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The Spirit of Caleb Mills

Richard Paige — His name weaves through our history all the way back to the moment where the original trustees knelt in the snow and founded this institution. The tradition we hold most dear – the bell that rings students in on Freshman Saturday and out on Commencement – had its beginnings with him. He, of course, is Caleb Mills.

For many, Mills simply is the name we attach to the spirit that flows through this place. How are we to know our first professor, a man who last taught in 1876 and passed away in 1879? Who can bring that spirit to life?

Chuck Beemer can. A lawyer, noted Civil War scholar, and the author of two books, Beemer is also Caleb Mills’ great-great grandson.

Beemer was born in Montgomery County and graduated from Crawfordsville High School in 1958. He earned his undergraduate degree from Colorado College, has a master’s from Wisconsin, and a law degree from North Carolina.

Chuck Beemer, the great-great grandson of Caleb Mills.

Chuck Beemer, the great-great grandson of Caleb Mills.

While on campus recently to discuss his latest book, “My Greatest Quarrel with Fortune: Major General Lew Wallace in the West, 1861–1862”, I sat down with him to talk about his legacy, his great-great grandfather, and coming home.

Are you more aware of your great-great grandfather when you come back to campus?
To be honest, I feel a sense of that while I’m on campus, but I feel a sense of it quite often. Mom (Julia Beemer) felt a very close kinship to Caleb Mills. She obviously didn’t know him, but I’ve heard the name Caleb Mills since I was yeah-high to a Fig Newton. I remember real early on that I was asked to make a presentation to the local grade school PTA meeting. Dad insisted that I say something about being the great-great grandson of Caleb Mills. It really bothered me to do it. Frankly, it sounded like I was bragging or trying to achieve a special status. The audience responded to it almost like it was an everyday commonplace thing. I think the name Caleb Mills is a very well-known name in Crawfordsville.

How much do you know of Dr. Mills and his accomplishments?
I’m very proud of the fact that he was the first professor here. Dad always used to talk about how they came across the mountains and knelt in the snow. So that image has been with me for a long, long time. I’m proud of the fact that he was superintendent of education, and I read someplace that he did so much to advance the cause of free public education that he became known as the Father of the Free Public School System in Indiana. That’s always meant quite a bit to me.

How much did his influence have on you becoming a Civil War historian or lawyer?
I’m not sure of any per se, more like an atmosphere. It was absolutely expected that my older brother and I would go to college. I desperately wanted to come to Wabash, but dad felt that getting away from home was an integral part of the educational process. He really kiboshed the idea; certainly nothing to do with Wabash, he recognized it as a great school. I’ve always been a fun loving guy and simultaneously somebody who has a strong sense of the need for education both in your personal and professional life. I think it was kind of an unspoken, unidentifiable, pervasive type of influence.

What do you know of him as a person?
I have read a lot of his (Caleb’s) letters to his son when Benjamin Marshall was in command of a company of black U.S. troops during the Occupation of Vicksburg in 1864. (He was a) Terribly, terribly, terribly strict disciplinarian, even with his son…very formal. There is no evidence of pleasantries. Very straight forward. Benjamin Marshall is quite like him in return letters, but you can see a little emotionalism creep in. As much as I revere and respect Caleb Mills, I don’t think I would have liked for him to have been my father. (laughs loudly) It would not have been easy.

Did those letters help to humanize him for you?
Absolutely. I have a great deal of respect and admiration for him as a man, even more so for what he accomplished. I would love to go back in time and sit and talk to him for however long. I don’t know how he’d relate to the PGA Tour or NBA basketball, but he must have been a man of immense character and I could tell he was a man of immense persuasion.

Does the campus still feel like home for you?
Still does. It never changes. Crawfordsville doesn’t change much either. It had been 40 years since I’d left, and I was struck by how much had not changed. The people of Crawfordsville have always been very warm and friendly. My relationship with the college has always been quite, quite solid. I follow the football and basketball teams closely. I did not go to Wabash, but I can assure you that Wabash is and will always be a strong part of me. I’m extremely pleased whenever I read something about Wabash because it’s always good news.

How meaningful is it to you that Caleb Mills, and his bell and mace, are still central to who we are?
When we got the Wabash Magazine a month or so ago, one of the first pictures at commencement had the faculty marshal carrying the cane. I showed it to (his wife) Nancy and said, “Your great-great grandfather-in-law is in that picture.” All she sees are guys in caps and gowns. She asked, “What are you talking about?” I said, “He’s right there in front. There is his cane. The spirit of Caleb Mills is in that picture.” Things like that mean a lot to me.


