Bert Stern: Wabash Poet

Steve Charles—The journalist chases the story, the essayist the idea, the memoir writer the dissipating vapor of her life.

But the poet loves the word. The logos. The “in the beginning was the word” word. Today, I need the poet.

I’m spent. Scattered. I can’t write one more thing about anyone here. All my words look the same. None of them do these people justice. None gets to the essence of the person I’ve met.

It’s the middle of summer, and I need to hear poets. Not just Garrison Keillor reading a poem a day on the Writer’s Almanac. I need to hear a poet in his own voice, or at least a poet whose voice I trust.

In the last capital campaign we built this alumni terrace with bricks, each inscribed with a dedication from the giver. Mine read, “To Baker, Petty, Stern, and Hudson: Wabash Poets.” They were some of the first poets I knew outside of their poems, whose life and voice I could hear in their work. (Even though Bob Petty died before I got here, his words have been my field guide to this place.)

Our culture tends to undervalue poets. Few of them can make a living at their craft. But I can’t imagine life without them. They resurrect the words I suck the life out of.

I’m no poet, still it is the poet’s voice that calms and focuses me. The attention paid and devotion to one word at a time calls to me to slow down and consider.

I write fewer words and much more slowly than most on our staff, so I have no excuse for this, but every year, it seems, I get “written out.” I never tire of meeting and interviewing and photographing people; I tire of my words not being up to the task. Of the fact that they never will be up to the task, and that the gap between who I meet and what I can express seems to widen every year.

My antidote is usually a writer’s workshop, where other like-minded failures get together to remind ourselves that falling short is inevitable, that the joy is in the pursuit, that we’re blessed to do this work and, really, what choice do we have? Sort of a 12-step program for English majors.

But this year, no workshop. So I need to hear a poet.

Enter Bert Stern. Professor Emeritus of English, teacher, and poet whose collection, Steerage, was published earlier this summer by Ibbetson Street Press.

I knew some of these poems. I was blessed to read many in manuscript form, and we published a few in Wabash Magazine. But to see the work as a whole is different. More like a journey from beginning to near end. My favorite piece and others I’ll write about later. But here are some lines of the sort that remind me of how much we can mean to one another, and that rejuvenate my faith in the word to express that meaning:

I didn’t know that angels could get tangled
in the winter branches, or that the sun in winter
only seems to shine on an alien planet.
All that I held in my arms got broken
until you came and I learned that flesh could marry.

It is always like this. Even now children are being born
They are sucking milk because they were made to,
and staring at their mothers from across a great distance.
          —from “Testament”

When the ship came into the harbor
my spirit was waiting for me,
dancing on the shore,
a bird on the edge of the water.
      —from “America”

 A scene from childhood:

Evenings that went on forever
still unfolding. Deep Buffalo
winter, living room soft auburn
daddy asleep on his back, evening
News over his face, mother
knitting in her chair, reading
the book on her lap, I at her feet,
reading. Silence. I can hear
our breathing.
     —from  “Buffalo, 1938” 

or this, from the poem “Wait,” in which is the speaker is trying to call back into life a dying girl, a poem written by a man whose own little girl died of leukemia when he was a professor at Wabash:

Wait, he said, listen. He knew
a thin song that birds steer by. Wait,
he said, I’ll sing it. The rain falls
in torrents, coats the earth with
its own sheen, under the reflected
lights of stars. Wait, taste water.
It is a cold night. Pull the covers up,
press your body against whatever will hold it.

In an earlier version of that poem, the last line was "press your body against whatever will touch it." What a difference one word makes. 

Finally this, from the short poem “White-Throated Sparrow”:

Always a white-throated sparrow
singing on a mountain top, and somebody
there listening to it for the first time.
That’s what you need to believe …



“It’s About Making a Life”

Steve Charles—At the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis last Friday, I heard this inspiring thing.
I was interviewing David Orr —not David Orr ’57, trustee emeritus, citizen of Crawfordsville and San Cristobal, Chiapas, but David Orr 92, philosophy major, actor, co-founder with his wife Bonnie of the Sapphire Theater in Indianapolis, and listed in our alumni director as a “carpenter/artist."
David’s work includes building and finishing “sets” for the Children’s Museum, and I interviewed and photographed him in several different settings he’d made to help kids experience what it is like to live in modern Egypt. The work is not unlike writing—get a few concrete details right, and the imagination, thus directed, can do the rest. He pays remarkable attention to detail.
He also built the furniture for the Museum’s magic show, and while we were doing a photo session on the stage where that show takes place, I asked him about the connection between this work, the liberal arts, and his life as an artist.
WM: What does all this work at the Children’s Museum have to do with being an artist? 
David Orr: It’s about making a life. I’m an artist. If I don’t keep making things, making art, then I really don’t stay sane. So figuring out how to keep a life going trying to work as an artist, you tend to learn to do a lot of different things.
WM: Any connection to your liberal arts education?
Orr: For me, liberal arts is all about learning how to learn. I wasn’t told, “Here’s a formula, now go apply it, and just do your task.” In the liberal arts, there are all these ideas to explore, and it became all about learning how to learn. Once you’ve cracked that nut, you can do anything.
Doing a piece like this [the carving of pharoah on the “magic box”] becomes like creating a piece of sculpture for me.
I used to think that I was only an artist when I was painting on a canvas. I would separate my art from the jobs that I would have to do in order to support my life. But I realized that I couldn’t live that way.

