Some Little Giantby Jacob Stump '11, Bachelor Features Editor • December 4, 2008
In the final moments of his speech at Wabash College’s Sesquicentennial observance, then just Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion Bill Placher said, "Walking around this campus at night with a new fallen snow, I always fall in love with it all over again." On Monday, as the season’s first snow fell on campus, Wabash fell in love once again with a man it had fallen in love with many times before, a man who loved her most dearly and truly, and who dedicated his life’s passion to her integrity.
William C. Placher, the LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities, passed away over the weekend at the age of 60.
"He was one of the legends," President of the College Patrick White said, "and he was one of the legends two weeks ago. He was the moral and intellectual center of this College. Bill is going to be remembered forever around this campus."
On sabbatical from the College this year, Professor Placher was writing a commentary on the Gospel of Mark while serving a one-year appointment as the Kilian McDonnell Writer-In-Residence at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. The task, writing about the God he knew and loved, was nothing new for Professor Placher, whose internationally recognized scholarship included thirteen books and countless essays, articles, and reviews.
"Bill wanted to write always so that the intelligent laymen could understand what he wrote," said Raymond Williams, the LaFollette Distinguished Prof. in the Humanities Emeritus. "He thought so clearly, though, that I think he would have naturally written that way."
Longtime chair of the Wabash religion department, Dr. Williams was in his second year of teaching at the College when Professor Placher matriculated. From Professor Placher’s first months as a teenage student on campus, Wabash knew he was special.
"He was absolutely stunning as a student, and everybody was impressed by him," Dr. Williams said. "When he was a sophomore and was deciding what department to major in, it was as close as the college faculty came to being combatants. The religion professors were saying, ‘We’ll offer you two future Phi Beta Kappas and three other majors if you’ll let him major in our department’, because he was so good at everything. There was nothing he couldn’t have done."
Dr. Williams said that the quality of religion majors went up significantly when Professor Placher chose to major in religion, and that, as he was in his later life, "he was quiet then as he’s always been – non-aggressive, non-confrontational, non-combatant. So sometimes you didn’t know what a powerful engine was running in the room until he’d ask a question, or you’d read his examination papers."
"What I soon learned in courses he was in was to read his exam first, and then you’d know what might be possible for other students to have learned from the class. You’d set the top with him, knowing that’s the top, and then you’d read everyone else’s and figure out where they were in relation to that."
That same brilliance that led Wabash faculty to good-natured combat over which department could claim a wavy haired, spectacled student from Peoria, Illinois, was of the same charm that attracted so many students to the classrooms of the celebrated and cherished scholar. His teaching was centered on his students, so much that they would have to press him, and often with little success, to find out just what his opinion was on a theological dilemma or literary masterpiece. It was never that Professor Placher didn’t know; it was always that he cared more for what his students thought.
"Placher was a genius at having that kind of engagement with students", President White said, "because he was really so profoundly well-educated that he didn’t have to display that education at every moment. He had such a capacious and welcoming heart that he let a lot of people in, and it was never that he was just scoring debating points in a conversation. It’s as though it was never about Placher; it was about the students."
Dr. Nadine Pence, Director of the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, said Placher’s openness was not just reserved for students, but his colleagues as well.
"Bill was one of those human beings who seemed so at home with what he said and who he was that you never felt he had to press himself upon the situation," Pence said. "He would listen attentively, and then come up with these wonderfully wise comments which would both capture the sense of the conversation and move it forward to consider the next steps."
Clay Robbins ‘79, president of Lilly Endowment and Wabash religion major, spoke of Professor Placher as a legendary teacher and mentor.
"On learning of Bill’s death, it occurred to me that superlatives should be reserved for men like Bill Placher. His faith, intellect, character, demeanor and passion for teaching all were extraordinary", Robbins said.
Of the many people that Professor Placher welcomed into his heart and who held him close was his former classmate and now Wabash professor of religion David Blix ’70, "among the lucky few", Professor Blix said, who heard and saw Professor Placher’s now immortalized 1970 commencement speech. Professor Blix recalled their first meeting. He was sitting during his first month on campus in the lounge of Lilly Library, reading Jean Paul Sartre’s "Existentialism and Human Emotions," and, as he said, "understanding barely a word of it, and panicking."
"I looked up," he continued, "and there was someone else reading this book – a fellow sufferer – and at that moment he saw me, and he got up and came over. Now, he denied forever that he actually said this, but I’m sure my memory is right, that he greeted me with, ‘Isn’t this the stupidest thing you’ve ever read in your life?’ Then he stuck out his hand, introduced himself and said ‘Hi, my name is Bill Placher.’"
The friendship started then would prove one of Wabash legend. Visiting Professor of Religion William Cook ’66, who filled this year the hole in the religion department that Professor Placher’s sabbatical left, recounted Professor Placher’s early days as a Wabash student.
"He became a legend almost immediately. I remember well when Bill was a senior, because a senior I knew from the Lambda Chi house moaned that in any other year he would be the top religion major, but in 1970 he was only #3. Of course, #1 and #2 were Placher and Blix."
Professor Cook gave Professor Placher his first tour of campus in the spring of 1966, which means, as he quickly mentions, that he "has known Bill Placher longer than anyone on the Wabash campus!" Their relationship, though, did not end with the tour, nor did it when they went their separate ways, as he has used Professor Placher’s "History of Christian Theology" book in a class he teaches called "Christian Thought" for almost 30 years.
