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Pat White: An Appreciation

by Paul Harder
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(from a Chapel Talk delivered in celebration of the inauguration of Pat White as president of Wabash)

Thanks for the introduction and thanks to the Sphinx Club for the honor of inviting me to stand here in front of you. When I got this invitation, Pat and Chris told me that the Wabash students wanted to know about what Pat was like when he was like you, in college, trying to figure out who you want to be and what you need to do to get there.

This has a been a great pleasure to me. It’s given me a chance to think back over 40 years of friendship, to reflect on what Pat has meant to me and what I hope he comes to mean to you during his time in guiding Wabash college. Pat and I were part of a group of seven close friends who met in the first week of college and have remained close for 40 years. All of us will be here for the big event on Saturday. I think of myself of representing this group of friends in talking to you this morning.

Let’s start with Pat in college
We all arrived at college from very different parts of the U.S. The University of Chicago was a very special place to us – a place where we found people who were like us, since many of us weren’t exactly in the mainstream where we had gone to high school.  For us, very intimidating experience. The College at Chicago not that friendly, you have to make your own way. So there we were, small group of young men in an intellectually stimulating campus environment. None of us had girl friends although some of us tried to pretend we did. Sound familiar? This is where the first glimmers of Wabash can be found. Among this group of people from all over the country, there was one of us from a small semi-rural town in the Midwest, out in the plains to the West of Chicago. This was Dixon, IL a mythical place as Pat lovingly described it. Home of the best high school sports teams (Pat was a jock), the cutest girls, the best views of the endless prairies and, most wonderful of all, the Dixon Petunia Festival.

Pat was very attached to his hometown.  Most of us were glad to be far away from where we used to live, Chicago was finally the real life we had been waiting for, but Pat was strongly connected to the values of his home place. He took us all to the Petunia Festival in Dixon, some of us more than once. And it was everything he said, it was beautiful and fun, this town showing us what made it special. So looking back, we see another precursor of Wabash, a great affection for this middle part of the country and for a place small enough to say hi to at least four people on the way to the mail box.

I asked our friend Bernie what he remembered about Pat from those days. He said no one at U of C was well-adjusted, but Pat came the closest. Almost normal was pretty good.

Within our first few weeks, we did something really stupid, of course, we were freshmen. Some of you may know that nuclear energy and the beginnings of the atomic bomb started at the University of Chicago. During WWII a physicist named Enrico Fermi created the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction in the basement of the football field on campus. This was the basic science that produced atomic weapons and, later nuclear energy. This important and horrible event happened at Stagg Field, just a few blocks from our dorm. But when we arrived on campus, Stagg Field was being torn down to build a big library. One night, Pat suggested that we should sneak over to the construction site and collect some souvenir radioactive bricks from the old fieldhouse. Radioactive bricks!! So we did. We climbed down into the basement of the construction site and each got a brick and took it back. We didn’t need flashlights because the bricks emitted a faint green glow. As we were leaving the construction site, we got stopped by a security guard who wanted to know what were doing. Pat told him about the historical value of those bricks, what these bricks meant to our country.

I think the guard thought keeping those bricks would be punishment enough so he let us go. Our friend Bob reminded me of this story and told me that, later, he gave his brick to his father, hoping it would have some positive effect on him. I don’t think it made any difference. But this appreciation of history and the willingness to risk long-term disability for a souvenir was an important part of our early friendship. And so far, none of us have felt any weird radioactive effects. All our kids turned out fairly normal, or at least no more unusual than their parents.  I told my wife this story early in our relationship, and ever since then she won’t let me change the furnace filter, put up the Christmas lights up on the roof or do anything else slightly mechanical.  I don’t blame her.