So now, I look at the things I do as opportunities to be an artist. I use my talents, my eye for detail, and I hold myself to a high standard. Then all the things I do turn into works of art, and I get to maintain my sanity as an artist.

We’ll have a story with photos of David’s work in the Winter 09 issue of Wabash Magazine.

A Citizen of Wallace and Wabash

 Steve Charles—Earlier this year, I wrote the following short piece about Gary Livengood, an electrician with the College’s Campus Services, the guy who handles the sound system and taping for Commencement and Big Bash, and a lifelong resident of nearby Wallace, Indiana. I was hoping it would be the first of several phone conversations I had with one of the College’s true gentlemen, but Gary died of cancer last Thursday.
I don’t want to remain silent about the loss of such a good man, so here’s the piece from our first phone conversation. We were just getting started with the recollections, but I hope there’s at least a glimpse here of the friend we’ve lost. It seems we’ve lost some of the kindest, friendliest folks these past few years—Mike Bachner, Rod Helderman, Paul Mielke, Susan Cantrell, and Bill Placher among them. The place just isn’t the same without them, and Commencement and Big Bash sure won’t be the same without Gary.
Here’s the story. I had sent it to Gary for fact-checking a few weeks ago, but he wasn’t able to get back to me, so I welcome any corrections—or additions.
A Citizen of Wallace, Wabash, and the World
Sometimes the people with the most interesting stories are the most reluctant to tell them.
Take my colleague Gary Livengood. I had worked with Gary—an electrician with Campus Services and the guy who, among other duties, makes sure the sound is good for our on campus events—for almost 13 years before he ever told me he’d been born in Wales, the country my family came from three generations back. That his mother was a British war bride, born in Maidenhead, England and grew up in London. That people in the town of Wallace where Gary grew up used to knock on his door just to hear his mother speak in her beautiful London accent.
That his father, who grew up in Wallace, had hit the beaches in Normandy from a landing craft on the third day of the D-Day invasion and fought in the decisive Battle of the Bulge. His photo is on the cover of a Time-Life book about the war.

And that Gary hit the beaches of Vietnam a generation later in a very similar type of LST, though hardly with the same intensity.

“When we landed there were people on the beach in bikinis and bathing suits putting on suntan oil,” he told me through a laugh. “Not exactly the combat situation my father was in on D-Day plus three. It was the only way they had for us to get off the ship.”

Like most WW II vets, Gary’s dad didn’t talk about or want to relive the moments he’d experienced in combat, including those in one of the most famous and brutal battles of the war. He’d met Gary’s mom in London while on leave. She was a secretary at a factory there making ball bearings for Lancaster bombers, an area subject to regular bombings by the Nazis. Gary’s mom used to come home from work with her face blackened with soot from the fires and bombings. But she refused to live underground or in the tunnels.
“She says that whenever an air raid siren went off, you just kept on going, like hearing a siren in the street,” Gary told me. “There’s a lot to be said for the British and their stiff upper lip. I’ve sure seen it in Mom.”

Having survived his stints on the front lines, Gary’s dad married his British girlfriend and came home to Wallace with hopes of living out his life in peace. Like most war brides, Gary’s mom wasn’t allowed to return with her new husband—there were all sorts of paperwork, and approval to enter the U.S. for the approximately 70,000 English women who married American GIs took months. More than a year, in the case of Gary’s mom—long enough for Gary to be born in the little Welsh town of Dowlais, where his mother’s aunt and uncle lived and where the new Mrs. Livengood had gone to stay until her passage to the U.S. was approved. 

Gary said his grandmother used to tell him that “you were the last thing your father did before he left for the States.”

Gary and his mom arrived in the U.S. aboard the Queen Mary, which is not as luxurious as it sounds, as the ship had been re-fitted as a troop ship for the war.

So Gary grew up the child of two different cultures. And Gary’s mom, who had grown up in and loved the city of London, came to live in Wallace, IN, current population 100, where she still lives today. There are all sorts of stories about her settling in to the Hoosier state—that one about people knocking on her door just to hear her talk was the first one that came to Gary’s mind when I asked him about it. But what was it like to grow up the son of this Indiana farm boy and the English lady?

I’m hoping Gary will tell me more the next time we talk. I do know his English relatives have visited him and his mother many times, and they’ve gone back to her homeland to visit, as well. Rich connections, wonderful stories.

None of which I had any idea about until last year, when we ran an article about Wallace in Wabash Magazine and Gary mentioned, after the fact, that Wallace was his hometown. I’d photographed Phanuel Lutheran church there and had noticed a lot of Livengood headstones in the churchyard. I’d meant to ask him about it.

Actually, the way Gary came to tell me about all this says a bit about him. He’d been cleaning out the Little Giant Room next to the Wabash Bookstore and had found a photograph of bookstore manager the late Mike Bachner ’70, a friend to so many of us here. He thought I might like to keep the photo, so he stopped by to give it to me.

But when I saw Gary next to thank him for his thoughtfulness, we got into this conversation about his being born in Wales, about his traveling to the U.S. as a baby on the Queen Mary, how he’d traveled back to the place of his birth on the Queen Elizabeth, then returned again on the QE 2. After about a half hour of me peppering him with questions, he had to get back to work.

