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Voices: Unexpected Lessons

by Calvin Pohl '09
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On April 8th, 2007, my childhood friend, David Neil Simmons, was killed in action in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Affectionately known to all of us as Neil, he was a great, loyal friend. Neil was a great, loyal American. Neil loved God, his family, and his purpose in life.

How do you write a story about the loss of such a man, of such a close friend? How can you even begin to do him justice. I’m not sure, but Wabash gave me a good idea where to begin. Quite frankly, Wabash, along with Neil’s death, taught me one lesson I never expected to learn.

At Wabash, we say, "Boys will be boys, men go to Wabash." Somehow, Neil and I made the perfect combination of boyhood and manhood.

We spent our summer afternoons setting off loads of fireworks and shooting pellet guns. As we grew older our appetite for destruction grew larger and more sophisticated. As Keith Jackson might say, we built a "Grand-daddy of them all" potato gun that we played with for an entire summer. The huge spud-zuka launched up to 300 yards anything we could fit down its barrel.

It’s amazing that we didn’t hurt ourselves with that gun (a gun unknown to our mothers, until now)! The potato gun would back fire almost every other time we used it. One time it backfired when Neil was standing right next to it, and he lost his hearing for a while.

Like true boys, we laughed these ridiculous incidents off, thinking we were invincible.

Yet we managed to combine these boyish, amateur fancies with the virtues of manhood—we taught ourselves how to work together, how to be patient with one another, and how to share with each other.

We took different paths after high school, but, I think one of the reasons I fell in love with Wabash was because it reminded me so much of Neil. When I was recruited here, the two things I liked the most were the friendly atmosphere and the hard working, determined mentality of the students. I didn’t think of Neil as the college type, but he was an extremely hard working and determined person. He would have felt at home here.

Two months have passed since Neil’s death, and only now am I able to sit down and write this. I wanted to write an amazing article that documented Neil’s heroism, but writing such a story is beyond my abilities. Even the most skilled writer could not craft a story that does justice to the heroes who have died in the violence of the Middle East.

What I can do is shed light on the caring support I received from the Wabash community after Neil’s death—support not only for me, but because of the respect so many came to have for Neil and who he was.

When I first heard about Neil’s death, Wabash was hitting the home stretch of the academic year. We all, students and faculty, were headed for the end-of-the-academic year finish line and no one could deal with any distractions. I didn’t think anyone except my closest friends would be very sympathetic to me, much less for Neil. Yes, the teachers would grant me extensions if I had a Dean’s excuse, and maybe my peers would extend brief sympathies. But none of these people knew who my friend was, or even how close I was to him, so how could they even care?

My Wabash family was about to show me how.

I will forever remember the interest that Neil’s story received when I told my professors and friends about what happened. The compassion from classmates was remarkable. I may not remember word-for-word every thoughtful thing that was said to me, or every kind act that was done for me, but I’ll never forget some especially powerful moments. I’ll remember the day-by-day support my fraternity gave, and that late night one of my roommates spent with me listening and talking about what had happened. I’lI never forget how my math teacher, Professor Poffald, showed such interest in Neil, what had happened to him, and how I was feeling. I’ll remember Professors Olsen, LePlae, and Munford for how flexible they were about my coursework. And I will always remember the amazing words of encouragement I received from the coaching staff of the football team.

One of the most powerful moments after Neil’s death came when I received an e-mail from Coach Creighton. He told me that they had prayed for me, Neil, and Neil’s family, during the coaches’ staff meeting. I cannot begin to explain how important that moment was for me.

It was as if my friends and teachers understood that not only had I lost a friend, but they had lost a true hero.

When I came home to see Neil’s family, I was so proud to tell them about the support Neil and I were getting at Wabash.

Neil’s death and that support taught me a great life lesson. Somehow, Neil’s passing, while creating chaos and pain, also made my life much simpler. I have learned to take more of my own troubles in stride. I have also learned to enjoy the time, friends, and family that I have, rather than thinking about how much I have to do, or how busy my week will be.

There are currently 3,000-plus soldiers who have died in the Middle East, and I can only hope those troops’ families and friends received the type of support that I received from Wabash. I miss my friend more than can be imagined, but the support from this Wabash family really helped me deal with his passing.

Thank you Wabash; I am grateful for the unexpected lessons that you teach.

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