Remembering Tom Stokes
The Wabash community celebrated the life and teaching of Professor Tom Stokes earlier this month in the College’s Pioneer Chapel, remembering him as a man deeply committed to the life of the mind yet even more committed to his students.
“This service honors Tom’s wishes,” said Associate Professor of Religion Rev. Derek Nelson. “Tom gave careful thought to this matter and made clear to me what he hoped would happen. Of course when we spoke about this a year ago neither of us expected that this occasion would happen so soon. It’s always too soon.”
The service was rich and deep in texts, as one would expect, Rev. Nelson said, “for a person who was a lover of language and what its beauty might do. Tom was also a traveler, and we’ll travel from our pews in Indiana to ancient Greece, Emmaus in Israel, Mozart’s Vienna, turn-of-the-last-century New England, and more.
“I hope you will be able to dwell in the beauty of the language these texts evoke.”
“Lauadamus Te” from Mozart’s Mass in C Minor and the “Benedictus” from Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor were also played, and organists for the service were Cheryl Everett and Professor David Blix ’70.
“Tom’s manner of conversation was mirrored in many ways by the atmosphere of his office: calm, precise, well-ordered, and carefully composed. The ironic wit that enlivened it was famous among his students, who were always the center of his professional life,” Professor of Classics David Kubiak said in a moving tribute to his friend. “He was not a man dedicated to institutions—the thought of him at a Wabash football game might define the word incongruous—but dedicated rather to people, especially young people receptive to the intellectual passions that motivated his career.”
“Tom was always pushing students to go deeper, to think better,” said Professor Nelson. “He asked students to go further, to take the next step, but also held out a hand to help them do just that.”
Here is the complete text of Professor Kubiak’s remembrance, followed by Professor Nelson’s homily. A tribute by former student Josh Harris ’08, now a teacher and doctoral student in Washington DC, concludes the excerpts.
In Memory of Tom Stokes
When I was first asked to speak on this occasion I was most grateful, but hesitated to say yes, since it was a curiosity in Tom’s personality that while he had numerous devoted friends literally around the globe, he was at the same time an intensely private man, to the point of seeming misanthropic to those who did not know him. He disliked being in large groups of people, and he especially disliked faculty meetings, where at the beginning of his Wabash career he said little, and by the end nothing. I eventually came to think that his goal was to have no public persona at all, but to make his whole life consist in his constant reading, his students, and the relationships he diligently cultivated with his friends. Indeed, his care over friends was so great that I suspect each of us knew a slightly different Tom. He never said much about himself (which I imagine he would have considered underbred), but was always acutely interested in you, and had the great gift of discerning the character of others with such sensitivity that he could be precisely the friend that you as a distinct individual needed.
And there was a second problem in my speaking this evening. What would I be able to say, when I could hardly think of a conversation I had with Tom that did not begin with a confidential entre nous, “just between us.” But in the end I decided that I would offer a few thoughts that do, I hope, respect his privacy, first and most importantly to honor my friend, but also in an attempt to clarify for myself why it is that losing Tom has had such a deep effect on me, when I am normally not a very sentimental person.
As some of you know, for many years Tom and I had a little ritual every few months, which involved a dinner at that most improbable of serious restaurants, the Bijou in Lebanon. I would pick out a good bottle from my cellar, and Tom took care of the meal. (I am pleased to say that he never complained of unfairness in our division of duties.) How many times I drove up Sugar Creek Road to Tom’s house (which I never once entered), and waited for him to emerge. As he got into the car I would hand him the wine, and by the time we had reached Jennison St. one or the other of us would have asked two questions, “What have you been reading?” and “What is going on that I haven’t heard about?” We usually spent a good three hours at dinner, but here, I think, I risk entering the realm of entre nous. I can though describe Tom’s manner of conversation, which was mirrored in many ways by the atmosphere of his office: calm, precise, well-ordered, and carefully composed. The ironic wit that enlivened it was famous among his students, who were always the center of his professional life. He was not a man dedicated to institutions –- the thought of him at a Wabash football game might define the word incongruous — but dedicated rather to people, especially young people receptive to the intellectual passions that motivated his career.
