"I knew that nothing could replace a father, but I believed that Wabash's unique environment could teach me some of what my father had not."

 


Magazine
Winter/Spring 2001

End Notes
Professors,
Mentors, and Fathers



by Peter Prengaman '98

I grew up without my father. Actually, I never knew him. By the time I was born my parents were separated. And I had no contact with him or that side of the family. My mom never talked about him. It was a non-issue. When I asked, the answer was always, "We are going to talk about that." But we never did.

In the beginning, I was an only child, though not for long. When I was six, my mom and I adopted Nathan, an eight-year-old boy from India. When I was 10, the three of us decided to adopt Charlie and Jamie, two baby boys from Brazil.

We were four boys and my mom. Our house was a macho one. We had two favorite activities: playing every sport imaginable and beating on each other. If there was ever a house that inspired the phrase "boys will be boys," it was ours. It still is. Though Nathan is now married, and I've spent the past few years in different corners of the earth, when we are together, boys are still boys.

My life was happy, but I lacked something: a father figure. There was always "Dad's day" at Little League baseball games and those incessant questions like "What does your father do?" to remind me that he was missing. I remember looking myself in the mirror when I was 13 and realizing that I had already made it all these years without my father. I could make it another 13, I told myself.

That day I promised myself that there would be no more self-pity. But I still lacked a masculine presence at home. Inside, I felt like I didn't know what it meant to be "a man." There were all these images and ideas in my head. Men had to be athletic, tough, and stoic.

My high school football coach, Floyd Halverson, a legend in Oregon, emphasized discipline and the "manly” axiom that "Pain is temporary. Pride is forever." Some of these stereotypical male images jelled with the man I was becoming, but I knew that being a man had to go much deeper. Also, I realized that I was quickly becoming a role model for Charlie and Jamie, though I was still trying to get things figured out myself.

When I began looking at universities my junior year in high school, my mom suggested Wabash College. That year it had been selected first in the college guide The 50 Best Liberal Arts Colleges. Initially I had the typical 17 year-old knee-jerk reaction: "No girls, no way.”

But as the idea began to settle in, I saw the other side of the coin: perhaps no girls could mean a chance to focus on the adult male presence I hadn't had growing up. I knew that nothing could replace a father, but I believed that Wabash's unique environment could teach me some of what my father never had.

As luck would have it, my freshman year I was enrolled in the yearlong Freshman Tutorial "Men's Lives," taught by Professor Peter Bankart. The course looked at men from all angles: physiological, psychological, and sociological. We read studies on media perceptions of masculinity, passionate essays by (male and female) feminists calling for men and women to break out of traditional gender roles, and reactionary Men's Movement writers seeking to redefine male roles in society without losing the truly "deep masculine."

It was all fascinating to me. Every reading assignment and every class discussion, which often became intimate and heated at the same time, was a chance to explore, albeit academically, what I hadn't experienced growing up. And sometimes I was in for a surprise.

One day we discussed a piece by Robert Bly, a poet and leader of the Men's Movement; someone whom with whom I've identified since the first time I read him. The piece was on male initiation, and what Bly would describe as a yearning for the father. Bly believed that male initiation, whether in the form of circumcision, being sent out into the wilds alone at the age of 13 (as some African tribes still do), or even just shaving for the first time, was an integral part of any young boy's transition into manhood. These "rites of passage," said Bly, were to be facilitated by the father.

It was music to my ears. And in discussion I ardently supported every word. But two other students who had grown up with their fathers, men these students described as extremely eager to turn their "boys” into "men," strongly reacted against Bly. These ideas, they argued, led to fathers who were more interested in "toughening up" their sons than in fostering a loving relationship filled with mutual respect. This often meant physical and emotional abuse, leaving irreparable wounds. It was obvious that in many ways these students resented their fathers. Until that discussion, I had been so anxious to have a father figure that it never occurred to me that an overly "macho" or "manly" father could be a negative.

That day I left the class as I often did: realizing that manhood and fatherhood were complicated, and yet there were no set formulas for success. That year I formed a close relationship with Professor Bankart. Filled with the ups and downs of any relationship worth having, it served as my first non-sports related male relationship with someone older.

And throughout my years at Wabash, I would form close relationships with many other male professors. One such professor was David Timmerman. My freshman year, I took beginning speech with him and had a blast. By the end of the semester, Professor Timmerman had become a mentor and a friend. Throughout my four years at Wabash he was one of my strongest supporters (though it wasn't until the second semester of my senior year that I took another speech class). He would follow my progress on the swim team, critique articles I wrote in The Bachelor, and when I made a dream run at a Rhodes Scholarship my senior year, he was the first person I went to for advice and interview preparation.

By my senior year I realized just how much he respected and trusted me when he took me aside and specifically asked that I work with and befriend a freshman who was struggling academically and lacking self-esteem. In a way, this was a rite of passage: I took under my wing someone at the behest of a man who had taken me under his.

Professor Timmerman and other important professors were not father figures, but they were great male role models, all as different as the subjects they taught. It was through my interactions with them that I found the guidance to step into my own as a man.

At Wabash I learned a lot about manhood outside of the classroom as well. With two peers--my freshman year roommate, Matt Papachronis, and one guy in my tutorial, Shawn Gramby--I formed the most intimate male friendships I had had in my life. By my sophomore year I had joined Lambda Chi Alpha, where I got to experience firsthand different interpretations of manhood.

One night, for example, two members of our house called a meeting and announced they were gay. Coming out of the "closet" is difficult anywhere, but to do it in front of fraternity brothers in small town Indiana took incredible courage. Looking back, I'm not sure what I'm most proud of: the manly courage of those two men, or the manly maturity and steadfastness with which all the brothers in the house dealt with the issue.

To say that I learned about manhood only from other men while at Wabash would be inaccurate. Swimming for Coach Gail Pebworth, for example, was the center of my Wabash experience. What Coach Pebworth taught me about dedication and what she called the "pursuit of excellence" is worth an article in itself.

But it was at Wabash where I began to piece together the masculine void left by my father and to develop the characteristics I wanted to take with me into manhood. At 25, I now think much more about being a father than not having one. I look forward to the day when I will begin to influence the life of a newborn girl or boy. I know that the responsibilities of male role model and father figure will fall on my shoulders. And I yearn for this, because I know just how important it is.

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