I asked him if he would write some of this down, and he said that he might, but I knew that was as unlikely as Gary giving a speech about himself in Chapel.  He just didn’t think anyone would find it interesting.

Gary’s been fighting cancer since late last year, and has been off work since early in this one. When he got the diagnosis he told me that he didn’t want anyone’s pity. He’s not interested in becoming anyone else’s drama. His father had died of cancer. Gary is determined to make the best of this situation, as he always has.

So I suggested that, as long as he’s not busy, perhaps he could tell me a few stories, and he’s been kind enough to do so. But he still wonders what I see so interesting about it.

I think the Wabash community is blessed with characters and citizens. The characters are loud, or expressive, sometimes provocative, inspiring, funny; they make us think, or make us mad, or both; they like the limelight, they’re a lot of fun. They’re pretty aware that their lives are interesting, and I’m glad. I enjoy writing about them, the things that interest them. I love learning from them.

But the citizens hold it all together, often in the most inconspicuous ways. They are the ones who make sure the microphones the characters talk through are always on. The comments recorded. The lights burning. They don’t make a big splash; they’re the small and constant ripples that keep the water fresh.

Gary Livengood is a citizen of W
abash. One of his summer jobs is making sure the Chapel sound systems are ready for the weddings when alumni get married here. He meets the groom the evening before the service to brief him on how the mikes, sound, and recording system works, so that their special day will go smoothly and be preserved.

One summer night last year I was walking my dog Jules on campus and saw Gary, standing on the Chapel steps, looking down at his watch. He was supposed to meet an alumnus who was getting married in the Chapel the next day. The alum was more than an hour late.

“Steve, I hate to say it, but if he’s not here in a half hour, I’m just going to have to go home,” Gary told me apologetically. “I’ve got folks waiting for me there.” 

I told Gary I’d have left half an hour ago. But Gary noted that the times around weddings get pretty chaotic, and he wanted to give the guy a few more minutes. In the course of our conversation, the alum finally showed. Gary let out an audible sigh of relief.

Citizens. You don’t hear many stories about them. Hell, they won’t tell them! But try running this College without these people who put others’ interests first as a matter of habit. People who often don’t realize how their small kindnesses hold up their friends, colleagues, their communities, and the world. Guys like Gary are the Gentleman’s Rule personified.

Even as I write this I wonder, Where did Gary get this way of living? Was it from his mom, the English war bride, the elegant woman in the Indiana back road town? From his dad, the D-Day Plus-Three veteran whose family had helped settle that town and kept it alive for generations? Was it from watching the interactions of those British and American relatives, being a child of two cultures?

Gary recalls WW II vets coming to the house when he was 12 or 13 years old.

“I had the advantage of talking to veterans of from the British forces and the American forces,” he said.

All this has to shape the way you come at the world, even while you’re running through the woods outside of Wallace and playing by the creek on a warm spring day.

I hope to get a better sense of this the next time Gary and I talk about his life, which he keeps insisting isn’t very interesting. I hate to be rude to such a kind man, but he’s simply wrong about that.


Kyle Prifogle and the Music of Mathematics

Steve Charles—As a student I struggled with learning mathematics, so as a writer I’ve often asked friends who are mathematicians to describe for me the beauty they see in their chosen discipline. I know my inability to see it is a result of myopic ignorance. I want to be moved by an equation the way I’m moved by a line from a poem, a piece of sculpture, a scene from a play.
Thanks to Kyle Prifogle ’09, I think I get it now.
Prifogle’s recital Friday night in Salter Hall was nothing short of amazing. (See a photo album here.) His playing of Beethoven’s “Appasionata”  seemed effortless (which is saying something, as Prifogle’s intensity at the keys can make “Mary Had a Little Lamb” sound dramatic), but it was hearing and seeing Kyle play the “Scarbo” section from Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit—a piece famous for its incredible difficulty—that was the revelation for me.
It’s gorgeous, playful, wild, magical music. And because I’ve now seen this mathematics major/music and physics minor preparing for and playing concerts on everything from classical piano to Ugandan madinda—even seen him take the lead singing role for Wamidan on occasion—I had no doubt he could do it.
So, unlike recitals in which you just pray the musician can get through the piece, Kyle’s virtuosity set me free to absorb the music and enjoy watching him play it.
And at some point during that section, looking through my telephoto camera lens and watching his fingers whip and slide over the keys one second and articulate a handful of them the next; watching him lean hard into the keys, then sit up like he’d been shocked by them; watching the eyes glance down for a moment then back at the complex patterns of notes on the page of music before him; all the while listening to those wild notes and beautiful 20th century chords flying out of the Bosendorfer piano, I got it. A glimpse, maybe, of how the mathematical mind sees the world like the notes on the page, and the beauty of the spaces between them.
To me, Kyle was playing and proving the emotional beauty of mathematics. I couldn’t help recalling a photo shoot in his sophomore year as he stood pondering a mathematical equation with that same intense, mouth-to-the-side look he gets when he’s really concentrating on the music and those notes on the page meet the music rising from inside him.
I remembered, too, that when he wrote his first blog from his travels in Uganda to learn the madinda from the masters there, how he was determined to come up with a system by which he could notate, recall, and analyze the intricate patterns he recognized in these musicians who played exclusively by ear. All so that he play them himself, as he did earlier this spring during his final concert with the College’s world music ensemble.
To be a mathematician and musician is a double gift, not only to the bearer of the gift, but to those of us who get to listen. We’ve been blessed to have Kyle Prifogle here these past four years, and by the hours upon hours of hard work he has put in to learning and getting ready to perform these works for us, helping us to see and to hear the beauty of the gifts he has been given. Even changing the way a few of us see and hear the world.

