Jim Amidon — Professor Ethan Hollander’s political science students will return from Thanksgiving break and dive into the complicated subject of nation building. The Wabash professor will guide his students to an understanding of what factors enable some countries to develop and others — even geographic neighbors — to lag far behind.
Last Friday, Professor Hollander’s students got a rare and wonderful opportunity when Tim Padgett returned to campus to give the students tangible and current examples of the material they’ll study later in the term.
Tim is a 1984 Wabash graduate, who has spent the last 20 years reporting on Latin America for Time and Newsweek magazines. His visit couldn’t have come at a better time.
Over the last five months, Padgett has reported extensively on the Honduran political situation, which began with an attempt by democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya to push constitutional reform; gained international attention when Zelaya was ousted in a mid-summer military coup; and which reaches a critical point next Sunday when elections will be held.
The international community will not recognize the new regime, nor will they recognize the results of this weekend’s election. Doing so would be, in effect, condoning the military coup, which was not only an illegal act, it stands to set the developing region back a generation.
“The election will confirm that Honduras has slipped back into the political chicanery and military meddling that typified the 1970s and 80s,” Padgett wrote in Time from the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa.
What happens in Honduras probably matters little to most of us here in Montgomery County.
But the opportunity Wabash students had to spend time with Padgett, who has traveled the region and interviewed all the key players — including the man likely to win the controversial election, Porfirio Lobo — was priceless.
In fact, Professor Hollander had distributed an advance copy of a story on the elections written by Padgett that was due to be published the next day in the international print edition of the magazine.
Talk about access! The students had the article and the author to themselves in the same week as the historic (and likely illegitimate) election.
There’s no question whatsoever that Professor Hollander will teach the students a great deal about what makes some countries rich and others poor, what it takes to maintain political stability, and why change in Latin America often occurs with one step forward and two steps back.
Padgett, though, is one of “the guys.” Twenty-five years ago, he was sitting in the same Wabash classes trying to figure out why virtually every Latin American country was exploding in civil war.
“In the 1980s, Latin America was our Vietnam,” he said. “That was the issue we talked about. We talked about El Salvador and Nicaragua.” Those discussions — with Wabash professors like Phil Mikesell and Bernie Manker — would ultimately shape his entire career.
After a one-year stint in Venezuela in the mid-80s, Padgett’s appetite was whetted to know more, to better understand the people and issues of Latin America.
He took a job with Newsweek in Chicago, and not longer after was named the magazine’s bureau chief in Mexico City. He spent the first half of the 1990s in that post, before moving to Time to cover Mexico and all of Latin America.
Friday morning, returning to Wabash after spending 10 years writing from the Miami bureau, Padgett wove a classroom narrative that included politics, history, linguistics, economics, and trade — a quintessentially liberal arts conversation.
I sat in the class fascinated by the questions the students asked; they were not superficial. The students were genuinely interested in talking about the concepts they have studied with a journalist who has spent the last 20 years on the ground, and whose job it is to interpret all of the facts and shape them into compelling stories for the world to read.
The wonders of Wabash never cease to amaze me. The greatest wonder — even after all of these years — is the loyalty and passion Wabash alumni have for the place and its students.
Tim Padgett provides a terrific, off-the-radar example. Still jet-lagged from a week in Honduras, he returned to Wabash — not to give a big, public lecture, but to spend some quiet time with student journalists, a class of political science students, and a handful of young men who have a passion for the region he covers.
Maybe one of those Wabash students will some day return, perhaps 20 years from now, and recall the day Tim Padgett came to campus to talk about a somewhat obscure election in a faraway country, and how that experience changed his life.
It wouldn’t surprise me a bit. After all, that kind of thing has been happening for well over 170 years.