Winter 2008: From the Editor

April 9, 2008

My great grandfather Tom Charles was the youngest son of a coal miner, whose family left the Rhondda Valley of Wales for America because his mother was determined that none of her children would work in a hole.
She believed something in the soul got stunted in that darkness, and she’d seen enough of it as a temperance worker in Pontypridd.

So in 1862 she sent her husband off to America, followed him a year later with four kids, and took the family all the way to the sun-washed Kansas prairie. "This is paradise," she said when she first saw the White Rock Creek Valley where the family homestead still thrives.

Seventy years later her son Tom would help establish in New Mexico what is arguably the brightest national monument in the United States—the White Sands.

He wasn’t looking to make history. He had moved to the territory because doctors said that dry climate was the only chance his wife had to live to raise their four kids. But when Rachel died of tuberculosis and he needed something to believe in, the sands were there.

Gypsum, actually. More powder than sand. To most people, it was 275 square miles of wasteland in the god-forsaken Chihuahuan Desert with a limited potential for surface mining.

But Tom saw "beauty and splendor in the alabaster dunes"—an ocean storm captured in time and sculpted in white, with waves you could run up and down. Solitude to be found in every valley.

A stirring silence.

He promoted the place in letters to state and federal officials, not stopping until his ideas reached the desk of President Herbert Hoover. He wrote about and photographed it for National Geographic. He gave tours to anyone who would get in his car. He sponsored town picnics and playdays at the dunes. He invited children from the blind school there, where powdery soft hills and the lack of obstacles gave them a place they could run and play with abandon.

Just as his mother had envisioned a new life for her children out of the darkness and into the vast light of the American plains, he held to his vision and did not relent. Strains of this entrepreneurial spirit show up occasionally in my family, from my great grandfather Tom to my musician/songwriter brother Don, and it intrigues me. It does seem "a little like walking on water," as Don has written. "You just have to know where all the stones are."

This issue of Wabash Magazine is about men with that way of seeing, whether they are changing the landscape in business, medicine, science, the arts, or their neighborhoods.

We asked 18 Wabash men, including the guy who created the Happy Meal, the scientist who invented the ion propulsion system for deep space probes, and the archaeologist who resurrected the Nemean Games in Greece: What is the most important thing you know about being an entrepreneur?

We asked an attorney who represents entrepreneurs, the banker who became a provider of affordable, sustainable urban housing, and the composer who co-founded a cooperative to promote new music: What does Wabash do—or need to do—to instill this entrepreneurial spirit in our students?

Their opinions are as unpredictable as their career paths, but a few common themes emerge—drive, delayed gratification, and resilience among them. As Kiefer Mendenhall ’67 says of the incubation period of his Aspen Mulling Spice business: "I don’t know anyone who would have gone through the infancy of this; it was just so awful."

I’ve heard similar stories about my great grandfather, who was nurturing an insurance agency and dairy farm at the same time he was campaigning for the White Sands to become a national monument. His kids didn’t get a lot of playtime, either.

But in 2002, after a ceremony in Alamogordo honoring his work almost 60 years after his death, four generations of Tom Charles’ descendants relaxed and played on those dunes he’d worked so hard to protect. I watched my children, nieces, nephews, and cousins running up and sledding down those alabaster waves. I wondered then if my great grandfather could have possibly imagined such a day when he first glimpsed this gypsum field more than a century ago.

Now I realize that was exactly what he had seen. Such vision is a gift of the entrepreneurial spirit.

Thanks for reading.

Steve Charles | Editor
charless@wabash.edu

 


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