Gary James and NPR—Right Place, Right Time

Steve Charles—One of the delights of working at Wabash is being in the right place, right time when students get good news. Sometimes great news.
I had one of those moments Friday afternoon, when Gary James came bounding up the stairs of Kane House and into my office. 
It was late, most folks had gone home for the day. Gary’s mentor Howard Hewitt was pursuing his avocation of wine sampling in Oregon, and Jim Amidon had actually taken a day off (an historical moment in its own right.)

So I was the only one left for Gary to announce: "I just heard it—I got the internship. I’m going to be an intern at NPR." 

I haven’t seen Gary so happy since Election Night. (Gary worked hard for Obama in Montgomery County.)

Those who know Gary’s talent and accomplishments covering the Wabash community won’t be surprised that National Public Radio chose him for the coveted internship. The news editor for Indiana’s "Best Small College Newspaper" (The Bachelor earned that honor from the Indiana Collegiate Press Association under Howard’s mentorship this year), Gary was a runner-up for Indiana Collegiate Journalist of the Year, has been writing professionally for the College since his freshman year, wrote the pivotal piece for Wabash Magazine‘s "Our Town" issue, and is one of the most articulate and gregarious students we’ve had at Wabash.

Still, there’s a lot of competition for these internships (Gary was pleasantly surprised to learn it’s a paid internship!) from graduate and undergraduate students across the country. Big journalism programs. Big broadcast journalism programs. 

If The Bachelor’s win as best small college newspaper this year is the "Wabash Always Fights" team journalism story of our year, Gary’s earning the NPR internship may be the best individual story.

Coincidentally, I actually witnessed the beginning of Gary’s journey to the NPR internship, when he walked up to NPR Correspondent Ari Shapiro in after the award-winning journalist’s presentation in the Detchon Center and asked if NPR ever hired interns. I was photographing the "student/speaker interaction" and was impressed both with Gary’s audacity and Shapiro’s clear interest. 

That’s another delight of working at Wabash. You not only get to hear the good news, you get to see where it all starts. Right place, right time. 

In photo: NPR correspondent Ari Shapiro talks with Gary James about the challenges of broadcast journalism during Shapiro’s visit to campus last year.

Of Mike, Sufi Chants, and Sugar Creek

Steve Charles—A few months before his untimely death in 2006, Wabash Bookstore Manager Mike Bachner ’70 came into my office with a grim look on his face. An unusual expression for Mike. 

"Another one is gone," he said, referring to the closing of another public access point to Sugar Creek. It was the second such "closing" of a public access point that year. While frustrated to lose two places to put in to his favorite stream—the place he considered the most beautiful waterway in Indiana and his personal place of solitude and refuge—he was more concerned that the lack of public access would mean that fewer people would spend time on the creek. Fewer would learn to appreciate, respect, and take care of it. He was unsettled by the direction things were going.

I thought of that conversation when I first heard that the Mike Bachner Reserve, which will be dedicated at 10 a.m. on Saturday, April 25, includes an access point to the creek. An access point only a few yards from the very one whose closing had Mike so worried. 

Can you imagine a better tribute to the man who had been drawn to Wabash nearly 40 years ago by Sugar Creek? 

I couldn’t help but think of another image of Mike (above), his fist raised in celebration during his 2005 Chapel Speech in the Wabash Chapel.

Then I found out where the new Bachner Reserve was, and I was taken aback. Just off Offield Monument Road in a wide valley, this place that will honor Mike is located in the very place where one of his most memorable moments on the creek occurred! 

Mike wrote about it for Wabash Magazine‘s "Refuge" issue in 2005. I’ll reprint his words below. 

We’ll have more about how the Bachner Reserve came about—an amazing partnership between Friends of Sugar Creek, the NICHES Land Trust, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Pheasants Forever, and the Indiana Heritage Trust—along with more about Mike, and even a couple of audio recordings of him.

We’ll have directions on the Wabash Web site on how to get there, too. 

But I wanted to get this date out there now so you can mark it on your calendars—April 25, 10 a.m. for the dedication. The rest of the day we’re all welcome to stay and help plant the thousands (yes, thousands!) of trees that will help restore wildlife habitat to the area. Should be a great day.

Here’s Mike’s memory of the place the new Bachner Reserve is located:
Sugar Creek drew me to Wabash almost 40 years ago. My second visit to campus included a fraternity canoe trip. That did it; I was hooked.

 I spent my share of weekends as a student in the ’60s canoeing with friends. Gondoliering down the Sugar Creek wilderness, singing show tunes. On one high-water trip we discovered a canoe lodged beneath a logjam. We returned later and, after considerable underwater sawing, we retrieved not one, but two canoes. One became the first of my now five-boat stable.