Pat was a very hard worker in college, excellent student, very dedicated to learning his craft. As an English major, he was a big fan of words in all their forms – books, song lyrics, plays, poetry and especially screenplays. We loved movies, went to as many as we could see. Movies were our way of celebrating. After finals, we would find a movie and have pizza, usually at Uno’s in downtown Chicago. If it was a really big event or a tough academic quarter, we’d go to a double feature and talk all night about what we had seen. This was before we had girlfriends, of course. On campus, we went to see the once obscure films that are the basis for modern cinema – John Ford westerns, Orson Welles epic character studies, Kurosawa’s great historical Samurai dramas, the French new wave, silent movies, Busby Berkeley musicals. And we went downtown to see new releases. In the late 1960’s and 70’sthe movies began to explore explicit social and political themes and that was very exciting. And we were always talking about what we saw.

The constant conversation. Pat was learning the tools for understanding this art and other forms of human expression and then talking about how things actually worked. He was also interested in how the new and old movies reflected their cultures.

But what mattered most was the engagement. The process of engaging the human heart and mind with big ideas, or ideas that might be big if we could talk about them long enough. This is a very important and useful trait for an English professor. But it’s unusual for an administrator, someone whose job it is to get things done. But when I was looking around your website and publications for clues about how Pat was engaging with you all, I saw that he invited you to join in a "grand conversation" about Wabash. That’s so Pat! And looking back at who he was in college, there’s another glimmer of who he is here. But it’s not just the conversation for its own sake, knowing and doing are connected in his mind and in the mind of most successful leaders. Most of his recent career has been primarily as an administrator rather than a teacher. In that world, understanding without acting is no more productive than acting without understanding. So Pat is sort of like an intellectual action hero. A thoughtful man of action.

There’s another part of our experience with Pat that’s also important. And this is specific to me. One of the things I remember vividly is being with our friends in college and making fun of some people we had seen in Chicago. They were dressed in some unusual style or behaving in way we didn’t understand or doing something that we thought allowed us to judge them, to feel superior to them. So I made some nasty comment about this group. Not to them, just among ourselves. Now as a social scientist, I understand that this kind of behavior is completely appropriate small group dynamics. It’s part of how you develop our identity and learn how to organize information about the social world, especially when you’re young. But Pat’s not a social scientist, he’s a humanist. He told me that he didn’t feel comfortable with that kind of talk and asked me to not do it anymore. I was stunned. One of the reasons you hang out with people like you is to say mean things about people not like you. (Like people in Indiana talking about the Chicago Bears.) But I knew he was right and I stopped it, at least around him.  

This is the spirit of inclusion and acceptance. It’s believing, as Bob Dylan says, "you’re better than no one and no is better than you."  And I see this same trait in Pat here. In looking around your website, I see that he referred to the men of Wabash as his "brothers."  Now he may be older than your parents and have a nicer office than you but he knows he’s no more important than you in the scheme of things.  This is very Walt Whitman and Pat White. And when we were in college and even now, we would celebrate Walt Whitman’s birthday together on May 31 by sitting outside and reading excerpts from Leaves of Grass, in which that good, grey poet said, "And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own, and that all the men ever born are also my brothers."

Some from our time together in college, these themes emerge: affection for the small places in the middle of America; the importance of conversation—intellectual and emotional engagement with things that matter; a love for the liberal arts in its classic sense, learning for its own sake; inclusion and acceptance—respect for others; disregard for safety and the laws of science and man.

Finally, Pat and I played guitars and sang all through college. This music was important to us. I have to tell you that Pat wasn't that great of a musician, but he was always enthusiastic, creative, and fun. You have seen that in him already at Wabash and will see it many more times in his years here.

