Raymond and Lois Williams with granddaughter Cydney.

“Teaching in class is where all the history and tradition of the world come together with the future.”

Click here for more "Quotable" Williams.


Summer/Fall 2002

Raymond Williams:
A Father's Music

by Steve Charles

The most important thing I know about Raymond Williams’ retirement is that he’s learning to play the banjo.

That seems an insignificant thing in the life of a man who taught, counseled, and mentored Wabash students for 37 years, is a leading scholar on the Swaminaryan sect of Hinduism, and who founded the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion.

But when about 60 of Williams’ colleagues, family members, and friends gathered in Detchon International Hall to honor him on the occasion of his retirement from Wabash,, career accomplishments were mentioned far less often than were words like counselor, advisor, honesty, , perseverance, fidelity, and integrity.

My point about this West Virginia boy who becomes an internationally respected scholar and then learns to play the banjo upon his retirement has a lot to do with that last word. First, here’s what those who’ve worked with Raymond closely for many years had to say:

“I took one course with Dr. Williams—the Anthropology of Religion in Africa—probably the best and most challenging, course I’ve ever taken in college or graduate school,” said Sam McCrimmon ’99, the first intern to work at the Wabash Center. “He instilled in me a great interest in both anthropology and Africa that lasted long after the course was over.

“Here at Wabash we talk a lot about the Gentleman’s Rule, and as students we try to live it. But Raymond Williams—his class, character, and graciousness—is the living example of the Gentleman’s Rule.”

“I belong to a special group of teachers who owe their careers to Raymond Williams,” Wabash Professor of Philosophy and Religion Steve Webb ’83 said. “You can think of us as the Raymond Williams platoon, and you can think of Raymond as our sergeant. He was kind, yet firm, and he had a way of being incredibly encouraging while also holding us to the highest of standards.
“Raymond knew our weaknesses, but he did not cater to them. Instead, he looked for our strengths. He would claim, I suppose, that he merely saw our best selves, but I think he was creating those selves as much as he was finding them.”

Former dean of the College and professor emeritus Vic Powell H’55 recalled Williams’ lighter side, reading a letter Raymond wrote after he noticed then Dean Powell glancing at his watch as faculty members were picking up their mail in Center Hall.

The convincing tongue-in-cheek diatribe concludes with a threat to “invite a member of the Teamsters Union to organize the faculty and to protect the downtrodden.”

Vic Powell smiled broadly. “The faculty is losing its most watchful and vigorous defender of faculty status,” he said. Then he pointed out a fact few in the room realized.

“When the Board of Trustees decided to honor Eli Lilly by establishing a scholarship in his name, they asked Raymond to investigate such programs in other colleges and to suggest a direction for the program at Wabash. The Lilly Scholarships we have today are in large part a result of Raymond’s work.”
That same role as advisor and counselor was the focus of President Andy Ford’s remarks.

“Raymond has been an extraordinary counselor to trustees and alumni, current students, and everyone in between,” Ford said. He recalled visiting Trustee Barney Hollett and his wife, Fran, with Raymond and Lois.

“I marveled at how easily Raymond switched roles from minister to friend, to colleague, to teacher, and back to minister again. I was surprised at the depth and ease of these switches, but I would soon learn they were the norm.

“Returning home in the car that night and watching a wonderfully fierce electrical storm in the distance, Raymond started to tell me how students at Wabash College view their president. Students here, he said, take a proprietary interest in the president, and he elaborated for some time. It was good advice then, and it has been good advice ever since.

“Raymond says what he means. He doesn’t clarify later on; he doesn’t explain later on; there is no backing or filling. As a result of saying what he mean on the first try, he has created an enormous reservoir of trust and good will that has helped him be extraordinarily effective at the College.”

Craig Dykstra of Lilly Endowment Inc. has worked closely with Raymond on the Wabash Center since its founding in 1995.

