A Meander through Kentucky

Steve Charles, Nashville, TN—My last two interviews of a five-day road trip will follow a relaxing meander yesterday back down to Nashville from Louisville via Bardstown and the Bluegrass Parkway.

Professor Emeritus of Classics John Fischer had recommended a stop at one of the bourbon distillers in Bardstown, as I’d never tasted bourbon before.

After that pleasant surprise, I headed south to the Abbey of Gethsemane, where one of my favorite writers and teachers, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, had lived. Our alumnus Andrew Dits ’06 had visited one of the poet/monks there many times (and wrote about him for Wabash Magazine in 2006), and I’ve wanted to visit since I first began reading Merton’s work in the 1970s.

Paging through Merton’s books in the gift store and walking the 2,400 acres surrounding the abbey were pleasures I had anticipated, but my conversation with 84-year-old Brother Camillus was not.

Thin, no more than 5’6”, and wearing the Trappist’s traditional habit and belt, he has the same dry sense of humor my grandfather had. Sitting next to him listening to his stories, I felt tension and anxiety leaving me like a sigh.

He told me about entering the monastery when he was 15, in 1940, how he knew so clearly this was what he wanted that he even turned down a vacation on the Jersey shore (he lived in Philadelphia, and the shore was his favorite vacation spot) and got on the bus for Kentucky.

He nearly drowned in a crowded swimming pool when he was a boy, saved only because the lifeguard had kept his eye on him and plucked him out of the water just in time. “You can drown as easily in a crowd of people as you can alone,” he said.

He asked me if I’d ever seen a sandbar. "You know, when the water levels just right," he said with a grin, "it looks like the people on the sandbar are walking on water."

He told of his 20 years working in the infirmary, about the way Trappists honor their dead with a 24-hour vigil. I asked him if they embalm the bodies, “I wouldn’t want that done to me,” he said, laughing. “It’s a good thing the people they do it to are dead.”

He suggested I walk the grounds, recommended a couple of trails, told me about the time he got lost out in the hills, and he told me that if he was younger he’d go with me and “take you up the hill the hard way.”

But mostly he told stories. And I carried those stories with me as I walked the hills and forests around the abbey, in the karst region of Kentucky where huge caves are right beneath your feet and the streams and rivers run underground like veins and arteries under the skin.

Brother Camillus told me nothing specifically about his beliefs or theology. I know him only through 20 minutes of his stories. He just lent me those stories, trusted me to come to my own conclusions. Remarkable hospitality. What a wonderful and generous way to get to understand a person. I didn’t want to leave. Shook hands with him twice.

“You do that again, and you’re going get blisters," he said, smiling, and he put his arm on my shoulder, then patted my back as I left.

That’s how it’s been on this trip. People generously lending and trusting me with their stories. The old adage “every person has a story” is a crock. I cringe when I hear someone say, “that guy is a great story,” as if people can be reduced to the tales we tell. People are more, much more than stories, and the stories we tell are just one way we have of coming to know one another.

But they are my favorite way, and I’m grateful the alumni I’ve visited on this trip have trusted me with some of theirs.

Today I’ll meet Lindsey Wilson College President Bill Luckey ’82 and his wife, Elise. I’ve admired Bill’s work at this growing Kentucky liberal arts college ever since Professor David Polley’s wife, Debbie, told me about him after they attended his inauguration almost 10 years ago.

Then I’m heading over to Belmont University—where one of the 2008 Presidential Debates was held—to photograph Nick Ragsdale, a  biology professor and researcher there.

Then it’s back home after meeting with 10 alumni in four days, convinced more than ever that trips like this are essential to our work, that as important as writing and photography are to the work of Wabash Magazine, listening is the most essential.

Interesting irony: Next week I’m getting my hearing tested!


In photos: a sycamore tree in front of the Abbey of Gethsemane; Professor Nick Ragsdale.

Visiting Louisville Alumni and John Fischer H’70

Steve Charles, Louisville, KY — Began the day surveying the battering the forests of Kentucky took during last week’s ice storm. All along the road between Nashville and Louisville the trees looked like they’d had their arms and heads lopped off. You couldn’t even pull over on the shoulder of the road. It was blocked by fallen trees for miles.

Which is a lousy way to begin talking about a great day. 

Click here for photos.

Started with lunch at John E’s Restaurant on Bardstown Road with the founder of Mission Critical Inc. Phil Deamer ’67, and three Wabash men he hired right out of college—Mark Gehl ’98, Brian Harrington ’99, and Scott Salai ’06. Phil is a programming genius, and each of these men’s stories is too rich to even start to go into here. I’ll unravel them as I transcribe the tape later today. But again the theme of generativity — of passing along what matters to the next generation — was there.