 Over the years, I’ve taken several students out to share my love of Sugar Creek. The trip I best remember was about 10 years ago. I took Waseel Azizi ’95, a Pakistani student, down the creek for a couple of hours.

 When we passed through the wide valley where the first settler of record, William Offield, built his homestead, Waseel began quietly singing, "Mani, mani, mani/busan cahani ching . . . "

 I asked what prompted the song, and he told me a tale of traveling with his mussein grandfather in Pakistan to experience a Sufi water ritual at a stream recalled by our location in Sugar Creek.

 I still use that Sufi chant as a meditation focus. It carries me back to one of my many moments of refuge on Sugar Creek.

—Mike Bachner, from Wabash Magazine, Winter 2005

In photo: Mike celebrates during his 2005 Chapel Speech at Wabash.

Bill Placher’s Words Still Teaching

Steve Charles—A college doesn’t need a denominational affiliation to be a place of faith, and Wabash honors and respects many different faiths and denominations, believers and doubters, seekers and questioners.
This Sunday morning in my own place of seeking, listening to the Gospel reading for Palm Sunday, I was reminded of the late Bill Placher’s book about the Trinity—one of the most difficult to understand concepts in Christianity. Published in 2007, The Triune God is the book Bill called “as close to ‘my theology’ as I can get right now.”

As many of you loved Bill, I thought you might like to read his words about this passage, regardless of your beliefs. Just a way of being reminded of a friend and the beauty of his work.

This morning’s Gospel reading was the story of Jesus on the cross, that moment when the man whose followers believed was the Son of God looked death in the face, and for a moment, it seems, is abandoned by God. The void between them opens like oblivion; father and son seem infinitely estranged.

Jesus calls out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Here’s what Bill wrote:
“We trust that the distance between Jesus crying out in abandonment on the cross and the one he had always before called his Father mirrors some sort of distance within God—though we cannot imagine what terms like ‘distance within God’ can mean. A kind of space lies within the triune God—a space potentially inclusive of the space of sinners and doubters…. There is always within God a space large enough for the whole world, even all of its sin: the Word’s distance from the one he called Father is so great that no one falls outside it, and the Spirit fills all that space with love.
“A Moltmann puts it, ‘In the event between the surrendering Father and the forsaken Son, God becomes so ‘vast’ in the Spirit of self-offering that there is room and life for the whole world, the living and the dead.’”
The author Charles Williams wrote, “The famous saying ‘God is love,’ it is generally assumed, means that God is like our immediate emotional indulgence, not that the meaning of love ought to have something of the ‘otherness’ and terror of God.”
For me, this moment in the Gospel of Mark is the archetype of that "terror of God." Not many of any faith choose to look so closely and clearly at such a moment. Bill did, and his writing enables us to look as well.
In The Triune God, Bill also wrote:
“But grace is like mercy. It drops as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. All our efforts to domesticate the wholly other are doomed to failure, and we should not…try to hold back despair by pretending that the desert is really God. As Oswald Beyer writes of Luther’s views, “Whoever shuts himself off to the reliable word, the promise, loses the world as a home and trades it in as a wasteland …If the world is not believed as something promised, then it becomes, as Nietzsche appropriately said, ‘a thousand wastes, silent, cold.’
“A loving God, however, might unexpectedly reach out to us.”
I once asked Bill if he received much feedback on this particular book and another of my favorites of his, Jesus the Savior. He said, referring to my position as editor of Wabash Magazine,“Magazine editors get letters; authors of books like this do not.” Which seemed unfair to me, but didn’t seem to faze Bill. He wrote for reasons that remind me of Thomas Merton’s words about writing: "If you write for men, you may make some money and give someone a little joy and you may make noise in the world, for a little while. If you write for God, you will reach many men and bring them joy.
As we move into the week of Passover and Easter, Bill’s writing not only continues to reach many men and women and bring them joy, but continues his legacy of teaching, as well.
Thanks, Bill.

One of Those Days

Steve Charles—Friday morning I got an email from my friend Mark Shreve ’04—a link to photos of a spiral staircase Nic Bitting ’07 and his colleagues at Seattle Stair and Design are building in a place called Highbarn.

 The grandson of a woodworker, Nic was an art major and sculptor here at Wabash. Good writer, too. We’ve published his essays and his article on Geoff Faerber ’98, founder of Flying Pig Adventures, where Nic learned to pilot and guide whitewater rafts down the Yellowstone River during the summers between his Wabash semesters.

Nic’s long-time friend Kyle Long ’07 once described to me his amazement watching Nic, who knew nothing about rafting when he showed up at Geoff’s door, confidently pilot a raft-full of people—parents, kids, grandparents—safely down that river, so far from where he grew up. He learned the river, he learned the people, he learned to love the work and

But when you look at this work he’s doing Seattle Stair and Design, you can’t help but feel he’s found at least a part of his calling. I hear he’ll be headed to grad school soon to study it further. We hope to have a gallery of his work in the 39 Under 39 issue of Wabash Magazine.

Friday afternoon began with a call to Zach Hoover ’01—an interview for that same 39 Under 39 issue. Zach’s family is a big reason I came to work at Wabash and was able to stay. His mom, Janet, now a pastor in Indianapolis, was a colleague of mine at the magazine where I used to work; she found the ad for the editor’s position here. She was my copyeditor for the first couple years of Wabash Magazine, and when she and her husband Jerry noticed that my old Volkswagen bus kept breaking down whenever I dropped off the manuscripts for proofing and realized that I might not be able to make my daily commute from Indy to Wabash much longer, they “sold” me their late model Corsica at a ridiculously cheap price for “whatever you think you can pay each month.”

