Skip to Main Content


You Always Felt Welcome

Printer-friendly version | Email this article

You always felt welcome

When Wabash students say they prize their relationships with their professors, new Dean of the College Gary Phillips knows exactley what they mean. His own faculty mentor was a Wabash man. — by Brandon Stewart ’08

IT WAS 35 YEARS AGO, but Dean of the College Gary Phillips still smiles when he recalls the times he and his fellow students spent with a professor who was always willing to engage and challenge them.

"He was very quiet…never personally forceful…he always had this wit about him, a kind of careful, easygoing British humor that he learned to refine and hone very sharply.You had to listen carefully to his voice."

The professor was Sheldon Vanauken, who taught both history and literature at Phillips’ alma mater, Lynchberg College.

"He had this just little ramshackle of a place.The bigger part of the house was the garage where he kept his MG parked. He had a great MG," Phillips recalls. "The house was a place where you could walk in and sit on the sofa. He always sat in this recliner, and he had coffee, and he would smoke and you always felt welcome, men and women alike.You always felt welcome."

Phillips couldn’t help but talk about his faculty mentor when he interviewed for his current position at Wabash last spring. When he mentioned Vanauken during a session in Lovell Lecture Hall, several professors began murmuring among themselves.That’s when Phillips learned that Sheldon Vanauken, in addition to his degrees from Yale and Oxford, was also a son of Wabash, Class of 1938.

PHILLIPS MET VANAUKEN while an undergraduate in the late 1960s, before the professor gained some fame with his book A Severe Mercy, which chronicled his correspondence with C.S. Lewis. "Van" taught one of Phillips’ first history courses at Lynchberg, and the dean recalls a particularly formative moment during a class discussion of the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

"I gave this not very thoughtful response," Phillips recalls, "When Van asked the question, ‘Why is there increased U.S. involvement?’ I said, ‘Because the North Vietnamese attacked.’"

Vanauken pressed him: ‘Well, what’s your proof of that?’"

With growing embarrassment, Phillips answered that the newspapers were reporting the attack, which led Vanauken to question the reliability of that information.

"As a recently graduated high school student, I wasn't really used to giving a thoughful answer," Phillips admits. "I was always right enough that teachers didn't press me harder and harder." His encounter with Vanauken was a powerful lesson on the importance of always seeking the truth.

"From that I learned that you just can't blow smoke. You've got to do the work; you've got to actually be able to think. The next time I answered a question, I had evidence.

IT WAS THAT LIFE-CHANGING MOMENT that Phillips recounted to the Wabash faculty during his interview last spring.

"I was identifying the transformative effects of working one-on-one with faculty or having a faculty member who has a sense od critical thinking and moral responsibility and how those two things went together," Phillips recalls. "I got my first taste of that in that American History class taught by Vanauken."

The experience also provided anecdotal evidence for Phillips that a college needs both "really good students" and "really good faculty."

"Because when those two things get together—a faculty person who is an expert and a student who has a hunger—sparks fly and magic happens," Phillips says. And the sparks that flew during those early class periods made Vanauken a powerful mentor for Phillips and many of his peers.

    "Whether you agreed with his politics or not—and there were plenty of Lynchberg students who disagreed with his politics—he didn't withdraw that character of his engagement.

    'Van's capacity to talk and to engage and to teach students from all walks of life, from all political persuasions, is a marker of what I think to be the desire on this campus as well," Phillips says. "Not afraid to press the hard questions. That was his style.

"I can easily see the Wabash influence there," he reflects, looking out his office window toward the mall and the Wabash Chapel. "He taught students—he taught their brains, he taught their hearts, he taught their souls.




—by Brandon Stewart ’08

The man who wrote A Severe Mercy,a powerful narrative of love, death, and conversion to Christianity, once flew his plane above the Butler University stadium, dumping out cards with the words "WABASH ALWAYS FIGHTS!" emblazoned across the front.

Although he received a scolding from Dean Kendall at the next Chapel period and had his pilot’s license revoked by the FAA, he mentions in one letter that Kendall later admitted to being "secretly amused" by the prank.

It was at Wabash that Vanauken met Jean Davis, or "Davy," as he called her. Fearing the disapproval of their parents, the two eloped. For the rest of their time together, they would hone their great love for each other, building what they described as "the shining barrier."

After Commencement, Vanauken worked at various jobs, then joined the Navy and was stationed in Hawaii. In a letter to Dean Kendall dated April 5, 1942, he recounted his harrowing experience as an eyewitness to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Vanauken went on to study at Oxford, where he met Lewis Salter, who later became a beloved President of Wabash. Vanauken claimed his prodding led Salter to come to Wabash.

He struck up another friendship at Oxford, this time with author/ professor C. S. Lewis. Through the transcripts of their letters published in Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy,we begin to see the bourgeoning awakening of Christianity in the Wabash grad. He and Jean began to explore Christianity more closely. "Thank God, if there is a God, we said, that we are at least looking seriously and honestly at this thing," he wrote.

"If our Christian friends—nuclear physicists, historians, and able scholars in other fields—can believe in christ, if C. S. Lewis can believe in Christ, we must, at least, weigh it very seriously."

Though Jean converted sooner than her husband, Vanauken was drawn to the Christian faith.

"I feel the nobility of the Christian story," he wrote, "I would like to believe it. I want to know God—if he is knowable."

Lewis provided comfort and guidance. "But I think you are already in the meshes of the net!" Lewis wrote to his young friend. "The Holy spirit is after you . I doubt if you'll get away!" Vanauken was "caught" soon afterward.

The couple bid farewell to their Oxford friends and returned to the U.S. and to Lynchburg College, where Vanauken would teach for the rest of his life. At one point, Dean Kendall asked him to come back and teach English at Wabash, but personal tragedy derailed those plans. Jean became ill, and she died in 1955.

Much of A Severe Mercy, focuses on Vanauken's struggle to come to terms with losing his beloved—a struggle aided by his increasing faith and correspondence with Lewis. He never remarried and eventually converted to Catholicism in 1981.

Upon his death in 1996, a colleague said of Vanauken's passing: "It is not possible to mourn a man who was so absolutely certain in his faith."