There is an art to the kind of computer programming Phil Deamer did, the work that has made much of what we do today with technology possible. Mark told me about sitting alongside Phil at the computer for hours, watching him “code.” I couldn’t help but think of the days when journeymen luthiers passed along their craft to apprentices who watched them work in much the same way. Today, Mark is teaching the next “apprentices” a new version of that work.

Phil intentionally hired liberal arts graduates — four from Wabash — and once he hired them, he “gave them the vocational training they’d been wise enough to avoid.”

Like I said, too much stuff to even begin writing about here.

But among the things I learned today was that hosting four Wabash men for lunch not only yields stories, but it’s a lot of fun, too. The guys were patient and great sports as I photographed them in various places around the historic restaurant (the owner and staff were so welcoming and helpful in this, too.)

Had a little time to interview Mark Gehl after the gathering. He personifies something I’ve noticed in all these guys — they don’t go through life with blinders on, trying to put the world in a box they can understand. That same wonder and openness I remember in Mark from his student days is even stronger now. And I tend to learn best alongside those asking questions, as opposed to those sure of the answers. It was a wonderful conversation that made me convinced I need to do this sort of trip more often. Wabash Magazine reaches alumni where they live. How can I edit it if I don’t know that place, if I’m so focused on the campus alumni left, and not on the lives they live today? I have a lot to learn.

So I went to visit John Fischer H’70. He turned 70 yesterday. I’ve wanted to see his house, especially the rooms that Michael Bricker ’04 designed, for years, and John invited me in, along with his two dogs, Zach and (I think, Zeke, but I’ll have to check out the names with John.) Zach met me at the door carrying a stuffed pig! John’s hospitality and wisdom were the perfect end to a great day in Louisville. I’ve posted a few photos here.

 At the end of the day, I got the last hotel room in Elizabethtown, KY. The hotels are packed with electrical workers restoring power to the area and residents who still don’t have electricity. I went to grab dinner at Arby’s so I could download photos at 10 p.m., and the guys with Alabama Power (who have come up to help) were just getting in from 18 hours working in 10 degrees and high winds getting the lights turned back on. I’ll think of them the next time I think I’ve had a tough day at the office!

Visiting Nashville Alumni

Steve Charles, Nashville, Tennessee — I dragged the bad weather and single-digit temperatures in Indiana down here with me. Nashvillians don’t seem happy about the winds and ice, either. I escaped both by ducking into the San Antonio Taco Company across from the Vanderbilt University campus. Very “college-townish” — steel tables, plastic lawn furniture chairs, strips of red/orange and light blue neon along the top the of wall, old b/w photos of Texas and Mexico interspersed with the logos of Corona, Dos Equis, Heineken!, and “the Kenny Chesney Poets and Pirates Tour, 2008.” Chicken and cheese enchiladas and rice taste great; Boulevard wheat beer equally fine. Good place to check my notes.

Just finished talking with Joe Lopez ’96, assistant director of the university’s Center for Science Outreach who is also “co-investigator” with the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt, “dedicated to enhancing scientific and technological literacy through the establishment of unique partnerships between University scientists, K-12 educators and students, and the local and global science community.” Which means that Joe and his colleagues at CSO gives young students a chance to really “do” science, not just read about it.

If I’d had an opportunity like that, instead of the way science was taught when I was a kid, I might be a scientist today. Not that that would be a good thing for the world. Joe could be the poster boy for the liberal arts. He’s done scientific research, earned a Ph.D in biology and a masters in education. Developed curriculum and taught programs for CSO, and now he’s doing administrative work, too, and finding, to his surprise, that he enjoys it.

His colleague at CSO, Harvey Sperling, says Joe’s agility across the disciplines is extraordinary and “speaks well his liberal arts education.” Joe calls it “academic ADD!” But listening to him talk about his path, it seems he just enjoys a challenge, seems surprised at how much new things interest him. My favorite story from our talk: Joe was ABD (All But Dissertation) for his Ph.D and had moved to Texas to finish writing when he took a job tutoring third graders in the public school. He noticed the portable classroom he was working in had a bunch of unused science equipment, and he asked the principal if he could use it to introduce his third graders to science. By the end of the year, the part-time tutor had a much bigger job, taking not only the third grade classes into the lab but all of the classes; working with the to grow a school garden, teaching them the fun and wonder of doing science. This from a guy who before he started “didn’t even like kids.” 
Later in the day I went  to see Ben Whitehouse ’99, now Tennessee Assistant Attorney General Ben Whitehouse. Ben grew up in Nashville, so this job (he’s been here about a year) is a homecoming for him after Wabash, grad school at Knoxville, and as a member of the Navy’s JAG Corps (which took him to Texas, Yokosuka, Japan and on the aircraft carrier U.SS. Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71)).

