Live Humanely in a Difficult World"
aerial navigator in World War II, Don Baker "kept the conscience of language"
during some of the most turbulent times that the country, and Wabash,
ever faced. and his words continue to inform the College's mission. In
three short essays, a former student, a fellow poet, and Baker's daughter,
O. Henry Prize-winner Alison Baker, sketch a family portrait of the poet-teacher
and the Wabash College of his 34-year tenure.
It was November 1972 and the College was struggling for
words. President Thad Seymour and the faculty needed to capture in a single
statement the ways a Wabash education changes the lives of its students.
A committee's first stab at the missive was technically correct, but uninspiring.
Then the College's poet-in-residence spoke up. The statement, he said,
needs to exemplify "man talking to man." "If we are to re-emphasize communication
we must, in our own writings, set the example."
So he offered his alternativewords that have guided the College
for the past 30 years. A Wabash education, he wrote, prepares students
"to judge thoughtfully, act effectively, and live humanely in a difficult
When Professor of English Emeritus Donald W. Baker H'57 penned that coda
to the College's curriculum preamble, he could have been describing his
own life as a teacher, poet, and father. Praised in literary circles,
Baker won the Pushcart Prize and the Borestone Mountain Prize, and was
nominated for a Pulitzer. After reading Baker's work in Formal Application,
the distinguished American poet William Stafford said: "[Baker] digests
experience... like a bear. This book made me come to with surprise as
I read page after page, section after section, saying, 'yes, that's right!'"
But to the students he inspired in his Shakespeare classes, directed in
Scarlet Masque productions, or joined on the baseball field as shortstop
for the faculty softball team, the professor was a Wabash man. Before
he retired in 1987, they made it official, and Baker became an honorary
alumnus of the Class of '57.
Last spring, Professor of Religion and Philosophy Bill Placher '70 introduced
current Wabash students to Baker's poetry during a Chapel talk.
"An admired colleague and treasured friend, Don Baker remains the best
reader of poetry I've ever heard, " Placher said, adding this anecdote:
"The last semester Don Baker taught here, he and I taught Shakespeare
together one Wednesday evening in Senior Colloquium. At the end of the
class, when students had left and it became time to assign grades, he
said to me: 'Placher, let me pass on to you the accumulated wisdom of
over thirty years of teaching. Whenever you can't decide which grade to
give a student, always give the higher one. It doesn't do you any harm,
and it makes the student feel so much better.'
"A lot of his students in freshman comp, I must say, would have been astonished
to hear him say that."
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