This observation brings me to a subject I believe I am able to talk about today, one that, whatever else we discussed over the course of those dinners, we invariably turned to at some point. And that was our gratitude for the fact that we were old enough to have been given what would now be considered a hopelessly antiquated humanistic schooling in the European tradition, one that could produce this counsel from Goethe: “A man should hear music, read poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in every soul.” For Tom the essence of humanistic education was learning how to make aesthetic judgments, and he was appalled by any attempt to reduce the Humanities to a Philistine branch of social studies. He would never debate these questions publicly, however, preferring to take Candide’s famous advice, il faut cultiver notre jardin, “We ought to tend our own garden.” I wonder if he ever knew how abundant a crop he nourished, as shown by the eloquent communications that have been received from his former students in the last weeks.
It seems to me now that I could never dine again at the improbable Bijou in Lebanon; the clear memories of our evenings there would be too painful. But if I were to speak of memory and pain Tom would no doubt remind me of the education we shared and the books we came to love and would never forget. And a place in Cicero’s treatise on friendship, De amicitia, is suddenly with me once more, almost fifty years after I first encountered it:
Seeing that friendship includes very many and very great advantages, it undoubtedly excels all other things in this respect, that it projects the bright ray of hope into the future, and does not suffer the spirit to grow faint or to fall. Again, he who looks upon a true friend, looks, as it were, upon a sort of image of himself. Wherefore friends, though absent, are at hand; though in need, yet abound; though week, are strong; and—harder saying still—though dead, are yet alive; so great is the esteem on the part of their friends, the tender recollection and the deep longing that still attends them.
—Professor David Kubiak
Stone by Stone, Step by Step
Sermon for Tom Stokes Memorial Service
Text: John 20:24-29
Ah, Doubting Thomas. Or is he better called Believing Thomas? Which is it? Thomas (and here I mean the one from our story, not from our college, but the parallels are fun to think about) gets a bad name in history, because he made reasonable queries about an unreasonable thing. The other disciples claimed, “We saw Jesus, who was dead, alive.” Thomas wanted little more than the same experience that they had. The other disciples had not believed without seeing, after all.
The gospel of John has this kind of pattern to it at the end. It alternates between one way of depicting the resurrected Christ and another. This alternation back and forth reminds me of the little creek behind my house growing up. There were rocks all over it, some above the surface. If you jumped from rock to rock, left foot to right foot to left foot, you could get across. If you tried to stop stay on one, you got wet.
The alternation in John is between the resurrected Christ having a body that seems just exactly like the body he had before his death, and a new, strange and inexplicable kind of body. He has a body so unlike yours and mine, so un-physical, to put it crudely, that he can show up in a room with locked doors. But then the body is so physical you can put your finger in its holes. A bit later he’s at the sea of Tiberias cooking fish and eating it. My wife calls this the Last Breakfast, by the way. His body is so physical he’s eating fish, but so unphysical the disciples don’t recognize him.
This alternation means that you can’t stop and stay, not really. To try to “settle” a question like “What kind of resurrection was this to have been?” is neither possible nor desirable. What is possible and desirable, is to keep on alternating, left foot right foot, all the way through your life on a faith walk across the river. Which seems to me to be exactly what Tom Stokes was about as a teacher.
One of his students, Josh Harris, wrote a lovely reflection about Tom in the classroom, and I would like to read a couple of selections from it. You’ll get a sense of this dissatisfaction with stopping and staying on any particular rock in the stream of questions. He’s always pushing students to go deeper, to think better.
