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On the Wabash Soul
As delivered at the 159th Commencement services.

by Joe Gianoli '97

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o my fellow seniors, here we are about to graduate. When I began preparing for this talk, I asked myself, "What does it mean to graduate from Wabash College?" Surely, it is not merely turning in that last 10 pager at 4:59 on a Friday afternoon. It is not struggling to fulfill that last Div I distribution credit. It is most definitely not about filling out that Senior survey we were given, although Dean Herring might argue that filling in all those little ovals and staying within the lines is the sign of a successful liberal arts graduate. No, something inside of me, and inside of all of us, I would wager, tells us that graduating from Wabash is quite a bit more than that. But what is it? What is that thing which makes Wabash so different? Former Dean of the College Ben Rogge joked with graduating Seniors in 1963, saying "Commencement is not for me the self-evident consequence of a set of sufficient causes; it is an act of divine intervention in human affairs." Such a quip was characteristic of Dean Rogge, who was known for his ironic sense of humor. But we can also remember what Freud said about humor. And I think that if we look closer at what Dean Rogge was suggesting humorously, he actually makes a very serious statement about what is so special about this College.

From the very first minute we stepped on campus, we sensed something different about this place, and we connected with it. Maybe not consciously, but we did, nonetheless make a connection. We realized, almost immediately, that Wabash is not just a physical place. It is not merely a collection of old and beautiful buildings where we live, study, and party. Wabash is an experience. Wabash is about grabbing a pint with a professor, jag sessions, all nighters, papers, labs, kicking the crap out of Dannies, scrappy and determined athletic teams, heated Intramural battles and interfraternity rivalries, and, at least in my case, weekly nervous breakdowns. This place has a history and a story. Or if I can use a richly emotive term from Ancient Greek, this place has a history and mythos, that is a myth. This history and this mythos resonate not only from the bricks and pillars that surround us, but the grass beneath us and the trees above us. We hear stories about Basil Barrickman threatening his student's lives back in 1835. And there is the legend of Caleb Mills and his ferocious axe. One night in the 1830's a small, but rambunctious group of students assembled for a small but loud party, which was against college policy. These students ignored demands to break up their little affair, and Mills decided to take the matter into his own hands. Being locked out of the party, he calmly picked up an axe, chopped down the door and put an end to the festivities. The stories could go on forever, but I digress. Perhaps we could continue at a later date over a pint at Joe's, if anyone is interested.

At any rate, it soon became apparent to me that I had things reversed. Wabash is not a place we graduate from. Wabash is a community we graduate into. Wabash is where we learn to be men, and we, like many others before us, carry her lessons with us wherever we go. On Commencement Day, we enter into an elite circle of Wabash men, consisting of her alumni. The location of our ceremony itself, that is, here on the Mall, is symbolic of this notion. And here I turn to Dr. Blix, who expresses this idea much more eloquently than I ever could. He said in a speech given in 1994, "The mall is circular or oval, and lies at the center of the campus. Now some psychologists and anthropologists tell us that circular or oval things, when they stand at the center of other things, symbolize wholeness. Clearly, then, by virtue of its oval or circular shape, and by virtue of its being at the center of things, the Wabash Mall symbolizes our sense of community, our sense of wholeness, our sense of self." Thus spoke the master.

Next, consider what you have been occupying yourselves with over the past four years, and where you have been doing it. We have been struggling to establish our place in this inner circle. We have struggled and competed in classrooms which surround the Mall. Those of us in fraternities battled long and loud on the steps of the chapel during chapel sing. For those of you who were fortunate enough to participate in varsity sports, you fought for Wabash on the football field, on the track, on the soccer field, in Chadwick Court, and in many other places. Others of us fought each other in Intramurals. And still others turned out to sporting contests to provide spirit and support for our athletes. But the point is, we have each struggled on the fringes, seeking to establish our place in the inner circle. On this ceremonious day, we now have established our place in this inner circle, on this Mall, a symbol of the community of Wabash men.