I knew Ben at Wabash primarily through his work on radio with my colleagues Jim Amidon ’87 and Brent Harris. Walking into the John Sevier Building security and seeing him at work was a real eye-opener. Not only seeing the important cases he’s working and writing, the souvenirs and awards on the wall. But even during his Wabash days Ben had a deep understanding of the importance of community, of the essential though sometimes unglamorous things that need to be done to keep a community alive. Listening to his JAG stories, seeing him at work here in his hometown, noticing a photo on the wall where he’s with his colleagues in the Boy Scouts, leading a group of young men and women on a wilderness cleanup project, I got a better sense of where that understanding comes from. “I enjoy handling cases that have a community impact,” Ben says. Nashville is lucky to have him back home again.

And Ben gave me the line that may best describe this trip so far. He’s been in scouting since his “bobcat” days, mentors young men today (even brought three up to the Bell Game this year). He had the pleasure of seeing one of the young men he’s mentored enter law school this year, and the boy’s mom told Ben he’d been the boy’s inspiration.

“There’s nothing better than to see a kid grow up like that,” he said. To watch him become a man, perhaps do things greater than even he had imagined.

Even though I’ve had nothing to do with any of these alums education, I feel much the same way as Ben does as I meet these students 10, 11, 12 years out of Wabash, going to the places where they are doing things greater than they had likely imagined at Wabash. It takes the Wabash education beyond rhetoric and into the day to day effect these guys are having in their new, or old, communities.

I keep thinking of Al Pacino’s line at the end of Scent of a Woman, when he tells the teachers at the school where his young friend Charlie is attending, “You hold this boy’s future in your hands. It’s a valuable future. It’s going to make you proud some day.”

And so it does.

A Visit with Deon Miles ’97

Steve Charles, Sewanee, TN—Just checking in from a road trip to Kentucky and Tennessee, where I’ve been interviewing and photographing alumni for the upcoming “39 Under 39” issue of Wabash Magazine.

The guy on the right here is Deon Miles ’97. Or, I should say, Associate Professor of Chemistry Deon Miles. (Click here for a photo album). In 1997 Deon was featured as our “Works in Progress,” having just given the Commencement Address, won practically every prize a chem major could win at Awards Chapel, been basketball manager for a team that included Chad Tabor and Josh Estelle, and mentored kids in the Malcolm X Institute’s KQ & K program. We titled the feature “Finding His Place at Wabash,” and Deon had done just that like few Wabash students we’ve known.

I spent four hours with Deon this week at the University of the South at Sewanee, and Deon has found his place there, too.

Back in 1997, Deon said in that same article that he hoped one day “to be a teacher at a small liberal arts college,” and that’s exactly what he does today. I had the pleasure of watching him teach an upper level chem class in Spencer Hall, Sewanee’s beautiful new science building that has the same attention collaborative learning areas and “serendipitous space” that were built into our own Hays Hall.

To call Deon’s teaching style active is an understatement. Never in one place for more than 10 seconds, never more than 8 feet away from the students, he moves from the dry erase board to the computer to the screen and through the room, watching his students to make sure they’re getting what he’s saying, keeping them engaged with questions, challenging and joking and then letting them come up with the answer. Visual, auditory, kinesthetic and tactile learning styles—Deon teaches to them all.

Even I could learn chemistry from this man! Deon earned tenure at Sewanee last spring—that must have been an easy decision for the Dean and tenure committee.

Professors wear academic gowns when they teach here. Deon has adorned his with what must be 40 or so pins of all sorts—“to take some of the heaviness out of it,” as he says, not wanting artificial space between him and his students.

Along with his teaching expertise, Deon brings Sewanee cutting edge research in nanoparticles, similar to the type Wabash’s Lon Porter works with. In fact, Deon and Lon have had some interesting exchanges about the research at conferences and by email.

My favorite story from Deon (I’ll try to get this right without going back to the tape): A freshman in his General Chemistry class came to his office after doing poorly on a test and “slapped a drop slip on my desk,” wanting to withdraw from the course.

“Not you,” Deon told her. He knew she understood the fundamentals of the course, she had both the aptitude and interest to be a chem major, in fact. But she’d hit an obstacle, felt overwhelmed by what she deemed a failure on one test. As Deon said a couple times during our conversation today, “I make mistakes, and so will my students. Everyone does.” And Deon thought this student was about to make another.

So he looked her in the eye and said, “No, not you. Maybe some of the others in the class, okay. But not you.”

The student didn’t know what to say.

“Why don’t you take this back, take the weekend to think about it, and if you still want to drop the class next week, see me then,” Deon told her.

Today that student is a junior and a chemistry major. I saw her in class today (she’s in a couple of the pictures in the photo album I’ll post with this blog.) She clearly enjoys what she’s learning. May have found her own place at Sewanee.

I hear it all the time from Wabash alumni talking about our professors: “She saw something in me that I hadn’t seen in myself before” or “He believed in me.” Deon says a Wabash professor did that for him. Now he’s doing the same for his own students.

This is going to be a great trip!

