Spring 2008: From Center Hall• July 10, 2008
When I was attending the University of Chicago and friends would visit my hometown with me, they were always surprised at how large it was. This amazed me. Dixon, Illinois, 100 miles west of Chicago, is about the size of Crawfordsville, tiny compared to their hometowns of Chicago, New York, Seattle, Honolulu, or San Diego. But my college friends would say, "Pat, from your description, we thought Dixon would be smaller—maybe one stoplight and a few tree-lined streets."
To me, Dixon was a little town. I knew my town completely, and because I could encompass it, it seemed quite small.
Dixon was mine like no other place ever will be. I owned the place; I say this without arrogance, but with real pride. My family was not a prominent Dixon name. We lived in a small house in a modest neighborhood, but that didn’t matter. Every day this little town lay open to me and my friends.
I knew the geography of Dixon better than I know the back of my hand. Cut by the mighty Rock River with prairie to the south and rolling woodlands to the north, downtown Dixon was perched on steep Galena Avenue on the South Side, bustling with two movie theaters, department stores, clothes shops, restaurants, and the public library. Every day I would cross that river to St. Mary’s Grade School, mostly by bus, sometimes on foot or in cars coming home late from basketball practice. During the summer when I was 13, my best friend Paul Kopeck and I would ride our bikes back and forth over the two miles between our houses several times a day. The streets were ours. We wandered across the city, into the wilds of fields and forests and riverbanks on "hikes," a special kind of aimless adventure—a purposeless, carefree exploration of our native land.
This may sound like mere nostalgia—the sort of I-walked-to-school-six-miles-in-the-snow story that young people, even in my day, even in Dixon, laughed at oldsters for telling. But the little town that lives in my memory shaped everything about me. The saying "It takes a village to raise a child" is often taken to mean it takes a community of people to care for a child. But I see the truth of that saying differently. It takes a village to raise a child because only in a village, a small town, can a child come to know the world fully and completely. Anything larger is too big to comprehend, to find and assert one’s place.
The small town in American culture is often portrayed as a stifling and constricting place, the origin of free spirits who escape to the liberty of the city as soon as they can. But the small town is, at its heart, a place of freedom, an empowering community that teaches dreams, not only by providing safety and support, but by giving young people a knowable space. Dixon, for me, was the perfect ground to encourage independence, daring, dreams, and responsibility.
Exploring Dixon was not always safe. The train tracks were not the wisest place to hike, and the ice on the river we loved to explore sometimes cracked. More than once, my older brother Mike threw me into a ditch and out of the way of a coming train, and I remember walking three miles back to town with my wet jeans freezing stiff after I crashed through the ice. I was lucky. Coop and Kopacz, my buddies, were there to pull me out.
When we were 12 we played army in the slag heaps and quarried cliffs behind the cement plant, throwing dirt clod grenades to burst above the heads of our friends. And years later, when my friends Gary Lee and George returned from Vietnam, we climbed those slag heaps again in the middle of the night to throw firecrackers into the darkness and talk about everything but the war and its sorrow.
As I learned the geography of Dixon, I grew to understand the sociology, political science, and psychology of my town, as well. I could tell you who lived in what house, what they did for a living, their personalities, and whether they minded you cutting through their yards on the way to high school. We knew one another, and through that knowing webs of responsibility and connection grew across generations and across a small city of 15,000 folks.
In high school, we were big-time jocks. We would walk downtown on Saturday afternoon and we were famous. I, by then a mere track star, basked in the reflected glory of my basketball-playing buddies. It sounds so quaint now—to remember grown men popping out of barbershops to congratulate my friends on Friday night’s games—but we knew this town, and this town knew us. Our town had a stake in what we did and who we were.
Sometimes I yearned for a certain anonymity. The last thing I wanted to hear when some adult corralled a group of us doing something stupid was, "Aren’t you Red White’s boy?" But if the scrutiny was sometimes hard to take, the awareness that my life, my behavior, and my character mattered gave me a sense of responsibility that any Wabash man can understand when they run into their professors at noon after sleeping in and missing an 8 a.m. class.
Small places like Dixon, like Crawfordsville, matter. To worry about the fate of small places in the world is not mere nostalgia or romanticism. It reveals an understanding of what the human spirit needs to thrive. Whether our village is a small town, or a neighborhood in a huge city, or a small college with an international student body, the human imagination thrives on the local, the up-close, the personal.
Shakespeare writes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream,
"…as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name."
As the act of writing gives place and name to the poet’s most fantastic dreams, our small places provide a home for our best selves. Without a local habitation, words like honor, duty, character, and being a gentleman remain just airy nothings. It takes a village not only to nurture, but also to give the child a world he can embrace.
Wabash immersion trips take students from our small town to some of the largest cities in the world. But these are cities seen up-close, with the intimate gaze of the student reared on a small campus, learning how to meet the world in an attentive encounter. Travel alone does not always result in learning. One can travel to foreign countries with closed eyes and heart, becoming not one lick smarter, more tolerant, or more educated—just passing through. But Wabash students dive deep into these immersion experiences. This spring, walking through Kavousi, Crete, with Professor Leslie Day as a guide, students were able to imagine the city occupied again with people who crowded the streets. An archaeologist who has worked this site for decades, Professor Day showed them, as she puts it, "how one can wrest meaning out of the most apparently insignificant details of architecture and pottery." In cities large or small, ancient or present, to understand a place is to know it as a village, as someone’s hometown.
When our daughter Molly spent a year in Ireland at the Saint Mary’s College program there, she lived and moved through Maynooth, a small town of 8,500 citizens. Having learned to see the world through eyes trained in attention to detail and the closeness of human relations at her own small college, Molly walked Maynooth as I had once traversed Dixon, finding her own paths, her own shortcuts, getting to know its people and its places, and finally owning it as her new hometown.
The experience changed her visibly. The young woman who returned to us was braver, confident, and more at home in the world.
This is the power of coming to know the world face-to-face in small places.
I’m told that some Wabash men wince when someone refers to us as "a small liberal arts college in a small Mid-western town." But that human scale is our strength. That is the intimacy that empowers us to learn like Little Giants.
Whether they come from big cities or small towns, from far away or near, from Nepal or Shanghai, Bangladesh or Beirut, Los Angeles or Tipton, Wabash men are shaped by Wabash and Crawfordsville, this little college in this little town. They learn to walk the campus as the place they own and are responsible for, and to travel out into the town of Crawfordsville and the wider world beyond with eyes made ready to see the world as a knowable space—a place that has a claim on their attention, their loyalty, and their affections. They come to own the places they live, and as they think critically, act responsibly, lead effectively, and live humanely in those new hometowns, they reshape the world.
Contact President White at: firstname.lastname@example.org