One day, late in my time at Wabash, in typical fashion, Professor Stokes sent me an e-mail summoning me to his office. I’d become a French minor, despite my almost inability to form sounds or syllables in the language. (“Did you take Spanish in high school? You’re not ordering a burrito at Taco Hut [sic], you are speaking French!
His charm in class was beguiling. “No, Mr. Williams” — always with the courtesy title in class — “what you meant to say is ‘she does everything well.’…Was it a late night at the Neon Pinecone [i.e. the Neon Cactus, which I think is near Taco Hut] last night? Dancing the Foxtrot and Fandango with Esmeralda and Eunice? Focus, you lot! [Exasperated sigh] Mr. Harris, chime in and save Mr. Williams from dark fen and deep morass.”
He asked students to go further, to take the next step, but also held out a hand to help them do just that.
Tom spoke of his own faith in God in ways that mimic this persistent questioning. Raised in a faith that didn’t seem to suit 20 year old Tom, he asked his professors in college very pointed questions that some of them didn’t appreciate. One night a couple years ago Tom told me wanted to talk to me about the Rheinland mystics, 14th century thinkers like Meister Eckhart and Hildegaard of Bingen. He told me he’d supply the wine and I should bone up on my primary sources. You know, usual instructions for a cocktail party. We spoke for hours about them, about their courage in facing the abyss of death and meaninglessness, and their honesty about the incomprehensibility of God. I don’t think we settled anything about God, but we moved, stone by stone, step by step, toward and answer and a deeper appreciation of the question.
The way I best got to know Tom when I was a student was through Colloquium. This was (and is) a class that meets on Wednesday night and has a kind of “great books” feel to it. My senior class had a fantastic group of young men in it. We rarely ended on time. I think 12 of the 15 in there went on to get terminal degrees. I had class Thursday morning in the Detchon Center, in the room right next to Tom’s office. Every Thursday morning as I walked down the hallway, Tom called out to me. “How was Gilgamesh? What did you think of Dante? Isn’t Apuleius funny?” And he’d ask me to recount, blow by blow, Wednesday night’s discussion for a second time on Thursday. I can’t tell you how much this helps you to learn. You don’t learn from your experience. You learn from your reflection on your experience. Tom, an outstanding teacher, knew that well.
A haunting, but in the end beautiful, aspect of this story of Thomas in John is how Thomas comes to recognize Jesus. Even though the Lord is standing right in front of him, addressing him by name, it is the act of touching the wounds of Christ that tells Thomas who he is seeing. There is something about that I can’t shake. To know someone is to know their wounds. What has hurt them, disappointed them. In the book of Revelation, when we glimpse the resurrected Christ on the throne of heaven, he is called “The Lamb Who Was Slain.” Not the Lamb who came through the crucifixion fine, just fine. But the lamb who bears the marks of his death, his wounds. All of us who knew Tom knew that he, too, was wounded by his fair share of dark nights of the soul. To recognize him was to sense his wounds.
And so even though Thomas in our story falters at the beginning, in the end he recognizes Jesus. And what’s more, he dares to make a grand pronouncement, one that should make us forget the doubting Thomas moniker. His response is probably the strongest affirmation in the whole Bible of the divinity of Christ. “My Lord and my God,” he says in wonder.
Tom Stokes’ instructions for this service included a note that the sermon be preached on this lesson from John and that, quote, “It not be chiefly about me.”
This is not mere humility, nor even privacy. It is a commitment to spending more time with better texts, like the gospels, and John Donne and Wallace Stevens. It comes from a sense that the best kind of life is the one that would say the highlight of the memorial service was the Mozart piece, because music peaked with Mozart and everything else is a pale reflection.
So we leave here and go back to our books and back to our work keeping our eye on the best things on the horizon, not stopping on one stone but asking the next question and the next and the next… Until we can say “My Lord and my God.” AMEN.