A Father’s Stories

Steve Charles—It’s my favorite scene from last year’s Big Bash Reunion: Carl Kelley ’43 is seated in Lilly Library, grinning like a kid as he tells a story about his days as student at Wabash. His son, Mike Kelley ’70, who made sure his dad made it back to Wabash for this moment, is beaming alongside him. At their left is student intern Brandon Hirsch ’10, laughing so hard tears are coming to his eyes as Carl quotes his Wabash professor’s views on sex and the human anatomy.

(See a photo album from that interview here.)

It was a perfect beginning for the Scarlet Yarns, our attempt to capture on tape the stories of our alumni. Relaxed and lighthearted one moment, serious the next, Carl talked about what he wanted to talk about. Not worried about what someone else might want him to say. It was just what we were hoping for—his Wabash experience in his own words.

Halfway into Carl’s “interview,” we knew project coordinator Marilyn Smith’s idea to try out this video twist on NPR’s Story Corps project was a great one. And those waiting their turn to tell their stories couldn’t help but notice how much Carl had enjoyed himself, not to mention how much we enjoyed him.

Carl Kelley died this past Christmas Eve. Mike was kind enough to let us know, and passed along a few more stories from his Wabash days. Here’s one:

“Dad rode an Indian motorcycle when he attended Wabash, on which he apparently got around to many other campuses for dates. He always laughed about having dates with three Butler women in one day: one for a picnic in the afternoon; a second for a dance at a sorority house; and the third one picked him up at midnight in her car. None of them was my mother, who went to Valparaiso. Not bad for a kid born on the Kelley family farm in Woodland, Indiana.”

I can see Carl telling that story even now.

Carl played basketball and football at Wabash, was president of Sigma Chi, and a member of the Sphinx Club. After Wabash he became an engineer at U.S. Steel, married his wife, Katherine, and they had eight children. All those kids gathered together for the funeral, along with 13 of Carl’s 14 grandkids. We’ll have a remembrance in the Spring 2009 Wabash Magazine.

But Mike also wrote to tell us how much that Big Bash visit last year had meant to his dad.

“It was certainly a highlight of his last year. So many people at the College made special efforts to make the day memorable. He never quit talking about it.”

“He treasured the day and I was lucky to spend it with him,” Mike writes.

But we were the lucky ones. Carl’s visit was the greatest affirmation we can get for the work we do here in alumni and public affairs. And with Mike prompting and encouraging his dad during our recording session, that segment of the video captures both Carl’s affection for Wabash and a son’s love for his father.

I look at this picture of Mike and Carl and think of my own dad and our project to record his stories during his final years. I’m glad I have those stories. I listen to them and I write them down for his grandkids and great grandkids to read. I want them to know him.

But I have to admit that my project was as much an excuse to for me to spend time with him, to let the power of story draw us closer.

Maybe that’s why this picture of Carl and Mike is my favorite from last year. It may end up being my favorite for a long time. It’s like we’ve been invited to sit at the table and listen in and laugh with family, watching a father and son savoring life and a love they share.

How lucky can you get?

Liberation Education

Steve Charles—On Sunday in Salter Hall, David Porter will play Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata, one of the most difficult pieces in the piano repertoire. He just published a book on Willa Cather. He gave a Classics lecture on the poetry of Horace last night. He’s been president of Skidmore and Carleton colleges, turned out more papers than a forest full of southern pine, and is currently professor of the liberal arts at Williams College.

In the first 10 minutes of our conversation (after graciously dismissing the fact that I was late) he glides through 20th century 12-tone music, the works of Cather, and a little Latin, and when I nod my head he says, “Oh, I imagine you know that one,” and I hope to God he doesn’t call me on it.

So what would you ask this person Professor Leslie Day calls “the quintessential liberal arts man”?

I pull out a question straight from Senior Comps—”Compare and contrast Charles Ives and Willa Cather.” He doesn’t miss a beat. Then, after learning more about these two artists in 15 minutes than I’d picked up in my previous 52-plus years of life, it’s time for another question. Since we’re talking in Trippet Hall, home of The Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash, I put to him the question the Center worked on for years: “Define the liberal arts.”

“Oh my,” Professor of the Liberal Art Porter says.

Have I found a gotcha question?

Then he smiles.

“Liberation,” he says. “Studies that liberate the individual to do things that otherwise would not be possible. Liberating from prejudices and ignorance, and opening doors to things they might never have thought could be interesting.

“I teach a course in Greek tragedy,” he says. “Most of the students have never read any of this, and it’s fun to watch the them because at first it’s frustrating for them—such strange stuff. But it opens doors for them, and they will find things there that will set their own mind free imaginatively.

“Here’s one definition of education: ‘That which remains after you’ve forgotten what you’ve learned.’

“I teach Greek, and we spend untold hours learning 600 forms of one everyday verb. I know that the majority the students in that class are not going to study Classics. Five or ten years out, they will have forgotten most of those things.