Beginning his Dante course on Tuesday with a brief eulogy on the passing of Professor Placher, Professor Cook asserted that even for students who didn’t know Professor Placher, they have benefited from him being a Wabash man for his entire adult life.
"Bill Placher set the standard," he said. "And Wabash was a good place when Bill Placher came. He inherited a great tradition, but I can also tell you that what the greatest faculty members do is that they take all the greatness of the tradition they inherit and then they move that tradition forward. They don’t settle for what they receive, and I think that defines what Bill Placher’s life at Wabash, spanning a course of 42 years, was all about."
Just as students who had not the privilege of sitting across from Professor Placher at a classroom table can benefit from what he invested of himself into the College, so can they benefit from his example, that presence of brilliance, humility, simplicity, and honesty all realized in one man.
"We all kind of wanted to be like Placher," President White said, "and there is some way in which he was saying to us all the time that the only way you can be like Placher is to be as coherent in your own life and your own thinking and your own writing. Somehow it’s being so centered that you don’t have to be worried about yourself, so that you can be worried about giving to others. That was my sense of him."
A lover of Chinese paintings, the poetry of T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, baroque classical music, old gothic architecture, the finest Laphroaig Scotch, and playing jazz on piano, Professor Placher was influential and devotedly active to the College as the de facto organizer of the LaFollette lecture, longtime faculty adviser for "Callimachus," organizer of the Christmastime annual Wabash Festival of Lessons and Carols, devoted member and leader of the Wabash Avenue Presbyterian Church, editor-at-large of Christian Century, and Chair of the Advisory Committee of the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion. But his influence is impossible to contain in the titles attributed to him.
"It’s immeasurable," Dean of the College Gary Phillips said. "The kind of network of scholarship, of religious connections that he established through a lifetime of work, networked Wabash to places around the world that we are simply unaware of."
One perk of that influence for past and present Wabash religion professors was that they would often be asked at conferences if they knew "Bill Plah-cher", with the ‘ch’ pronounced softly as in "charm".
"I used to be glad when people at professional meetings would mispronounce his name," Dr. Williams said, "because then we could say, ‘Well, it’s really Placher, and he’s my colleague at Wabash College.’ My colleague, at Wabash College. They would be so impressed."
Professor Placher was in his 34th year of teaching at Wabash, and his loyalty to the College ran deep. He received invitations from "virtually everywhere", Dr. Williams said, to be on their faculty, but his professorship remained with the College.
"One time," Dr. Williams said, "I was asked by a dean of a Ph.D granting institution in religion what I had on Bill Placher. He said, ‘I’ve tried to get him twice to come to my institution to teach, and he won’t even agree to come and talk to us.’ I told him I had a great big rope tied around his waist. As chair of the religion department, I always thought that my greatest contribution to Wabash College was to keep Bill Placher happy and here."
Apart from his appointed leadership positions, Professor Placher impacted students, colleagues, and those apart from the College in ways that will continue to inspirit them and be cherished by them in his absence. As Chair of the Advisory Committee for the Wabash Center, he was consulted on every decision the Center made and, as Dr. Williams said, "probably there are very few decisions made at the College during his tenure when he wasn’t consulted."
Yet being so revered and of such high intellect put not one prideful or selfish motivation in Professor Placher’s heart. Reverend John Van Nuys of Wabash Avenue Presbyterian Church recounted how Professor Placher calmed the nervousness the new pastor felt at first realizing that each Sunday he would have such a great mind sitting on one of his pews.
"I thought, ‘Yikes! That’s like signing on to be Dale Earnhart’s chauffeur. How could anyone be good enough to drive for him?’ When I arrived to be the pastor, I told Bill that he should be the one preaching to me. Bill laughed and said, ‘No. I am the one who needs a pastor. I’m glad God brought you here.’"
Wabash can forever be glad that God brought William Placher to its campus, even during a grieving week of flags flying half-mast, even while, as President White said, "it’s hard to imagine this place without Placher."
"It would be tough to imagine this place with Placher retired, but to have Placher gone, there’s a fear that the light has gone out. And yet as I say that I can see him laughing, hear him laughing at my saying that with his great bellowing laugh, and the laughter isn’t out of a sense that he wouldn’t recognize his own role. I think Placher understood what it meant to be Placher. At the same time, it came so much out of who he is, and who he wanted to be, and it’s kind of like a great gift of love. Wabash was the center of his world. It was where he gave his life. That’s what makes it so hard to imagine him gone."
On Tuesday night, as the season’s first snow continued to cover the campus white, more than 60 students and a few professors gathered around the Senior Bench to pay respect to the man who, however much they didn’t deserve it, paid daily respect to their ideas and ambitions. At 10:30 pm the group started the first verse of "Old Wabash," and, as the last chorus faded, the snow stilled and the crowd stood silent. Neither word nor movement was made, as in that silence a love was coming back all over again.
"Some Africans refer to some who have died as "the living dead," Dr. Williams said. "A person who is remembered by name and story in the community remains part of the community as the ‘living dead.’ I think that Bill’s impact on individuals and institutions will be such that for generations he will be a part of the Wabash story. People will look back and say, ‘Well, why was Wabash so good?’ And if I were there to answer them, I would say, ‘Bill Placher.’"