Zach comes from exceptional folks; he’s carried on their legacy in his own way, one of several guys (including Jeremy Bird ’00 and Kyle Hall ’00) to go through Harvard Divinity and then find ways to serve they couldn’t have imagined when they were here at Wabash.

Zach is a community organizer in California, currently with LA Voice, working with churches, synagogues, and other groups to help communities survive, thrive, and realize their dreams in the context of something greater than themselves. He talks about walking alongside these people, thinking with them, listening. He explains how he got the job, and you can see it in a video on You Tube:

 “I was in my third year of divinity school and trying to decide what I was going to do next. I Googled something like ‘faith,” “justice,” and “community,” and “San Francisco Organizing Project” came up. I read the job description and thought, That pretty much sounds like me.”

He says he believes he has found his vocation. At least for now.

Zach said this in his Commencement Speech at Wabash in May 2001: “If we can smash together, mate the partners whose names are think, reflect, actualize, and do, then we will bless others and we will bless ourselves, even in the brokenness of relationships, forgivenesses, mistakes, and lives. Perhaps we will sweeten our world.”

Zach is sweetening our world. His own, too. Her name is Saskia, and he married her in December. She’s originally from Nicaragua, I believe, but named after Rembrandt’s wife (read the magazine to get the story on that one.) And Zach is also a cyclist and road racer in California.

We’re all pilgrims, really, whether we’re on the move physically or just emotionally or spiritually—always looking for home. My friend Kyle Nickel ’03 was on the road last year, spent some time in Colorado after a taste of grad school in Georgia (where he had a part time job as a groundskeeper at Andalusia Farm, Flannery O’Connor’s old place. He sent me a vial of soil from there that I’ve kept nearby as I’ve been re-reading her works this year.) I hadn’t heard from nor seen him for a year, so getting together with him, Nate Mullendore ’07, and art professor Doug Calisch was both a relief and joy.

“Making literature and craft beer back home in Connorsville” is the way one of Kyle’s friends describes the latest chapter of Kyle’s life. He seems to be thriving. And, if the writing he just sent me for the next issue of WM is any indication, writing better than ever.

I realized part way through the conversation with these three that I was the odd man out; they’d all traveled together before on Doug’s photography immersion trips out west. Doug and Nate work together with the Friends of Sugar Creek, where Nate is project coordinator. And as we were sitting on the banks of that creek, enjoying beer at the Creekside Inn, the late Mike Bachner’s daughter Fern stopped by our table, and I was reminded that in a few weeks we’ll be dedicating the Mike Bachner Reserve, a new nature preserve and great place to put your canoe or kayak in the creek—the same creek that drew Mike to Wabash and kept him here for more than three decades.

Doug had to leave early the next morning to set up an exhibit of his work in southern Indiana, Nate’s evening was just beginning and us old guys weren’t a helpful part of that, and Kyle had a two-hour drive ahead of him to get home to Connorsville. So after a couple hours of catching up, laughing, reminiscing (including some memories of Mike and the chickens that used to guard the lights at his barn), and some talk about Flannery O’Connor, we said goodbye in the parking lot around 11.

 My head was spinning, and it wasn’t the Newcastle I’d enjoyed an hour earlier. I’ve either written about or published the work of all three of these guys. I learn something knew every time I read or see how they come at the world.

 A somewhat reclusive and certainly introverted type, I can’t believe I have job that has led me to friends, conversations, and good times like these. To spend an hour talking to people who are changing the world like Zach Hoover is. To receive casual emails that open my eyes to a new kind of beauty. To catch up with a friend and find he’s taken an even wiser direction than I’d imagined, and can still write circles around me. And most of  this work being done by guys I knew first as students here at Wabash.

The men
in my family have always been travelers. We rarely feel completely at home anywhere. But a day like this in the company of these Wabash men gets me awful close. Driving home I thought of William Stafford’s line from his poem “Grace Abounding,” one I’ve though of often since I‘ve been here at Wabash—“I am saved in this big world by unforeseen friends.”