—Professor Rev. Derek Nelson ’99
Toute Séparation Est Un Lien
or, Every Separation Is A Link: A Eulogy
by Joshua Harris ’o8
Through desert ways, dark fen and deep morass,
Through jungles, sluggish seas, and mountain pass,
Build now the road, and falter not, nor stay;
Prepare across the earth the King’s highway.
If Marcel Proust is right and “our social personality is created by the thoughts of other people,” I owe more to Thomas Stokes than mere gratitude. His Detchon Center classroom, during the tête-à-têtes in his office, and over many dinners with him was where my personality, interests, and general appreciations for life, art, and culture were fostered.
I’m reminded of a great scene from Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in which Miss Brodie asks one of her students: “What are your interests?” The girl, stuttering, says she hasn’t got any. Miss Brodie responds, “That is what I am for … to provide you with interests.”
As one with an academic interest in the study of memory, it is frustrating how much it fails me, even trying to be relentlessly hyper-conscious of it—of its fluidity, its transitory and malleable nature. It is a cliché to say that I’ve forgotten more than I’ll ever remember about Thomas Stokes, despite his prominent role in my life. But what I do remember comes in bursts of clarity so real and so vivid, that it is incorruptible by the corrosive force of time. These are some of those memories.
One day, late in my time at Wabash, Professor Stokes sent me an e-mail summoning me to his office. I’d become a French minor, despite my near inability to form sounds or syllables in the language. (“Did you take Spanish in high school? You’re not ordering a burrito at Taco Hut [sic], you are speaking French … blood-y hell!”) Although I no longer had classes with him, given the requirements for my minor had been met, he had remained my closest mentor among the faculty.
He was there at his desk—polished and postured and clicking delicately at the Mac desktop, back turned to the door. Upon my entering, he reeled around and lit up with a sense of genuine pleasure that company brings. During chats in the office, he would daintily reposition and realign pencils and papers on his desk, ever-vigilant of arrangement and framing. He had a good eye for composition—evidenced by his collected postcards (Beckett, a Matisse, a Kayan woman in her neck rings) adorning his door and interior walls of the well-appointed office.
He had called me in to pitch an idea for a new class, for which he had drafted an intimidating reading list of classics (Faulkner, Proust, Cervantes), a daunting schedule (one novel a week) and the worst meeting time for a senior with a foot out of the door (1 to 4 pm Friday afternoon). There was no way I was to be convinced to take this unrequired, inconvenient, time-consuming seminar.
We began a few weeks later in the spring term in his favorite classroom, the semi-circular second-floor roost of Detchon overlooking the leafy arboretum. There assembled were Shawn Bennett, Joshua Day, Kyle McClammer, and me. We were vain enough, in those days, to think we were particularly urbane and sophisticated students because we were part of the Stokes Set.
But it was those afternoons in that blithe classroom that will remain with me until my last days—they are embedded in my memory as my prototypical collegiate undergraduate experience at Wabash College: four young men, passionately discussing (and arguing about) good books, in the presence of a revered tutor, patiently guiding us through these texts and, by extension, our own lives played out in the pages of these works.
It is not coincidental that my impending doctoral thesis—“Memory: From Plato to Proust”—is crafted, at least in part, on that course and the books we read and ideas we deliberated those languid afternoons.
If my current students knew Thomas Stokes, they would know I’m a fraud with respect to originality. Most of my classroom demeanor is appropriated from him, whole cloth. “This text should be kept by your bedside,” he would remind us, “next to the latest issue of Field and Stream, the Catechism, and Playboy.” With one singular turn of phrase he could sum up most Wabash men, and with that, he could keep captive the attention spans through a language requirement many saw as a burden. His charm was beguiling.
“No, Mr. Williams”—he would say, always with the courtesy title in class — “what you meant to say is ‘she does everything well.’ But rather, you said, ‘she does everyone well,’ which, given what her profession is, may or may not be the case. Was it a late night at the Neon Pinecone [i.e. the Neon Cactus] last night? Dancing the Foxtrot and Fandango with Esmeralda and Eunice? Focus, you lot! [Exasperated sigh] Mr. Harris, chime in and save Mr. Williams from dark fen and deep morass.”