“What will remain? They will have learned a kind of intellectual rigor, problem solving, certain organizational skills that will transfer to all things. All of us are dealing in this modern world with huge complexities. So that’s the kind of field that liberates your mind, gives you skills you didn’t know you could have.”

Porter once held a dual appointment in Classics and music at Carleton College.

“They feed off each other,” Porter says. “The writing I’ve done in music has drawn on what I know from Classics, and my work in Classics is very much inspired by what I know of music. The two have been wonderfully cross-fertilizing.”

“I have found that working in a lot of different fields is very liberating because you realize these barriers that are built up can be transcended. And when you do, wonderful things happen. Taking a chance is part of liberation—you must be willing to take big chances.”

And that’s why David Porter is the Professor of the Liberal Arts.

He has a particular fondness for Wabash, too. His uncle was the late Robert Harvey, English professor and director of the Wabash College News Bureau. He recalls stopping by Wabash to visit “Uncle Bob” at least once a year throughout his childhood. And this is the second time he’s played the Concord Sonata here, The first was in the late 1960s, when his accompanist on flute was Mary Lou Mielke.

He plays this “greatest piece of American music” once again this Sunday at 4 p.m. in Salter Hall. It’s a challenging listen, Porter admits. But he’ll talk us through it. “I never play Ives without pre-performance comments,” he says. If he can talk music the way he does Cather and Ives, prepare to understand a piece of music like you never thought you could.

He promises that the final movement, complete with guest flutist, is, appropriately “transcendent.”

In photo: Professor Porter enjoys teaching at Wabash.

Think Globally, Write Locally

Steve Charles—Several years ago, my friend and boss Jim Amidon ’87 took a tour through several of Montgomery County’s manufacturing plants. Pace Dairy and Crown Cork and Seal Company were among them, I think, but it was watching steel being poured and rolled out at Nucor that left him breathless. He came back lit up like that glow we see over the Nucor plant at night when they open the roof and steel is being poured.

“It was like being dropped into the center of a volcano,” he said.

Jim he wondered aloud if such a place—and interesting locations and people throughout Montgomery County—might inspire our creative writing students on campus. It might get them to look beyond themselves and catapult them into wonder, using writing as a way to learn and begin to understand the world around them up-close and personal, all the while honing their writing skills. Give them some of that life experience so often lacking in many young writers’ work.

Jim also hoped it could acquaint them with the county in which they were living and the people with whom they share this part of the state.

I tried the idea out on a friend on the faculty back then, and nothing came of it.

But Jim was right. And last week author and Butler University professor of creative writing Susan Neville’s reading Thursday in Center 216 proved it. (See a photo album here.) She created an entire book out of such tours, and, like Jim, she had visited the Nucor plant.

Here’s a sample of what she wrote in her book Fabrications: Essays on Making Things and Making Meaning:

“The part of the mill that houses the casters that turn pure molten metal into red-hot slabs of steel is as large as the inside of the largest cathedral… Now and then these giant hooks move from one end of the building to the other carrying big kettles of melted iron ore and carbon… You imagine it falling from the ceiling with you standing underneath it. You’d ignite. You’d be ash. Not even your bones would remain.”


“Think of how it feels to run along subway cars and look down at the tracks, and then imagine those cars filled with tons of sun—not sunlight, but sun plasma itself. Imagine how tightly you’d hold onto your child’s hand or, metaphorically, your own.

“And then we enter another room.

“It’s beautiful. This is where the steel in fact looks like a river. Because it’s slightly cooler, you can see some gray in the orange, a very fluid stare-at-it-for-the-rest-of-your-life mix of colors, but still glowing liquid lava.”

I asked the author after this amazing reading if she ever took her students with her on these factory tours. She said she had them visit various professionals, especially those with unusual trades. A taxidermist, etc. But she hadn’t taken a student with her while researching the Nucor article. She seemed to like the idea.

This from the writer of what the Indiana Center for the Book named the Best Book of Indiana for 2008—Sailing the Inland Sea: On Writing, Literature, and the Land.“

Neville was the second of three authors brought to campus as part of the Indiana Writers Series, a collaboration between Wabash Professor of Modern Languages Greg Redding ’88 and textile artist and former Wabash Theater costumer Laura Conners, now facilitator of the Quality of Life in Indiana Grant that funded the writers’ visits. (See photo albums from their visits here and here.)

Michael Martone opened the series, arriving on campus the day of Chapel Sing, a fitting convergence for one of our most unconventional authors. Indiana Poet Laureate Norbert Krapf wrapped things up last Monday. All three are “regional” writers with plenty of national audiences. Krapf—who grew up in Jasper, IN, moved to New York but found himself writing about his home ground and moved back to the state in 2004—writes, “I have always believed that any story set deeply in one time and place, if told well, speaks for other times, places, and people. A sense of time and place travels and settles well. A life lived deeply anywhere resonates beyond the context of its specifics.”

