operating room and photograph him in action.” I didn’t think Steve would call my bluff.

A week later I arrived at St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis, donned surgical scrubs, and trotted with camera into an orthopedic center operating room a little after 6 a.m. Dr. Sasso explained what he would be doing, using x-rays and MRI films to make it simpler for me to understand. It became clear from that moment that I would be his student and he would teach me every step of an extremely complicated spinal surgery.

To back up a bit, Dr. Sasso is being profiled because of his state-of-the-art spine surgery techniques and leadership of the Indiana Spine Group. He was the first surgeon in the U.S. to perform artificial disc replacement surgery in both the cervical and lumbar regions of the spine. He owns a dozen patents for surgical techniques and the tools to accomplish his work.

On the day I shadowed and photographed him, he performed a tricky surgery on a middle-aged woman suffering from spinal stenosis. Her spine was curved in such a way that it caused the spinal canal to narrow and put pressure on the spinal nerve. The debilitating condition left her limbs numb or completely useless.

Stenosis can be seen in young people, but mostly affects people over the age of 50. With age, the ligaments around the spine thicken, bones and joints enlarge, and the spinal cord is slowly pinched.

For two hours and 23 minutes, Dr. Sasso led an eight-member team that effectively corrected the problem in a procedure known as a laminectomy. Pieces of bone and tissue were removed and the patient’s once-flattened, compressed spinal cord suddenly looked like a happy, puffy balloon

Throughout the process, Dr. Sasso invited me to the operating table to both see what he was doing and document it in photos. As he did so, he talked about the tools and hardware he’s helped develop that allow for such good results — shorter and safer operations with long-term, success.

On this day, he used a device called the VERTEX Reconstruction System. If you didn’t know better, you’d think one of his surgical assistants had raided the hardware section at Stevenson’s Ace Hardware. Actually, the device is a carefully constructed and versatile system of screws, hooks, and rods that more thoroughly and safely eliminates the pressure on the spinal cord.

Lest people think I’ve gone from humanist to biologist, the real point here is the doctor himself. From the moment Dr. Sasso greeted me to the final handshake, it felt like I was hanging out with a long lost friend. He was gentle with my idiotic questions and explained things in great detail at an intellectual pace I could handle.

The really cool thing about Dr. Sasso is that he constantly questions everything. When faced with “that can’t be done,” he sets out to discover or invent solutions to long-standing problems. And in my case on that day, he was teacher, surgeon, and pioneer in a refreshingly ego-free manner.

Plaques and awards do not hang in his office; a few dozen pictures of his former patients living healthy lives provide all the satisfaction he needs. (Dr. Sasso is pictured above with Angela Allsup, who received an artificial cervical disc three years ago.)

Some might think observing spinal surgery is a long way from a professional perk, and they’re probably right. But meeting the man behind the mask and scalpel was for me the very best possible professional pick-me-up, and provided yet another example of the way Wabash men are changing the world in very human ways.


Read the full story about Dr. Rick Sasso’s life-saving, ground-breaking work in the next issue of Wabash Magazine.