Death has an odd way of bringing out pronouncements from people, each clamoring to show how well they knew a man. I don’t want to presume to say that my time with Thomas Stokes was all that unique from his perspective—he had hundreds of students who made up his distinct set throughout his years at Wabash. But what I can say is that no singular person at Wabash College contributed more to my overall sensibility about life than Thomas Stokes.
I think it’s safe to say that very little of this was fostered in the classroom. I was a terrible student of French. I’ve never had an ear for language, but that didn’t stop me from continuing on into the 200-levels, almost entirely at his insistence. Notwithstanding my incompetence, he pushed me to study in Tours and Paris junior year. Even now, so many years later, composing this in the south of France, he would cringe at my clunky pronunciation and [lack of] cadence. I’ve derived so much intellectual and personal meaning from this culture and landscape.
Aside from the language component of his tutelage, he introduced me to Simone Weil and Blaise Pascal, two exceptional French thinkers who contributed prominently to my own eventual conversion to Roman Catholicism (the former from whom the aphorism for this eulogy is borrowed). Although Professor Stokes’s book [Audience, Intention, and Rhetoric in Pascal and Simone Weil] is likely gathering dust on most of the obscure academic shelves upon which it sits, for me it was enough fodder to craft an independent study with the late Bill Placher my senior year, and enough to consider my own faith more seriously.
But most of his work of soul-crafting took place on our regular dinners at a restaurant called Bistro 501 – his favorite haunt in Lafayette. (On one particular trip, while chauffeuring, I got pulled over by the police for a burned-out taillight. “Dammit, Harris! You’re going to jail and I’ll be left here with no ride home.”) This restaurant was his auxiliary classroom, where nestled in an armchair, his hands folded at the necktie knot (which was, from time to time, adroitly repositioned), he gracefully composed for the supper symposium. It was over these innumerable repasts that I came to learn and love French cuisine, tasted and compared wines of which I knew nothing about, talked of Chet Baker and other jazz greats, debated the merits of religion, of the French existentialists, of French New Wave cinema, among many other topics spanning his expansive interests and worldly life experience. Fragments of these discussions come to me from time to time, like Proust’s own madeleine.
Of course there is no way to adequately pay homage to a teacher—the age-old sacred bond between mentor and pupil is one that defies and transcends sentimental stories and trite clichés. But as of late, I’ve come to believe in a real, tangible immortality (one beyond the religious sense). Thomas Stokes, like all of us, will eventually be forgotten in particularities. But the truth is, in a much larger and perhaps more real sense, Thomas Stokes does and will live on, in untold ways. His teaching continues: in my ongoing academic work with Proust, in the rues and restaurants of France, in a few of my classroom witticisms, in a select group of my own students who now listen to Chet Baker, or have pondered Pascal’s wager, or have taken French at my behest, or picked up Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!.
What Thomas Stokes did for me is my own humble hope for my vocation—to give students a vague idea of a realm outside of their own narrow conceptions, and the confidence to go out and seek to live free and genuine lives.
In the 27th canto of Dante’s Purgatorio, the great metaphor of travel and tutelage, Dante’s guide Virgil must, after progressing through the dark woods and ascending the arduous mountain climb, leave him for the rest of the journey ahead. Virgil says the following, just before his final exit:
My son, now you have seen the temporal and
The eternal fire, and you have reached the place
Where on my own I can discern no further:
I’ve brought you here with intelligence and art.
Let your own pleasure guide you from now on:
You’re through the steep and through the narrow ways.
I’ve read that a few times before, but never felt it. I think now, more than ever, Dante’s poetic verse rings true in my own life’s journey.
From here, I go at it alone, having emerged from the dark fen and deep morass.
Joshua Harris ’o8 is a doctoral student and teacher in Washington, D.C.