But we begin by paying attention to those specifics. The details of life and the place in which we live. All three of these writers do that so well in their own way. But to hear Susan Neville read aloud what she saw in Montgomery County about was a revelation. I was reminded of the author and conservationist Terry Tempest Williams’ visit to Wabash a few years ago, when Mike Bachner ’70 and his wife, Pat Galloway, led her through Shades State Park.

“An inverted mountain,” was the way Mike described the topography there to Williams, who wrote about this hike with Mike and Pat and read the piece to the Wabash community during her formal presentation here in Salter Hall.

“I will never think of Indiana as only a domesticated landscape of cornfields,” Williams wrote. “Wildness resides in the heart of America, here, now. An inverted sense of wonder.”

Mike stopped by my office after that reading, as boyishly excited as I’d ever seen him, insisting that Williams’ writing had given him a news lens through which to see this land and water he’d loved for almost 40 years.

“This is an awakening for all of us, two natives and a newcomer,” Williams wrote of her afternoon with Mike and Pat. Mike wasn’t really surprised that such a writer had seen beauty where he lived. After all, Mike had come to Wabash and stayed here, “beguiled,” as he freely admitted, by the creek and the land. He wasn’t surprised. But he was, with all of his being, grateful.

He hadn’t expected to have such a large “role” in Terry’s essay. But how could she write about that place without him and Pat? “A life lived deeply anywhere resonates beyond the context of its specifics,” Norbert Krapf read to us this week. Mike was life lived deeply. Deeply here. He would have been as excited as I was at these readings by Indiana writers.

This world feels off-kilter. We lose our center, pave over our souls. I sometimes feel as though I’ve tapped into the Matrix, twitching like Pavlov’s dog at email prompts and the latest national economic or political news, caught in the Web. Writers who stand still long enough in the places where we live to notice the things we’re missing can save us. Can help us, as Mike said in his only Chapel speech, “to revel in this moment of our lives. Be sure you know a few things that bring you joy. Make those things why you are here.”

Perhaps that’s why I left these three readings so invigorated, why I’m so grateful for Laura and Greg bringing these Indiana writers here for us. They gave me a new lens to see those things that bring me joy. I imagine they’ve planted such seeds in the minds of our students.

I remember walking home after Neville’s reading, the railroad bed’s gravel crunching underfoot and my signed copy of Sailing the Inland Sea in my pack. The wind had kicked up some dust and smelled like fallen leaves, a semi growled and clattered over the railroad crossing, and I’d just dropped off at Jim’s house a book in which Neville describes her journey through the Nucor steel plant. I wanted him to read how right he’d been. Two preschoolers were chasing a brown scraggly dog across the parking lot of the pet store that burned down earlier this year, an old man and two women chattered in Spanish in raised tones from a porch where a couch and easy chair were pushing out the railing. Fresh from Neville’s reading, all these things were fascinating. I stopped and watched (until the old man on the porch wondered why I was staring at him—“lo siento” is my best practiced bit of Spanish). When I got home, my neighbor invited me in to drink a toast on the day he had given his wife her wedding ring. “To Nancy,” we said, and emptied our glasses

I could hear Mike as I walked across my yard in this one season many people wish they were back in Indiana: “Be sure you know a few things that bring you joy. Make those things why you are here.”

And Susan Neville—“Know this. Every place on earth is filled with stories.”

In photo: author Susan Neville during her reading at Wabash.

“The space between those vowels and consonants”

Steve Charles—As editor of Wabash Magazine, I have the luxurious responsibility to listen and read carefully the words spoken here; to convey to you those that, at least in my opinion, you, as a member of the Wabash community, should read.

In wrapping up the Summer 2008 issue of the magazine, I’ve been re-reading (and re-reading again) some of the words spoken at this year’s Commencement and Big Bash. Our students, faculty, alumni, honorary degree recipients, and administrators said some compelling things during those weekends. In an edition of the magazine that’s mostly photographs, I worry that some may get overlooked.

So as the magazine goes to press, I thought I’d walk a few of those words out here at FYI. One or two at a time.

First, National Book Award winner Tim O’Brien (author of The Things They Carried, Going After Cacciato, and In the Lake of the Woods), who spoke briefly during the honorary degree luncheon. Relatively few people get to hear these extemporaneous remarks from our honored guests—the only time they speak to a group during their stay. As both former President Andy Ford and President Pat White noted that day, our honorary degree recipients “don’t bring words; they bring lives.”

Remarkable lives, yes. But their words are pretty good, too. Here’s O’Brien thanking the College for his honorary degree:

“I am the aging father of a two year old and a four year old, and in a way I look at this honorary degree as a gift to them. It is my hope as a writer that—way beyond bombs and bullets and the material of Vietnam—when they are 18, or 19, or 20 years old, and I might be long gone (after all, hearts go still, and life is fragile), that they might read my books, and in the space between those vowels and consonants, they might hear their father’s voice—the kid I once was, the man I am now, the old man I’ll soon become.

