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Spring 2009: From Center Hall

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Forever Young, Forever Old

Wabash calls young men to grow up and to stay young.

Late last fall semester, Dean of Students Mike Raters ’85, Associate Dean Rick Warner, a few faculty members, and I joined with students in discussions regarding the Gentleman’s Rule. These conversations took place over meals at fraternity houses and with independents in Sparks, and began with two simple questions: “How does the Gentleman’s Rule work, and what does it look like and feel like when it is working well?”

During one such conversation at the Phi Psi house in December, a young man offered a comment that seemed, at first, a bit off-topic.

“You know, President White, I just got back from Thanksgiving break, and I had a good time hanging around with some of my friends from high school,” he said. “These guys went away to other colleges and they are still my good friends, but it hit me that there is a difference between us: I am older than they are.”

That young man’s words were a minor epiphany for me. Far from being a digression, they illuminate what Wabash does, what the College is about. Here was a college sophomore who has come to realize that he has now become not just a “kid,” not just a “guy,” but a young gentleman with, as we say in our graduation charge, “all the rights and responsibilities thereunto appertaining.”

That a student would say this to the president at dinner was remarkable enough, but this story was heard by 11 other young men around the table. It was greeted not with hoots of, “Get out of town,” but with nodding heads—with the solemn assent of young men who realized that what this student said was true: Their Wabash experience has brought something down upon their heads that is serious, real, and a profound change; their growing up has already happened.

In our culture, especially for young men, there is much in their lives that tells them a prolonged adolescence, even a continuous childhood, is not only the norm, but desirable. It is OK to be reckless, irresponsible, uncaring, and selfish because you are just being a kid, or because it’s just a “guy” thing. Neither the economic pressure of a job nor the personal and social pressure of a relationship or even fatherhood should stand in the way of what you want to do at the time. No delayed gratification is required.

But at Wabash we call our young men to a higher imagination of themselves: Wabash calls men to grow up.

So this Phi Psi’s remark was not irrelevant to the Gentle-man’s Rule. It speaks to the heart of it. He is older because the Gentleman’s Rule has worked. The Gentleman’s Rule works when young men accept the guidance of those men among their new friends and mentors who are just a bit older than they in chronological time, but who have accepted the responsibility of their own adulthood and the responsibility of helping others in the hard work of growing up.

Similarly, the alumni under age 39 profiled in this issue and on our Web site have achieved much through their individual ambition and drive, by their intelligence and hard work. But their Wabash education has also empowered them to think of themselves, earlier than many in their age cohort, as older—ready, willing, and able to take on the responsibility, the dreams, and the actions of men far older than they.

Wabash says, “No need to wait. You are ready, you have the right. Seize the day.”

But here is where the complexity of the maturity of these young men becomes very interesting. As you read the stories of these young alumni who have achieved so much more than many who are older, you’ll discover that they are not prematurely middle-aged, with the long faces, atrophy, and rigidity of thought and action that stereotypes that stage of men’s lives. These young men retain the passion, the energy, and the curiosity of youth even as they lay claim to a range of motion and responsibility, an ambition and achievement that marks men of more advanced years.

This is a beautiful paradox of the Wabash experience. Wabash has found a way to encourage a bright maturity in very young men, and a youthful hunger for change and growth in much older men. As I meet Wabash men in their 60s and 70s and beyond, I see men far younger than most of their generation. Whether their projects are new business or professional challenges or new directions in service or leadership, these men embrace life and all its challenges with an avidity that can only be described as youthful. These men of advanced years join their maturity to an energy and receptivity to life characteristic of the young alumni we honor in this issue.

They do so not in the way of our youth-oriented culture, in which people seem desperate to look young, act young, and remain young. The markers of this sort of youth are often superficial and silly, taking back its worst aspects—
the harebrained restlessness, self-involvement, and carelessness that were not much fun going through the first time, and the childishness we are glad to move beyond and are relieved to see our own children and students outgrow.

Through the Gentleman’s Rule, through close-knit mentoring by faculty, staff, and fellow students, and through the rigors of academic challenges, Wabash calls young men to grow up and to stay young.

Strength of heart and hand—these are qualities of youth Wabash men can gladly take into adulthood.

Bob Dylan wrote,

“May your hands always be busy,
May your feet always be swift,
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift.
May your heart always be joyful,
May your song always be sung,
May you stay forever young.”

Dylan may seem like an odd touchstone for Wabash and our self-image, but this man out of the Midwest was far older than most in the 1960s and far younger than most now as he brings out his 33rd album and remakes himself one more time.

A long time ago Dylan, when he was just 23 years old, looked back and sang, “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

He captures in this line one aspect of the greatness of Wabash and anchors the College in a deep stream of American dreamers and doers; we are at once grounded in a tradition but courageously countercultural in our independence and refusal to follow the easy path, the crowded way.

On our less traveled path, Wabash draws out the alert and vital maturity of a gentleman and citizen’s responsibility from the young, and at the same time empowers Wabash men throughout their lives to hang on to the readiness, the energy, and hunger for life, learning, and challenge that marks their youngest days and their highest spirits.

Forever young and forever old, Wabash men make their own paths and—as the 39 old young men featured in this issue demonstrate, and all the young old men who read their stories with admiration continue to model for us all—live lives marked by daring and responsibility, and animated by energetic thought and thoughtful action.

Contact President White at