A Father's Music
by Steve Charles
The most important thing I know about Raymond Williams retirement
is that hes learning to play the banjo.
That seems an insignificant thing in the life of a man who taught, counseled,
and mentored Wabash students for 37 years, is a leading scholar on the
Swaminaryan sect of Hinduism, and who founded the Wabash Center for Teaching
and Learning in Theology and Religion.
But when about 60 of Williams colleagues, family members, and friends
gathered in Detchon International Hall to honor him on the occasion of
his retirement from Wabash,, career accomplishments were mentioned far
less often than were words like counselor, advisor, honesty, , perseverance,
fidelity, and integrity.
My point about this West Virginia boy who becomes an internationally respected
scholar and then learns to play the banjo upon his retirement has a lot
to do with that last word. First, heres what those whove worked
with Raymond closely for many years had to say:
I took one course with Dr. Williamsthe Anthropology of Religion
in Africaprobably the best and most challenging, course Ive
ever taken in college or graduate school, said Sam McCrimmon 99,
the first intern to work at the Wabash Center. He instilled in me
a great interest in both anthropology and Africa that lasted long after
the course was over.
Here at Wabash we talk a lot about the Gentlemans Rule, and
as students we try to live it. But Raymond Williamshis class, character,
and graciousnessis the living example of the Gentlemans Rule.
I belong to a special group of teachers who owe their careers to
Raymond Williams, Wabash Professor of Philosophy and Religion Steve
Webb 83 said. You can think of us as the Raymond Williams
platoon, and you can think of Raymond as our sergeant. He was kind, yet
firm, and he had a way of being incredibly encouraging while also holding
us to the highest of standards.
Raymond knew our weaknesses, but he did not cater to them. Instead,
he looked for our strengths. He would claim, I suppose, that he merely
saw our best selves, but I think he was creating those selves as much
as he was finding them.
Former dean of the College and professor emeritus Vic Powell H55
recalled Williams lighter side, reading a letter Raymond wrote after
he noticed then Dean Powell glancing at his watch as faculty members were
picking up their mail in Center Hall.
The convincing tongue-in-cheek diatribe concludes with a threat to invite
a member of the Teamsters Union to organize the faculty and to protect
Vic Powell smiled broadly. The faculty is losing its most watchful
and vigorous defender of faculty status, he said. Then he pointed
out a fact few in the room realized.
When the Board of Trustees decided to honor Eli Lilly by establishing
a scholarship in his name, they asked Raymond to investigate such programs
in other colleges and to suggest a direction for the program at Wabash.
The Lilly Scholarships we have today are in large part a result of Raymonds
That same role as advisor and counselor was the focus of President Andy
Raymond has been an extraordinary counselor to trustees and alumni,
current students, and everyone in between, Ford said. He recalled
visiting Trustee Barney Hollett and his wife, Fran, with Raymond and Lois.
I marveled at how easily Raymond switched roles from minister to
friend, to colleague, to teacher, and back to minister again. I was surprised
at the depth and ease of these switches, but I would soon learn they were
Returning home in the car that night and watching a wonderfully
fierce electrical storm in the distance, Raymond started to tell me how
students at Wabash College view their president. Students here, he said,
take a proprietary interest in the president, and he elaborated for some
time. It was good advice then, and it has been good advice ever since.
Raymond says what he means. He doesnt clarify later on; he
doesnt explain later on; there is no backing or filling. As a result
of saying what he mean on the first try, he has created an enormous reservoir
of trust and good will that has helped him be extraordinarily effective
at the College.
Craig Dykstra of Lilly Endowment Inc. has worked closely with Raymond
on the Wabash Center since its founding in 1995.
Our work together on this wonderful project has been one of the
great joys of my professional life, Dykstra said. While the
time has seemed short, it has been extraordinarily fullseven exceedingly
fat years, during which hundreds of teachers have feasted
at a hearty and welcoming table and tasted the delicious flavors of the
fruits of the Spirit. The many you have served have eaten well and drunk
deeply of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,
gentleness, and self-control. And because of that, they became more confident,
less afraid, more attentive to their students, better professors of the
deepest truths entrusted to them to teach. And so, too, for me. In working
with you, in thinking with you, in watching and listening to you, I, too,
have received these same gifts of grace. I thank God for your good friendship
and for all the ways my life is better because of you.
Lucinda Huffaker, associate director at the Wabash Center until June,
when she succeeded Raymond as director, spoke of qualities in Williams
that she hopes to emulate.
The first would be clarity of vision, that capacity to imagine possibilities
and see past the present to a way things can be, Huffaker said.
A second quality Raymond models for me is the passion with which
he esteems the vocation of the teacher/scholar. His passion is part of
the driving force behind that inimitable work ethic that everyone identifies
with Raymond. A third is his ability to enlist people in a larger project
for the communal good, his skill in keeping everyone at the table when
trying to fashion a conversation about a better future.
ONE SUCH CONVERSATION WAS MY OWN INTRODUCTION to Raymond Williams. The
place was Cente 216, the room was packed with students and faculty, and
the subject of the moment was campus civility. After a couple of contentious
exchanges, Raymond spoke up.
We wouldnt be a lively institution if things like this didnt
come up, Raymond said. But in order to preserve that liveliness
and creativity, there have to be parameters of civic discourse.
Later, the subject of need-based scholarships was raised, and Raymond
spoke passionately about the Colleges continuing responsibility
to recruit students who are the first of their family to attend college;
he spoke of bringing in students with less than stellar academic records
and taking them farther than any other college could.
When I mentioned Raymonds words to a colleague, she said, Well,
of course. Thats close to Raymonds own journey.
Thats when I found out about the boy from Bluefield, West Virginia,
whose mother worked in a local department store and whose father was a
The elder Williams also played the banjo, as did his father before him.
Men of Raymond Williams integrity tend to pull other people together
in a community; they tend to pull all the pieces of their own lives together,
as well. Doing all youve read about here hasnt left much personal
time for Williams, and his priorities have always been God, family, and
college first. No time for music lessons or bringing forward the music
of the familys past for a new generation.
But as retirement opens a moment for such things, its not surprising
that hes learning to play the music he heard growing up in Bluefield.
My father, my grandfather, my uncle, they all played mountain music,
and I would dearly love to be able to do that, Raymond has said.
I could have picked that up like falling off a log when I was 10
or 11 years old. But if I had, I may never have made it out of West Virginia.
But he did make it out, to the benefit of Wabash College a thousand times
over. Theres something very right about Raymond Williamsa
man who said tradition is never dead, but is always thrust toward
the futurefinally taking time to learn his fathers music.
Theres something inherently just about a man who has labored so
long for this place, finally relaxing for a moment and playing that music
for his granddaughter and his wife on a cool autumn evening.Quotable Williams
Theres one way of posing an issue thats fairly simplistic:
its either/or. Thats the kind of simplicity that is characteristic
of culture wars. But to work through an issue with some sophistication
is generally to re-cast the question so that the question is richer, more
interesting, and hence more fruitful for creative solution than an either/or.
If you deal with an issue as a question of either/or, you can fall into
a power struggle very easily. If you approach an issue striving to re-phrase
the question in a way that can enrich the conversation, then you get a
question not of power, but the creativity of intellectual discourse and
the nature of the human community as people who communicate with one another.
And through that communication you create community and forward movement.
Its not chaos that brings forth creativity, its stability.
When youve been married to the same woman, worked in the same department,
been a part of the same community for so many years, then you can thrive,
then you can be creative, then you can travel around the world.
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