“My stories are not really about war, but about the human heart under pressure. They’re stories about families, fathers, sons, and human courage, and it’s in that spirit that I thank you for presenting this degree to me.”

In photo: Professor of English Tobey Herzog in his garb as faculty marshall with friend and honorary degree recipient Tim O’Brien on Commencement Day. Herzog has written about O’Brien in three books and teaches his works in courses at Wabash.

What Did You Do This Summer?

Steve Charles—Yesterday, after college physician Dr. Scott Douglas ’84 told me I might have a malady usually reserved for babies (the result of having taken antibiotics for two months), I casually asked, “So, have you got any hobbies?

Then, “What have you been up to this summer?”

I know; it’s a weird pairing of questions. Probably a reaction to being
diagnosed with thrush and being told I’ll be swilling Nystatin for the next two weeks. But I got an equally surprising answer.

“Sailing,” Scott said. Not cruises. Or even sailing little board boats on a lake. Big boats. On big water.

“Sailing is my passion,” Scott said. As a kid, he’d spent summers in New England and learned to sail in the Atlantic. Once he rented a boat in the Caribbean and sailed his family island to island. Can imagine being those kids? (My favorite tv show as a kid was James Michener’s “Adventures in Paradise,” so I sure can.) This summer, if I remember correctly, they sailed off the New England coast. I’ve asked for photos.

Our conversation reminded me how little I know about some of the people I work with, and how often these summer vacations are the chance they get to really enjoy not only their families, but doing the things they love. Sometime both together.

Jack Spurway ’69 put the kayak he’d built on top of his car, left Crawfordsville for three weeks for Maine, and learned to make wooden boats and to sail. Professor Melissa Butler is getting certified in sailing; she has taken lessons around the world. Frank Amidon ’92 built a dock this summer, and he and his son Aaron hand-fed dolphins from their boat in the middle of a Florida Bay last week.

Among our landlubbers, there’s Andy Davis ’00, who rode his bike with his fiancee across the United States. Tom Runge ’71 drove his grandkids to Colorado, constantly taking imaginary cell phone calls from his granddaughter from the backseat. Jim Amidon ’87 and his family discovered a national champion orchid grower a few miles south of Greencastle. Sports Information Director Brent Harris went to his annual Jimmy Buffet concert and took care of a friend’s dogs (and you thought Brent didn’t have a life outside of sports!). Wabash Marketing Specialist Kim Johnson is having a baby girl (my money is on August 16), and I babysat my grandson (aka The Potamus) every Wednesday and found Jules, a Golden retriever mix (a Golden Whatever) that can actually catch a Frisbee (though he won’t give it back.)

What did you do this summer? I’d like to know, be it marvelous or mundane. Coaching Little League or visiting your own Field of Dreams. Send me a line and a photo at

Photos: Frank Amidon’s son, Aaron, feeds a dolphin; an orchid grows near Greencastle; the Potamus and his Golden whatever, Jules.

“There for Each Other”

Steve Charles—What brings a group of Wabash Phi Delt brothers together every 10 years? Why this particular group—guys who were in the house between 1971-1974? Why always at the home of Judy and Ed Pitkin ’71, and not on campus?

Those three questions had been on my mind since Mike Dill ’71 had invited me to take a few photographs and get a taste of Phi Delt brotherhood at this informal reunion in mid-July at Ed and Judy’s home near Geist Reservoir outside Indianapolis. I temporarily shelved them when I arrived and replaced them with another question: Where the hell were these guys?

The cars, with license plates from Vermont, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan, were there. Thirty men from sixteen states had shown up, I’d find out later. But they weren’t in the front yard, or in any of the front rooms. And when I read the note posted on the front door telling all Phi Delts to “come around back” and went looking for the back yard, there wasn’t one. Nor could I hear any Phi Delts. (I was not led to believe this would be a quiet event.)

Rounding the west end of the house I realized that Judy and Ed’s house wasn’t near Geist; it was on Geist. And a brief 45-degree descent down the steps brought me a panoramic view of the lake and into the heart of the celebration. Wabash men, many with their wives, talking, laughing, catching up and enjoying one another in a festival of friendship. (Click here and here for photo albums from the gathering.)

Mike Dill and Judy and Ed welcomed me, showing me some of the paraphernalia from past reunions that was spread out on the Pitkin’s pool table. There were group photos from the 1988 and 1998 gatherings. There was a copy of Mike Dill’s invite for the 1977 gathering (which was held at the Pitkin’s Westside Indianapolis apartment house—I’m still trying to imagine this gregarious, fun-loving group, then in their mid-20s, all jammed into an apartment. “Somebody call the manager.”)

New arrivals greeted Mike, Judy, and Ed as I peppered them with questions.

