Vic Powell at 90: “A Sense of Wonder”

Steve Charles—Vic Powell H’55—Professor of Speech Emeritus, Dean of the College Emeritus, Acting President of the College Emeritus—will be 90 years old next Wednesday, November 25. The day before Thanksgiving.

I discovered this last June at the Big Bash Reunion, where Vic and his wife, Marian, were guests of honor at the Class of 1959’s 50th Reunion. Just as they had been guests of honor at the 50th reunions for almost every one of the classes from that decade. In fact, Vic’s name almost always comes up when I travel to interview alumni, whether they’re from the 50s and 60s or from generations after he’d retired from formal teaching.

Still, it is hard to believe that this man I see almost daily from my Kane House window walking the two-plus miles from his home to campus and back is turning 90.

Read the NAWM’s Resolution honoring Vic Powell on his 90th birthday here.

So when we began putting together an issue of Wabash Magazine on “men’s health,” I thought, Why not sit down and talk with someone whose life is evidence that he knows something about the topic?

We’ll print highlights from that interview in the Winter 2010 issue of WM, but here is one of my favorite moments from our talk.

About halfway through the interview I asked Vic to define “well-being.” He’d actually been doing this through stories about his and Marian’s long walks and his wonderful friendships with Professors Butch Shearer and Jack Charles, dinners with the Degitzes and the Strawns, but I wanted to hear him sum it all up.

“I suppose you would want at least a fair measure of health, but beyond that, the network of relationships is so important. I think isolation would be soul-destroying,” Vic said. “There’s family—I’m blessed with two great daughters who call every single week—and a network of friends. A sense of well-being means you have a sense of community, people whose companionship you enjoy.”

Then he included something I hadn’t expected as being “important to one’s well-being.” He told the story of a debate he had one day with Professor of Political Science Phil Wilder at the round table in the Scarlet Inn:

“Phil and I were at opposite poles politically… and we got into it, not in a nasty way, but a real knockdown political argument. By the time the bell rang for class, there were students and faculty crowded around that table just following this argument.”

“I thought it was important that students see faculty disagree with each other, argue with each other, but clearly respecting each other and enjoying each other’s company.

“Disagreement didn’t mean disregard or enmity. We could disagree and argue but there was a fundamental respect for each other.”

I was moved by what I heard Vic saying: That this capacity of respectful but often vigorous disagreement that’s so essential to the well-being of a community is equally essential to the well-being of the individuals in that place.

I thought of something else Vic had mentioned earlier in our talk: Butch Shearer would often drop in on the Powells to listen to St. Louis Cardinals games with Vic (a love of the Cardinals and of Wabash College being the only two things these men had in common, Vic has often said.) One night one of Vic’s daughters heard the two men downstairs, their voices raised, debating one thing or another. The little girl ran to her mother. “I thought Daddy and Mr. Shearer were friends,” she said. And they were. Good friends. They just had an unusual way of showing it!

Vic also called Professor Jack Charles “as close a friend as I’ve had.”

“We would meet every Sunday morning in his office, smoke at each other, and solve al the problems in the world, “ Vic said. “He was the most learned man I’ve ever known in my life.”

Vic would try to stump Jack during Scarlet Inn conversations:

“No topic would come up that he didn’t know,” Vic said. “So I was gonna get him. I took out the encyclopedia and, thumbing through it, I found what I thought was an obscure queen from around 1100. It wasn’t easy dropping that into an Inn conversation, I’ll tell you that right now. But I bided my time and saw an opening and I dropped a casual reference to this queen. Charles says, “Oh yeah; she drowned her husband in a bathtub. Just like that!”

Vic laughed as he recalled the moment, then added, “He was a very special man to me.”

Finally, a few stand-alone quotes from our conversation:

On walking: “You can solve a dozen problems a day just walking, you know. Sometimes I get up feeling lethargic, but by the time I’ve walked down to the school, picked up the New York Times, go to the Inn, with my colleagues around, I’m restored.”

