Wabash Moments: Our poet . . . our prophet

  March 30, 2004

Prof. Bill Placher pays tribute to friend and mentor Don Baker.

"I was a student at Wabash in the late 1960s during the middle of the war in Vietnam when Don was not only our poet, but our prophet," LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities Bill Placher '70 said of Don Baker during a tribute to the late professor and Wabash poet-in-residence. Current Wabash poet and English Department Chair Marc Hudson orchestrated a gathering of Wabash legends to honor one of their own. Professors emeritus Bert Stern, Hall Peebles H'63, and Vic Powell H'55, along with professors Tobey Herzog and Peter Frederick and poet Tam Lin Neville spoke of Baker and read his poetry.

And Baker's daughter, Alison Baker Rilling (right), was the honored guest, taking a snapshot of the crowd, offering her own reflections on her father and his poetry, and bringing the next generation of Baker teaching into the Wabash classroom. The O. Henry Prize-winning author joined professor Charli Valdes's creative writing class, where she answered student questions about her own work and the Atlantic Monthly article based on her father's last days. That evening, when a student asked shyly if she would look at his work, the author, ever her father's daughter, encouraged him to send it to her.

Hall Peebles told the gathering the story of how Baker came to write the College's statement of purpose, which has since been edited into the College's mission statement.

Rob Alexander '05 thanks author Alison Baker Rilling for her encouragement.     

"That's well and good," Peebles said, "But I think something is missing by removing Don's final line, 'judge thoughtfully in a difficult world.' Because the wonder of Don Baker is that he knew damned well this is a very difficult world, but he didn't give in to it; he fought it. And he knew that if you don't give in to it, you can make it a little better. It's difficult, but darn it all, it can be a better world. Don Baker made the world, and Wabash, a better place."