Another Bestseller, But No Rest for the Writer

Steve Charles—Last week I was watching Dan Simmons ’70 reading from his novel Drood to a packed University Bookstore in Seattle (courtesy of my computer and YouTube). I was pleased to see that he seemed to be enjoying himself almost as much as the readers gathered to hear him.
And what’s not to enjoy: adoring readers, great reviews from across the country, including Booklist, Chicago Tribune, anda starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, for this, Dan’s 26th book. Director Guillermo del Toro wants to make it into a movie.
There’s this in Open Letters: A Monthly Arts and Literature Review:  “This is a new Dan Simmons, writing the best books of his life. His next one is awaited now with almost a wonder of anticipation.”
And in March Drood hit #14 on the Publisher’s Weekly Bestseller’s List.
So I wrote Dan to congratulate him on all this. He’d just come off the book tour and I’d hoped he was relaxing a little, and, as I put it, “enjoying the well-earned rewards of your hard work on Drood.”
And, of course, he isn’t. At least, not much. You don’t become a writer of Dan Simmons’ caliber by resting on your laurels. Super Bowl winners may head to Disney World, but writers—even writers of critically acclaimed best selling books that the hottest Hollywood directors want to make into movies—just head back to work.
The first thing Dan mentioned was that Drood had thus far not gone as high on the bestseller lists as The Terror, his historical novel that made all kinds of “Best Books of 2008” lists. He’s had to push hard to get the cover he wanted for his next book.(Simmons’ book covers are an art to themselves.) And that work in progress—Black Hills—is due to the publisher in April, and Dan has a ways to go to finish it.  
Black Hills is a real change-up from Drood, which was a real change-up from Muse of Fire, a wonderful novella published in December 2008 that brings out Simmons’ voice and love for literature —a song of a book—in ways that take me back to why I first came to so admire and enjoy his writing 12 years ago. And Muse of Fire was a real change-up from The Terror.
But writing the books he wants to write regardless of genre has long been Dan’s stock in trade. It used to frustrate his publishers. Maybe it still does. But some of them are grimacing all the way to the bank.
I don’t recall Dan taking very many days off since I’ve known him. That first time I interviewed him was an exception. It was 1997 and he had just finished The Crook Factory—about the spy ring run by Ernest Hemingway in Cuba. It was his 16th book published in only 11 years as full time writer. He’d been an award-winning teacher and educational innovator in Colorado before that, but he’d spent his summers on his other vocation. The schedule he described took me aback. He spent 17-hours  almost every summer day writing.
Dan was generous enough to tell me how his first story came to be published, and we shared the anecdote with readers in the Fall 1997 Wabash Magazine:
Then, in August of 1979, in the summer house behind his wife’s parents’ home in Buffalo, New York, Dan typed the first paragraph of The River Styx Runs Upstream, a story about a boy’s mother whose body is "resurrected" apart from her soul. He paused, and thought: This will be my first story to be published.
Two years, hundreds of pages, and too many rejection slips later, Simmons’ gut feeling of being on the verge of success went sour. At his wife Karen’s urging, he did something he’d sworn he’d never do—he attended his first writer’s conference.

"It was my swan song. I went to hear and see the writers present and to begin to view writing as a hobby rather than an obsession," Simmons writes in the introduction to his short story collection Prayers to Broken Stones. The story of his encounter with writer, editor, and "enfant terriblé" Harlan Ellison—a man with an inquisitor’s zeal for wiping out bad writing—is a classic. Simmons hadn’t even planned to bring a manuscript and only placed his story on the reading stack because hundreds of works had already been submitted; odds were that Ellison would never see his, and after another workshop member was told to quit writing and find another hobby, "like gardening," Simmons was hoping he wouldn’t.
No such luck. Ellison picked up the story and lambasted the author for having the gall to submit such a lengthy tale. Simmons prepared for the worst.
But as Ellison read the story he began to cry. Then he turned to face the writer.
"He told me what I had known for years but had lost the nerve to believe-he told me that I had no choice but to continue writing, whether anything was ever published or not," Simmons writes. "He said that few heard the music but those who did had no choice but to follow the piper."
Before he asked Simmons to submit the story to the annual Twilight Zone magazine fiction contest, Ellison added a warning: "Now that you have that knowledge, you are doomed to spend the rest of your life working at this lonely and holy profession . . . Your relationships will suffer . . . Nights you will go without peace or sleep because the story doesn’t work."
Ellison told the workshop audience that he’d just sentenced Dan Simmons to "a life of unending labor, probably very little recognition, and a curse that will not be lifted, even after death!"
But the reinvigorated writer was undeterred. He drove home and revised the manuscript, and the story tied for first place. Flush with success, Simmons wrote Song of Kali, a psychological horror-thriller that reaches its climax when an American writer’s infant daughter is kidnapped by members of the death cult of the Hindu goddess Kali. Simmons had researched the tale while studying in India on a Fulbright Scholarship in 1977. The book not only found a publisher, but made its author the only first-time novelist ever to win the World Fantasy Award for best novel.
Critics were particularly impressed with Simmons’ ability to raise what could have been a pulp-fiction thriller to a higher level "with fine characterization, prose that rarely escapes control, and, above all, a keen moral sense."
I think of this story—and of Harlan Ellison’s words—whenever I’m fortunate enough to correspond with Dan Simmons. Especially this: “Nights you will go without peace or sleep because the story doesn’t work.”  I know that part of the prophecy has proven true.
And, considering the fact that Dan’s last two books total more than 1,500 pages between them, I think it’s hilarious that Ellison was pissed off at Dan “for having the gall to submit such a lengthy tale!"
But Dan also told me that day that “a writer’s life is, by and large wonderful.” 12 years later, I think he still believes that. That the blessing of creating these works runs deeper than the curse.
I also remember the words that concluded our interview. A quote from Joseph Conrad, describing the writer’s duty: “Our task is to share. To share what we hear… share what we feel…and to share what we see. And no more. and it is everything.”