“Our work together on this wonderful project has been one of the great joys of my professional life,” Dykstra said. “While the time has seemed short, it has been extraordinarily full—seven exceedingly “fat” years, during which hundreds of teachers have feasted at a hearty and welcoming table and tasted the delicious flavors of the fruits of the Spirit. The many you have served have eaten well and drunk deeply of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And because of that, they became more confident, less afraid, more attentive to their students, better professors of the deepest truths entrusted to them to teach. And so, too, for me. In working with you, in thinking with you, in watching and listening to you, I, too, have received these same gifts of grace. I thank God for your good friendship and for all the ways my life is better because of you.”

Lucinda Huffaker, associate director at the Wabash Center until June, when she succeeded Raymond as director, spoke of qualities in Williams that she hopes to emulate.

“The first would be clarity of vision, that capacity to imagine possibilities and see past the present to a way things can be,” Huffaker said. “A second quality Raymond models for me is the passion with which he esteems the vocation of the teacher/scholar. His passion is part of the driving force behind that inimitable work ethic that everyone identifies with Raymond. A third is his ability to enlist people in a larger project for the communal good, his skill in keeping everyone at the table when trying to fashion a conversation about a better future.”

ONE SUCH CONVERSATION WAS MY OWN INTRODUCTION to Raymond Williams. The place was Cente 216, the room was packed with students and faculty, and the subject of the moment was campus civility. After a couple of contentious exchanges, Raymond spoke up.

“We wouldn’t be a lively institution if things like this didn’t come up,” Raymond said. “But in order to preserve that liveliness and creativity, there have to be parameters of civic discourse.”

Later, the subject of need-based scholarships was raised, and Raymond spoke passionately about the College’s continuing responsibility to recruit students who are the first of their family to attend college; he spoke of bringing in students with less than stellar academic records and “taking them farther” than any other college could.

When I mentioned Raymond’s words to a colleague, she said, “Well, of course. That’s close to Raymond’s own journey.”

That’s when I found out about the boy from Bluefield, West Virginia, whose mother worked in a local department store and whose father was a flour miller.

The elder Williams also played the banjo, as did his father before him.

Men of Raymond Williams’ integrity tend to pull other people together in a community; they tend to pull all the pieces of their own lives together, as well. Doing all you’ve read about here hasn’t left much personal time for Williams, and his priorities have always been God, family, and college first. No time for music lessons or bringing forward the music of the family’s past for a new generation.

But as retirement opens a moment for such things, it’s not surprising that he’s learning to play the music he heard growing up in Bluefield.

“My father, my grandfather, my uncle, they all played mountain music, and I would dearly love to be able to do that,” Raymond has said. “I could have picked that up like falling off a log when I was 10 or 11 years old. But if I had, I may never have made it out of West Virginia.”

But he did make it out, to the benefit of Wabash College a thousand times over. There’s something very right about Raymond Williams—a man who said “tradition is never dead, but is always thrust toward the future”—finally taking time to learn his father’s music. There’s something inherently just about a man who has labored so long for this place, finally relaxing for a moment and playing that music for his granddaughter and his wife on a cool autumn evening.Quotable Williams

“There’s one way of posing an issue that’s fairly simplistic: it’s either/or. That’s the kind of simplicity that is characteristic of culture wars. But to work through an issue with some sophistication is generally to re-cast the question so that the question is richer, more interesting, and hence more fruitful for creative solution than an either/or. If you deal with an issue as a question of either/or, you can fall into a power struggle very easily. If you approach an issue striving to re-phrase the question in a way that can enrich the conversation, then you get a question not of power, but the creativity of intellectual discourse and the nature of the human community as people who communicate with one another. And through that communication you create community and forward movement.
“It’s not chaos that brings forth creativity, it’s stability. When you’ve been married to the same woman, worked in the same department, been a part of the same community for so many years, then you can thrive, then you can be creative, then you can travel around the world.”


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