The next question, then, becomes "What is a Wabash Man?" For 165 years great men have sought to answer this question, each one coming up with his own definition. It is a daunting task to even consider answering such a question. While I do not at all suppose I have come up with a definitive answer, I have taken a stab in the dark which I have become rather partial to.

You see, we receive something far more significant than a mere diploma from Wabash. Wabash is the great forger of her sons' souls. When I say soul, I am not necessarily talking about something spiritual or religious. I am talking about that part of a man's nature where feelings, judgements, ideals and morals originate. This is what makes Wabash so special. We come here as boys, and leave not just as men, but as Wabash men.

Placher, who wrote in a speech given on Wabash's 150th anniversary: "In 1832 those seven Presbyterian ministers knelt in the snow more or less in the Donnely's parking lot on West Wabash, only twelve years after the first non-Indian settlers had arrived in Montgomery County. Folks still worried about the chance of an Indian war. Edmund Hovey, one of the first two faculty members, lived with his wife in a primitive log cabin, and Mrs. Hovey wrote to her relatives back east, 'I hope you may never have to encounter so much ignorance, wickedness and opposition to the truth as we are surrounded with."' So, you see, even 1832, this place was about hardship and strife. It is a monumental commitment to fighting the good fight, despite the hardships you encounter. It is in this grind that we discover, as Bert Stem calls it, "the pure virtue of sweat."

Next you should notice that Coach Lombardi says, "in the long run." All of us had the long run in mind when we came here. We sacrificed a more lively social life, more party time, more coasting. Gentlemen, we are big-picture thinkers. We are willing to sacrifice short term benefits and niceties for future rewards. Let us never underestimate the importance of this perspective.

A Wabash man also experiences things "deep down in his heart." The Reverend Joseph Tuttle, third president of Wabash, talked about this concept in 1862, and I have not yet found a better description. He said that a Wabash man has in his heart the "purpose to be and to do something and that purpose becomes to him a higher power beckoning him onward and inspiring him to action." Just ask any varsity athlete. Or a bio major. Or the person sitting next to you. It takes great physical strength and determination to succeed here, and you have proven that you are not faint of heart.

Lombardi also tells us that "there is something really good in men that yearns" for the grind, the discipline. I would argue that this something is the Wabash soul. There is, in fact, something in us that knows all these things. That sees them, accepts them as true and incorporates them into our lives. Wabash becomes the standard by which we measure all other things in life.

And, finally, Vince Lombardi tells us that we really do enjoy this process. Sure we complain and wallow every now and again, but it's nothing a trip to Tommy's can't cure. The point is that we do take pleasure in this struggle to achieve Wabash Manhood. We can compete with each other, make demands of each other, but later be friends and comrades. The greatest joy of competition at Wabash, is for me, the ability to be at another's throat on the playing field or in the classroom, but then, when all is said and done, to be able to enjoy his fellowship over a brew or a scotch.

I've never known a Wabash man, worth his salt, who, in the long run, deep down in his heart, didn't appreciate the grind, the discipline. There is something really good in Wabash men that yearns for discipline. That, my fellow seniors, is the knowledge it takes to get here. And here we are, in this circle, about to receive our sheepskin. Soon, we will be extending our reach to the outer world, beyond this inner circle. For some of us this means graduate school or medical school. For others of us it means the business world. But wherever we go, let us always remember Wabash's lessons. She has taught us the virility and veracity of manhood. As you leave this afternoon, take the time to stroll to the west end of the mall, in front of center hall.

There you will find a stone placed in the walk. The three virtues of a Wabash man are carved upon this stone: Integrity, Verity, and Sagacity. Integrity, truth, and wisdom.

Never lose sight of these ideals, and I am sure that someday, I will find you in your finest hour, much like I find you today, lying on your battle field, exhausted, victorious, uttering a Wabash yell.