On “working” at Wabash: “There wasn’t a day that I wasn’t eager to get down here to teach. It wasn’t a job. I feel sorry for people who have jobs. I thought Wabash students were the world’s best, the faculty colleagues were wonderful.”

On life: “There is a sense of spirituality about life, a wonderment… a sense of wonder about the world. No, I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t think anyone else does. But there are lots of wonderful questions to think about, turn over in your mind, and pursue in all sorts of ways.”

On the family dog:
Me: What kind of dog is it?
Vic: That’s a good question. [laughs] A very democratic dog!

Vic ended our conversation, not surprisingly, with a story about Wabash students—one he calls “a wonderful vignette of Wabash students at their best.” But I’m way over the limit for blogs here, so that’s a story for another day. We’ll have more in the Winter 2010 WM.

It’s ironic, perhaps providential, the Vic’s 90 birthday comes the day before Thanksgiving this year, for there are not many men in this College’s history for whom we could be more thankful. We’ve had our share of loss this past year; watching Vic as we talked, his leg flopped over the arm of his chair, and listening to his wisdom and stories, reminded me of how rich we are at Wabash in the things that matter, and what wonderful lives we’ve been given to share. A moment and a man to celebrate.

If you’d like to wish Vic happy birthday (and I realize that I invite this at the risk of being reprimanded by Vic himself!) you can reach him by email at:

just stop by the Scarlet Inn!

  1. Vic: I feel very fortunate that I got to know and work with Vic Powell. He was Dean of the College when I started on the Wabash faculty in 1978. I have more and more appreciated during the years his fairness, frankness, and kindness to me when I was a very young, very green faculty member — and after. I am very grateful to him — but I know I’m only one of many who feel that way.
    Vic certainly doesn’t seem to be 90 — he is the most vigorous and engaged person imaginable. I hope that when he celebrates his 100th birthday, I can be there for the party!

  2. Steve: While on campus for commencement, I bumped into Vic and Jean Williams. She said she had reached 90. Suddenly, Vic broke in saying that she beat him to it, but that he would be 90 this fall. He said it with such joyful enthusiasm that I was taken aback. Has he never been unenthusiastic in or out of the classroom? What a grand part of the Wabash College experience!
    J B

  3. Vic was the Dean of the College who hired me in 1980. After talking with him, I sure hoped I would be offered the job as Head Librarian. I got it!!! Over the years I have considered Vic not only a mentor but a good friend. Almost every morning I had coffee with him and others in the Scarlet Inn, enjoying the “debates” he had with Ed McLean and many others, and we all left as colleagues. Now over morning coffee in the Inn it is mostly Vic and we other retirees who continue to solve the problems of the world or we reminiscence about past years. Anytime an alumnus walks in and sees Vic, he sits down and tells us how important Vic was in his life.
    Larry Frye 1992H
    Retired Wabash Head Librarian

  4. Vic Powell is one of the great professors and administrators of the 20th century. I will always remember the great Monon Bell stories he would tell the week prior to the game. Happy Birthday Professor!

  5. Happy Birthday, Mr. Powell!
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article about you.
    Your daughter’s post to a 2013 blog was wonderful, too.
    I hope my son will enjoy his time at Wabash and life like you!
    You’ve motivated me to start walking again! :o)
    Catherine Hintz RN
    Wabash Mom 2013

  6. Warren Rosenberg

    Happy Birthday Vic! You were one of the first people I met when I came to Wabash from New York City in 1980, and I remember thinking, “these people out here are ok!” Part of that was, of course, that we generally see the world from the same political perspective–from that of your personal friend, FDR! I’ve never been able to attend as many speakers and events as you and Marion have over the years, but you always seemed to be at every one I managed to get to, and just your continuing presence meant a lot to all of us. Now, when I drive the mile between my home and the college, and look over at the side walk and see you walking to campus, I will feel even more guilty, knowing that guy is 90! Walkers, mountain men, and liberals everywhere salute you. I wish you continued health and happiness.

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