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The Big Question: Just One More

Interviews by Richard Paige

There’s always that one question you want to ask, but, for whatever reason, you don’t. 

In 24 years of interviewing Wabash alumni, WM writers have had dozens of those moments. For this issue’s Big Question, we went back to five alumni and tried again, posing that one last question we’d always wanted to ask.

BOB WEDGEWORTH ’59 
Former executive director, American Library Association; founding president, ProLiteracy Worldwide 

Wedgeworth attended all-black Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri, and took his first job in a library when he was 14. “Books were always a great equalizer for me,” he says. He was prepared by his teachers for success in the larger world. As a sophomore at Lincoln, he was identified as a student of promise by the National Scholarship and Service and Fund for Negro Students. That same year, he met a Wabash admissions counselor at a college fair. Wedgeworth attended Wabash on a full NSSFNS academic scholarship. He was the only African American student at Wabash until Julius Price ’59 arrived Bob’s sophomore year. 

THE QUESTION: How did you not just survive, but thrive, as one of two black students on a largely all-white campus in the 1950s? 

My biggest objective, and probably my biggest failing here at Wabash, was that I just wanted to be one of the guys, which was totally unrealistic. How could you put an African American student in an all-white school and expect him to just blend in? 

But I had one advantage: I had this full scholarship that removed any financial concerns for me. When we went to Chapel Sing, they used to say, “Look at the guys on either side of you, because one of them won’t be there when you graduate.” The minority students who left the College left for many of the same reasons that any other student left the College. Most of it was financial. I never had to worry about money while I was here. 

Coming to Wabash was my first opportunity to test myself out in the world. What I learned very early after I arrived was that if the playing field was level, I could compete with anybody. I never lacked the confidence. I never took a back seat to anything that went on here. 

JEREMY BIRD ’00 
National field director, 2012 Obama campaign; founding partner, 270 Strategies 

Jeremy Bird never took a political science class at Wabash College—he wasn’t really interested in politics until his junior year. That’s when Bird studied abroad at the University of Haifa, where the Israeli election pitting Benjamin Netanyahu against Ehud Barak put political issues right in his face. He was inspired and forced to ask himself, Why don’t I pay attention back home? 

Bird’s approach to politics blends the human with decisions based on data. He says polling doesn’t tell you what to think; polling tells you how to say what you think in a more appealing way. 

THE QUESTION: Why do Democrats have trouble winning at the top of the ticket? 

Generally, Democrats have won the popular vote over the last three decades, save once (2004). Liberals are moving to cities in droves in a handful of blue states. The problem is not that we don’t win at the top of the ticket; the problem is that the Electoral College is set up in such a way that it’s becoming harder for us to win the necessary states. 

That said, the Democratic Party has had trouble simplifying its complicated messages. If you look who you are appealing to, Democrats are generally a broader, younger, and more diverse coalition. Republicans are appealing to a much more homogeneous population, both racially and where they live. 

For example, we haven’t done a good job of explaining over the long term what our social compact is. I think we got some blame around what the candidates put forward and whether or not that is clear and authentic. Authenticity is pretty important. 

DEREK NELSON ’99 
Professor of Religion; director, Wabash Pastoral Leadership Program 

Nelson was a biology major in his senior year when he told his advisor, Professor Bill Placher ’70, that he wanted to go to divinity school. He said he also knew it was too late to get in. Placher reached into his bottom desk drawer and produced applications to four graduate schools. He had called ahead to let them know Nelson might be coming. 

Ten years later following Placher’s untimely death, Nelson returned to Wabash to succeed the man that Derek says “had known me better than I knew myself.” 

THE QUESTION: What is it like to replace a legend? 

Usually, it’s awesome. I love being part of a place whose mission I endorse and believe in. It would be convenient if I could have that without the baggage of knowing how short I’m falling of my predecessor all the time. 

Bill was so good that there aren’t expectations that one would. . . . Successor is one thing. Replacement? Of course not. 

But what was most remarkable to me about Bill was his ability to pay attention. I’m shooing people out the door because I’ve got the next thing. But I don’t ever remember being hurried by him or his door ever being closed. There was always an availability and a hospitality. 

Expectations on me were reduced because fewer people knew him well and could, thus, compare. But my expectations are constantly larger, and I feel bad that people don’t know of him. “Hello? Are you aware that we had a giant of the academe in our midst?” 

PETE METZELAARS ’82 
Tight end in the National Football League for 16 years 

Metzelaars led Wabash to its singular team athletic achievement—the 1982 NCAA men’s basketball national title—but he became a household name on the gridiron, playing 10 seasons with Buffalo that included four consecutive Super Bowls. As his career wound down, he spent a season with Carolina and two with Detroit before retiring. 

THE QUESTION: How did you know it was time to hang it up as a player in the NFL? 

I was done sacrificing the things I needed to do in order to keep playing football. 

I wanted more family time—watching the kids growing up, spending time with my wife, being at home. I also was tired of doing all the things I had to do in order to be successful—the running, the lifting, the workouts, maintaining your diet and weight. A lot of players say, “They don’t pay me to play the games—the games are fun. They pay me to practice and work out.” The discipline and the sacrifice and the commitment—at some point you just get tired of it and your body almost can’t keep up with it. When it got to that point, I knew it was time to walk away. 

Most guys get kicked out the door scratching and clawing. I got to say, “Hey, this is my last year.” We made the playoffs that year in Detroit. I took my pads off, my helmet, and said, “I’m done.” Not many guys get to say when they want to walk away.

SEBASTIAN GARREN ’14 
Dean of the High School at St. John Paul II Preparatory School, St. Charles, Missouri; awarded Fulbright Scholarship in 2014 

In his senior year at Wabash, Garren applied for a Fulbright to Finland to study the Finnish educational system. In a letter postmarked February 28, 2014, he learned he had won the scholarship. He purchased his airline ticket to Finland the next day. Then in May, in a one-sentence note—“Your previous studies were not in line with the program you applied for”—the University of Turku declined his application. 

There would be no Fulbright experience for Garren. But he still could go to Finland, courtesy of that airline ticket. So he spent just over a month there in the summer of 2014, backpacking around townships and small towns. He couch-surfed, met a bunch of people. He made it to the Arctic Circle before running low on funds. He got back to the States with $46 in his pocket. 

One of Wabash College’s 2014 Fulbright Scholarship winners, Sebastian Garren, May 17, 2014.

THE QUESTION: Do you ever wonder how having the complete Fulbright experience might have changed your life? 

Without the Fulbright, I didn’t get propelled out the front door like Bilbo Baggins on his adventure. But I still had this opportunity to learn, to be immersed in another culture, to get outside of the box. That experience—from the application of the Fulbright through researching Finland to actually going there and talking with lots and lots of people—that whole experience was invaluable. 

I still wanted to go out and wander the country and learn what I could. I read Finnish research on education and learned a lot about their education system. It informed my intellectual life. Of course, it’s good to have a master’s degree and to have written a master’s thesis and to have some real experience with education research. Not having that, I have no idea how life would be different with a few of those tools more firmly under my belt. 

I would not trade getting rejected by the University of Turku. I wouldn’t want to take away that pain. It was a great learning experience.