Professor of Life-Learning
by Susan Veatch Cantrell
July 21, 2004
by Susan Veatch Cantrell
Austin Brooks ’61 muddled through his undergraduate days at Wabash studying history and politics until botany professor Richard Laubengayer lit an intellectual fire under him in class. Then he offered Brooks a summer research job at Allee Woods that changed his major and his life.
“I appreciated his enthusiasm,” Brooks said several years ago. “Wabash became my home then. I got involved in things I’d never done: suddenly it was easy to get involved. It was the beginning for me. In every way I moved a great distance from where I started.”
Over 40 years later and ready to retire from Wabash, he is still moving, energized with curiosity about the world and compassion for its people. His career at Wabash was rich with invention and discovery.
A project Brooks began when John Bowman ’82, who is blind, was in his class, “typifies him,” says his collaborator, Crawfordsville artist Mary Early Johnson. He thought there was no reason a blind student should be deprived use of microscopes, so he created a way for Bowman to use them. Johnson remembers, “He was always thinking of the whole procedure. He learned the technology so we could make it work. His grasp was just remarkable.”
Everything he does seems to teach someone something. People look to him for information and inspiration because they know instinctively that he won’t let them down.
Eric Wetzel has taught in the Biology Department with Brooks since 1996, watching the senior professor all the while.
“I’m convinced that what we teach is really ‘life-learning,’” Wetzel says. “It’s summed up in Aus’s concern for his students: he asks about their family trips; he knows where they live; he goes to their fraternity dinners. Aus has a heart for students who are at the bottom of the scale. He doesn’t write them off, but he wants all of our students to work and learn and he’s not afraid to come down on them when they waste their time. ‘Come on!’ he goads them. Aus is working the students into a circle of whole life.”
Steve Birrer ’04 enters the Indiana University Medical School in August, in large measure, he says, because Professor Brooks taught his introductory biology course and lab.
“He expected us to be very thorough,” Birrer explains. “I got a bad grade on my first lab report, but it came back covered with suggestions from Dr. Brooks on how to correct my mistakes. He got me to the level I needed to get ready for med school. He really helped me understand how hard I needed to work.”
Brooks loves the water, either exploring what grows beside it, swimming in it, or canoeing on it. He is happy in a woods, be it Bavaria, the Boundary Waters, the Northwest, or Maine. Those interests were the impetus for a four-year series of six-week summer aquatic biology field trips that became legendary among Wabash science majors and their friends. Brooks and his friend and colleague, Professor Bill Doemel, had dreamed of such a project when a former student connected them with a foundation that offered a five-year grant for the work.
After a year’s preparation that included outfitting a 34-foot Avion trailer to their special needs, they took their first group west to Yellowstone National Park. Subsequent itineraries were Florida and the Keys, where their tents flooded in a storm and they spent $50 in quarters drying their clothes and sleeping bags the next day at a local laundromat; Wisconsin and the Boundary Waters, where they canoed 250 miles; the East Coast from the Baltimore Aquarium to the Adirondacks. Whenever possible, Brooks and Doemel lined up alumni experts in the local subject. On each trip students were required to cook every meal for the group. When they weren’t paddling, they were walking through swamps, across fields, and up and down mountains. Doemel says with a big smile, “A lot of growing up took place.”
Their students couldn’t agree more. Will Ludwig ’83 was a political science major when he applied for the Wisconsin trip. “I told them that I wanted to go for the fishing, but they let me in anyway,” he recalls. Ludwig worked hard on the academic subjects, but by his own account, his behavior was troublesome at times. But he had one stinging surprise. During a portage while he was directly ahead of Brooks and Doemel, he stepped into a bee’s nest and was stung continuously before he could get away.
“They thought I’d gone crazy because I screamed bloody murder and threw the canoe, but Aus had such patience.” Now a businessman and the father of eight-year-old Noah, Ludwig says, “Even today, every time my son and I go out fishing, I think of them. That Wisconsin trip was the greatest class I had at Wabash.”
“Dr. Brooks has a natural curiosity and sense of wonder. All that came through in how he directed us,” observed Christopher Halkides ’83, of the trip he took on the East Coast. Now a professor of biochemistry at the University of North Carolina, he remembers canoeing in the New Jersey Pine Barrens as both professors pointed out the flora and fauna along the way. He learned to camp and cook. Professor Brooks taught him to make sun tea and press seaweed into a beautiful shape. And the Phi Beta Kappa took to heart another valuable Brooks lesson: “When we were in the Chesapeake Bay looking at blue crabs, Dr. Brooks told us that the fisherman we were with knew as much as anyone else about the sea. He reminded us it isn’t necessary to go to college to know and understand things. It was a dream summer.”
Twenty years later Austin Brooks’ students still speak with the same admiration and affection. Brock Medsker ’05 was Professor Brooks’ intern last summer, working on a project in which he studied spring beauties all around the Wabash Arboretum to see if their genetic codes were different. Brooks was concerned that the new walkways through the Arboretum might have affected the make-up of the root systems of the tiny flowers.
“He was very kind,” remembers Medsker. “He and Mrs. Brooks invited us over for dinner and took us canoeing on Sugar Creek. He’d put in long days in class, stay late to help guys with their lab work, and then show up at a basketball game in the evening. It’s really good for students to see an alum who loves Wabash that much.”
Lucy Brooks, who is retiring this year from her position as Director of the Quantitative Skills Center, points out that teaching at Wabash has been her husband’s only job. He has inspired hundreds of young men in the last 38 years with his presence.
Senior Marc Magnusson, another Brooks summer research intern, says what all of them have felt: “He is everything a Wabash professor should be. In class and out, he is always there for us. He’s the best of Wabash.”