“I was in a sorority, our son graduated from IU, and our two girls went to school in Colorado, but none of us has a bond like what these guys have,” Judy Pitkin told me. “My daughters have five or six classmates they stay in touch with, but they’ve got cell phones, facebook and myspace, and email. These guys didn’t have those, and they’re still together.”

“Part of what helped us is that we started doing this right after college, and kept on going,” said Mike, who has been organizing and sending invites for the event since its inception. “And Indianapolis is a nice central location. When you think of all the people who fly in—we’ve got 15 or 16 states here, and Joe Lavalle ’71 even flew in from Tokyo last time—easy access helps.”

I asked whether common careers or business interests brings the group together; Mike pointed out the range of occupations represented. They run the gamut. As does the level of material success. As do political leanings. And several of the evening’s guests attended Wabash for only a year or so. This bond is not about how much time you spent with each other, but how you spent it.

“Ed says that this is a Phi Delt function, too,” Judy said.

“Wabash was the foundation, but the Phi Delt house brought us together, and has kept us together,” Ed said.

Mike introduced me to Cathy Flink. She and husband, Steve Flink ’72, were married when he was a junior at Wabash.

“We’ve been married for 37 years,” Cathy said. “Steve and I have known each other since we were 10. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love him. When he was at Wabash, we’d get together once a month. We did the old-fashioned love letter thing. He’d have to stand in line at the fraternity phone to call me.

“There were a handful of married students at that time, in 1971,” Cathy said. “I worked a couple of part time jobs, and I would babysit Dr. Aus Brooks’ kids when they were little.”

When I asked Cathy why this group has stayed in touch, she said, “They just had a wonderful chemistry from the beginning. You could see it, even back then.”

Dan Loftus ’72 believes part of that chemistry was the product of pledgeship.

“It weeded out guys who weren’t ready to be close friends and dedicated to each other,” Dan said. “Our pledgeship created a tremendous amount of loyalty within the pledge class, and, after pledgeship was over, among the actives in different classes.

“These were guys who were ready not just to make friends, but to be friends; to be there for each other.”

Dan’s wife, Carla, added: “For us, Wabash is a family. We’re part of that family. And those of us who are wives feel that, too. We were embraced by the guys, and brought into that family, and we feel as much loyalty as they do.”

For at least two of the guys, this was their first time back in 37 years.

“It’s great to see these guys again,” Ken Cole ’72 told me as he arrived. He seemed not just happy, but proud to be among them again.

Mike Heazlitt ’73 was also back among the brothers for the first time in 37 years, and the stories he was telling rekindled their memories.

“I’d forgotten all about that,” said Allen Matthews ’71, aka Polar Bear, when Heazlitt finished a story. Classmate Steve “Mercury” Morris ’73 added another chapter for Matthews.

“I’d forgotten all about that” was the second most common phrase of the evening behind “Great to see you.”

“Some of the guys came in last night, and we’re sitting out on the patio, and a story comes up,” Mike Dill told me. “Each guy remembered a different facet of the story. Maybe no one remembers the whole story. Pretty soon you begin to piece it all together. It’s a lot of fun.

“Everyone brings his own piece of the story.”

I’m still not sure I can say exactly what it is about these particular guys that brings them together, when other who were good friends do not gather for such reunions. It could be as simple as having folks like Judy and Ed Pitkin to have the party, someone as determined and organized as Mike Dill to send the invites, and great relationships to celebrate.

And stories that tell of the days, good and bad, somber or hilarious, when you were there for one another.

Steve Weliever ’71 recalled an oral presentation he had to give to front of legendary Professor Ben Rogge in order to graduate. A group of his Phi Delt brothers showed up.

“To heckle or support?” I asked Tim Hewitt ’72, who remembers the day well.

“Probably a little of both,” Hewitt smiled. He recalls laughing out loud when Weliever mispronounced the “Danube River”.

“He called it ‘the Blue Danubey.’” Hewitt howls, then asks Weliever, “You remember that?”

“How can I forget it,” he says, shaking his head.

He also can’t forget that those same Phi Delt brothers—many at this gathering today—were there for him when he needed them. To keep things in perspective. To remind him that passing or failing a presentation, or Ben Rogge’s class, wasn’t going to change who he was. He was defined by something deeper. He was their friend and brother.

Dan Loftus’ words keep playing over and over in my head. “These were guys who were ready not just to make friends, but to be friends; to be there for each other.”

Leaving Judy and Ed’s house Saturday evening, I felt honored to be in the presence of men who hadn’t forsaken the friendships of their college days. I remembered reading only a week earlier that Aristotle had placed such importance on the cultivation of friendship: “Without friends, no one would want to live, even if he had all other goods.”

I had come to Judy and Ed Pitkin’s house with three questions. I left with only two: Why don’t all of us give friendships such priority? Why don’t we get together like this more often?

1 4 5 6 7 8 12