Pat the man
We graduated from college in 1971. After college, we moved on the next phase of our lives. Pat left Chicago after graduation and started graduate school at the University of Iowa with our friend Phil. He finished his PhD and began his academic career. However, there is story from our college days that is about the transition from the time we were all together as a group in college to our separate adult lives. This has to do with Chris. This story is another story from our friend Bernie:

"I remember Pat coming back after a weekend trip where he had attended his brothers wedding. He starting talking about this girl he met, named Chris, who I think was a relative of the bride. She was a student at the Univ. of Missouri, at Columbia. He kept talking and talking about her. At that time Pat was with a girlfriend named Carol. Some time later, all of the English majors in our group came up with the idea of taking a weekend trip to Hannibal, Missouri to see all of the Mark Twain sites there. After seeing the sites in Hannibal, as we started our trek back to Chicago, Pat came up with the idea of detouring to Columbia so he could see Chris. Columbia was not exactly on the route, but Pat's enthusiasm for seeing Chris, who he hardly knew at that time, was enough to convince everyone, including his current girlfriend Carol to agree to the trip. It turned out to be a crazy drive, and we stayed at a really rundown hotel in Columbia, but Pat got to see Chris. The rest is history."

Chris is public health practitioner, a teacher and an advocate. Her personal commitments to service and community are important in their own right. They are a truly amazing couple and a great team. Chris will make her own contributions to life at Wabash.

Surprisingly, I only met Pat and Chris’s children once. Of course, it was in a Museum, the Art Institute in Chicago.  I hope I get the chance to see them while I’m here.  But I have heard Chris and him talk with love and pride about these remarkable young people now in college and medical school. They are part of the family that’s now part of your community.

After we were out of school, much less contact, often years would be go by without being in touch, at least directly. Our group of friends gets around, NYC, Washington, DC, Chicago, California, Florida, so when a small group would find time to do something together - a wedding, a graduation, a family vacation, even a business trip – we would all hear the latest about jobs, families and, equally important at some level - books, music and movies. "Have you seen it? What did you think? How does it compare? What are you planning to read?" These themes are very consistent for all of us, it’s how I wrote the little bio of me that Robert read. It’s about the world of ideas. Not only the big ideas (beauty, truth, freedom, justice, love) but the small-scale human experiences that get filtered through our unique set of thoughts and feelings as we find ways to make sense of them.

We got together in Chicago last summer for our 35th college reunion. Almost of us were there, we don’t all get together very often due to work and family and geography but when it’s important, we make it a priority. That’s why Pat’s closest friends from college will be here on Saturday. All of us.

So just before we got to Chicago last summer, we found out that Pat would be starting as President of Wabash. So when I saw Pat, I thought, "At last, someone from our college group who’s also a CEO. We can talk about presidential things. "Where’s the best place to get gold-plated golf clubs? What’s the best way to avoid paying capital gains tax on our investment portfolios? What do you think of the 1953 French burgundies?" Normal presidential things… So why was I surprised when he wanted to talk about how important it was to him to understand and appreciate the culture of the place he would be leading. How to reconcile the best of what is with what could be? How to join an existing community and help it be even better? He asked me what had I learned about leadership in my 20 years of being a CEO? "Pat," I said, "what about the French burgundies?" We never did get to the burgundies or any of the trivial things that might have distracted us from what Pat wanted to talk about. To him, being the President of Wabash College is an enormous honor and a daunting challenge and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make something beautiful and extraordinary. Pat wanted to talk about what that meant to him and make sure he could deliver on his commitment to Wabash. Once again I was impressed with Pat’s integrity and hoped you all would appreciate him. I didn’t know then that I would have a chance to talk with you all about him myself.

So Pat’s career has been about his commitment to liberal arts in small colleges in small towns in the Midwest, like Dixon where he grew up and Crawfordsville where he lives now. Pat has been preparing for this his entire life. In thinking about what makes him so special for this job, another poet comes to my mind. The great Allen Ginsburg, in his poem "The Green Automobile" says:

"For we can see together the beauty of souls, hidden like diamonds in the clock of the world"

What Ginsburg is saying is that in the pressure of this world and the things that take up our time every day, it’s easy to think about people—students, faculty, staff, alumni, even trustees – as the business you need to do before your workweek is over. But the fully conscious person, the humanist, the idealist capable of being skeptical without being cynical, the lover of words, your new President, sees the beauty of your souls and the beauty of this place you all love.  

This is where Pat White belongs.