A colleague of mine once said to me, “It is a great blessing to have a writer for a friend.” I know the blessing—the inspiration, the comfort, and the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual adventure—this friendship with Dan Simmons is for me.  A quick check online reveals how much his work means to his millions of readers and those he mentors at his online “Writing Well” forum. And a few Wabash students were fortunate to experience that mentoring up-close through the College’s Hockenberry Internship in writing that Dan sponsored to honor his Wabash friend, Duane Hockenberry.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a Wabash man anywhere whose work revels more fearlessly and joyfully in the liberal arts than Dan Simmons’. (Check out Muse of Fire, for one, and you’ll see what I mean.)

In this year Wabash Dean Gary Phillips has declared “the year of the writer” at Wabash, how fitting that the best writer the College has ever nurtured should have one of his most acclaimed successes.

I just wish he’d take some time to rest savor that success once in a while. Of course, I also have to admit that I’m really looking forward to reading Black Hills.

You can read more about Simmons at

Watch Dan’s reading at the Seattle bookstore here


A Scholar’s “Indiana Jones” Moment


Steve Charles—I’m not a fan of opera. I’m not enchanted by Baroque music.

Whenever I hear the term I can’t help thinking of Cogsworth the Clock from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and his line, “This is yet another example of the late neoclassic Baroque period. And, as I always say, ‘If it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it!’"

But I won’t miss the February 22nd performance at Wabash College’s Salter Hall of Hypermnestra by the Indiana University Baroque Orchestra.

Even though the title sounds more like a symptom or learning disability.

Even though it’s sung in German. (Don’t worry—there will be English “supertitles.”)

Even though it’s at 3 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon.

I’ll be there because this piece hasn’t been performed in 268 years. Crawfordsville is hosting its 21st century premiere.

(Note: An interview with Professor Larry Bennett about his rediscovery of Hypermnestra and this week’s historic performance will be broadcast this Saturday at 8 p.m. on WBAA-FM 101.3 and this Sunday at 4 p.m. on WBAA-AM 920.)

I’ll be there because it’s being played on instruments built or restored to the specifications of 17th and 18th century instruments. We’ll get to hear what this music really sounded like when it was first performed in 1741.

But mostly I’ll be there is because this is the climax of a musical adventure that Wabash Professor of Music and longtime Crawfordsville resident Larry Bennett has lived since he re-discovered this piece in 1995 while doing research in Meiningen, Germany. This is Larry’s “Indiana Jones” moment, minus the snakes and poison darts. Events such as this don’t come very often anywhere in musical scholarship, much less to Crawfordsville and Wabash. 

So I’ll be there not only for the performance, but for Larry’s introductory remarks at 2:30.

If you know Larry at all, you know how over-the-top enthusiastic he can get about a beautiful piece of music. A wonderful singer in his own right, he brings that same passion to his scholarship. I’ve interviewed him twice about this piece of music. I’ve never seen him so excited about a performance.

Part of it’s the opera itself. Larry says, “It’s a darned good piece of music with all the goodies you expect in an opera— treachery, jealousy, love—along with awe-inspiring writing for voices."

Part of it’s the backstory. It’s too long to get into here, but let’s just say that the way this music was originally commissioned, then lost, has eerie similarities to themes in the opera.

But it’s also the sheer joy of witnessing a gorgeous piece of music, once discarded like a fine instrument left in a dusty attic for centuries, suddenly springing to life.

"It’s thrilling to hear a piece that you’ve looked at on paper for years," Larry told me not long after attending the IU Baroque Orchestra’s first rehearsals of Hypermnestra earlier this month. “The music sounds glorious!”

Of course, the only reason we’re even able to hear that glorious music today is because Larry found it. Scholarship sometimes gets a bad rap in our culture. We celebrate artists and performers but tend to overlook those who study and help us better appreciate, understand, and preserve that art and those performances. And in the case of Hypermnestra and 89 other works by Handel, Scarlatti, Francesco Conti, and others in the Meiningen Collection, Larry not only rediscovered the music; he helped the city of Meiningen save it for future generations. 

In the late 1990s, the collection was nearly scattered for possible sale at auction. The Meiningen Museum went to court to keep the pieces together. Their crucial piece of evidence was Larry Bennett’s article from a scholarly journal. When museum won the case, its music library curator emailed Larry.

“You have saved the collection for the city of Meiningen,” she said. “Political officials have praised the decision as a day of joy.”

Larry probably won’t mention any of this when he introduces the opera this Sunday. He’ll focus his talk on the opera, on its composer, the instruments and singers that will bring this once-lost music to life.

But as you enjoy all that, think about the months Larry spent poring over card catalogs, notes, manuscripts, and correspondence in that music library in Meiningen, not to mention the years arranging the piece via Finale software on his computer so that it could be performed. Imagine the thrill of discovery as he realized he had found music long-forgotten by the world. That’s the work of the scholar—finding new ways to understand the world, and reminding us of treasures we’ve forgotten.

So I’ll be there on Sunday, in part, to honor those scholars, and especially Larry Bennett, the man whose scholarship, teaching, and talents as a performer have been the foundation for the rebuilding of the Wabash Music Department since he arrived here 13 years ago.

I’m going because Wabash and IU are making history that day.

I’m going for the adventure.

But I’m also going for the music. Hypermnestra is a remarkable example from the late Baroque period. And, as Cogsworth and I always say, "If it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it."

In photo: Professor Larry Bennett works with students in the Fine Arts Center’s Fred Enenbach Room. 


1 3 4 5 6 7 12