Immersed in Art and Baseball

Richard Paige — We talk a great deal here about the impact of immersion trips. In the next few days alone, Wabash men will be traipsing across the globe, including destinations like Italy and South Africa.

Rhetoric professor Todd McDorman immersed his Baseball and the American Identity freshman tutorial class in the charming hamlet known as Cooperstown, NY, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in mid-October.

I was curious how such a trip might influence a group of guys — baseball fans — a good number of them baseball players, too. It’s not like the guys headed to Rome can actually define themselves as gladiators. Would it make an impact, or be brushed off like that of a bad-hop ground ball?

Eilshemius’ “Van Courtland Park”

Eilshemius’ “Van Courtland Park”

Bryce Bridgewater ’19 is one of 13 who made the trip. The class impacted him long before the group made it to Cooperstown.

“I’m a baseball player and I love the sport,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d ever be given an opportunity like that to learn and analyze different aspects of the game; how baseball and America have grown up together and shaped history. It wasn’t what I expected. The game and America are best friends.”

Each had a research project on how a particular subject is presented and influenced by its presentation in Hall of Fame.

Bridgewater threw himself a curve. For a guy who had been to one art museum previously, he chose art and baseball simply because it was different. He spent four hours in the exhibit.

Andy Worhol's "Tom Seaver" also was a favorite.

Andy Warhol’s “Tom Seaver” also was a favorite.

“It was hard at times not to be a fan,” said the right-handed pitcher from Indianapolis. “You get caught up in it, but you have to remember that you are being a critic. It took some time to step back and make those connections.”

He noticed that each work of art had its own interpretation of the game. He started to see the game from a different perspective.

“It gave me a chance to see what the game looked like in different eras and how it’s changed,” Bridgewater said. “The game my grandpa knew and the game my dad knew is different than the game I know.”

One piece resonated strongly with Bridgewater. Louis M. Eilshemius’ “Van Courtland Park” shows the game in its infancy. It reminded him of what made him fall in love with the game. “It was like playing a pick-up game in the backyard with friends,” he said.

The experience opened his eyes to the impact that art has on any subject.

"Phil Niekro" by LaVern Brock was constructed completely of baseball cards.

“Phil Niekro” by LaVern Brock was constructed completely of baseball cards.

“I didn’t think that a painting could have told me about the connections or the importance,” he said. “The art, the artifacts, the exhibit, the town itself that all opened my eyes. Art is more than just a painting, there is a story behind it. If I went back to that art museum, I might feel differently now.”

The experience allowed him to draw parallels between pitching and painting. Whether it’s attacking the hitters or the canvas, it’s the approach that is unique.

“Every athlete’s or artist’s approach is different,” Bridgewater concluded. “They might be inspired by something completely different. It’s all interpretation. That’s why I think art and baseball are fascinating. You might get similar results, but the process is so much different.”


Medieval History Made Fun

Richard Paige — If only every idea that crossed your desk could be as whimsical.

Professor of History Stephen Morillo got an out-of-the-blue e-mail from a high school student named Greyson Beights, who asked if Morillo could write a 200-word description of the Battle of Hastings.

That whimsy eventually became Medieval Lego, a book that pairs real historians’ summaries of events like the Battle of Hastings, the chartering of Oxford University, and the signing of the Magna Carta with Lego bricks.

I don’t think there could there be a better way to make any subject appealing to children than to mix in Lego constructions.

Professor Morillo's contributions inside Medieval Lego.

Professor Morillo’s contributions can be found inside Medieval Lego.

“It’s an interesting, almost noble thought to make Medieval history interesting to kids by building Lego set pieces of famous battles or sieges,” Morillo said. “Greyson did it right. He got good builders and made good Lego constructions. He made it reliable and respectable by getting in touch with some big-name Medieval historians like Robert Bartlett and Steven Isaac.”

Two-hundred words on the Battle of Hastings. Would he do it?

“I’m thinking I could do that in my sleep,” said Morillo. “Sure, I’ll take part. So I sent him my stuff.”

Some 15 months later, a copy of Medieval Lego arrived in Morillo’s office. The finished product was impressive. Plus, the Battle of Hastings landed on the cover.

“It was a damn good idea,” Morillo said. “He makes some real connections here.”

I asked Morillo if this particular publication would leap to the top of his C.V. “Yes, I think it will,” he laughed. “It’s the most recent thing, so, of course, it goes right to the top.”