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Dear Young Wabash (unedited version)

by William Cook ’66
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When I arrived on campus late in August, 2008, to take a one-year visiting professorship at Wabash, I immediately felt comfortable. This was indeed “Dear Old Wabash.” I walked from my apartment at the back of Caleb Mills House, cutting across the Mall toward my office in Center Hall. There were Lilly Library and the Student center (now named for Frank Sparks) on my right and the Chapel straight ahead. In the distance on the left were Center and Baxter halls. The latter was brand new when I returned for my junior year in 1964, and it is perhaps a little worse for wear now. Still, all of this was familiar.

However, where was Waugh Hall, where Eliot Williams supervised my frog dissection in 1963? In its place stands the enormous Hays Hall that dwarfs all else on the Mall. And what had happened to Yandes, now metamorphosed into a respectable building called the Detchon Center. Looking north from the Mall, I encountered Trippet Hall. Trippet isn’t the name of a hall, is it? To me Trippet is a person and not a building. Was this, after all, Old Wabash?

This mixture of old and new continued as I re-explored the campus. I knew about the “new” theater and fine arts complex, but there I discovered more people who have become places: Eric Dean Gallery, Salter Hall, Mitchum Glee Club Corner. Kingery Hall, where Doc Baird set my broken right arm (the victim of some shaving cream on the floor during a rowdy post-initiation party at the Lambda Chi house) is no more, and there is a small new building about where it used to be. On the other side of campus, where once were faculty homes, the Malcolm X Institute proudly stands. Rabbit-like, the athletic facilities have multiplied. There is no Crawford Street south of Dean Moore’s house, and Lambda Chis cut through or go around the Allen Center in order to get to and from classes. Several buildings along Wabash Avenue that were not college property now contain the advancement office and career services. Even the area code of the college has changed!

I have no faculty colleagues who taught at Wabash when I was a student. Many have died but are remembered by a photo on a wall or a prize given in their name. I greet a painting of Jack Charles each time I am in Yandes–oops, Detchon. Images of Bob Harvey and Walt Fertig hang in the Center lounge, and there is an Owen Duston Visiting Minority Scholar. I miss the powerful though quiet presence of Willis Johnson, whom we Lambda Chis proudly referred to as Brother God. How I would love to hear Ed Haenisch once more pound his fist in Goodrich proclaiming, “Moles, gentlemen. Moles.”

Some of the faculty of my student days, however, are still around campus. Vic Powell and Joe O’Rourke have never surrendered their seats at a round table in the Scarlet Inn. Jim Barnes, with his new dog, still walks to campus to work in his office. John Zimmerman photographs everything! I occasionally see Hall Peebles and Vern Easterling and Bernie Manker. There are Max Servies sitings now and then. I even saw John Fischer back in town recently, and he still refers to all girlfriends of Wabash men as “Rowena.”

However, there is a new collection of legends, most younger than I, in the classrooms in every building. Students speak with the same respect about Warren Rosenberg and Leslie Day and Melissa Butler and David Blix and David Polley as we did about Bullet Bob Henry, “Bugsy” Williams, and Butch Shearer. Students still imitate the quirky ones, which, of course, are just about all of them (well, us, actually). I think I can spot some legends still with training wheels. I asked a senior today who his favorite professors were. He named a senior professor and one about half my age who is on his way to legendary status. I recall such young faculty members years ago–Bert Stern and Tom Cole and Raymond Williams.

As I climb the stairs in Center Hall, I am comforted that they squeak just as they did when I climbed them for a class with Bob Harvey in the fall of 1962. In fact, my office faces the classroom where Bob taught me how to read literature well and pleasurably. If there was smoke curling out the door, I could be convinced that Bob’s ghost is still talking of Pound and Eliot and Dos Passos. Center 215 now has carpet, but there must be some of Bob’s cigarette burns underneath; although the room has lots of high tech equipment, the student desks are no more comfortable than they were in 1962. I guess faculty still understand the dangers of comfortable furniture.

After I settled in a bit, I began to rejoice over both what is like 1962 and what is not. Of course, we naively thought that all our traditions were established by those snow-covered Presbyterians in 1832, and that they were eternal. Wabash has abandoned some activities that we did well. We understood the Chapel Sing better than today’s students. It was about initiation into the culture of our college and not a competition between living units, let alone an hour-long marathon. We sang “Old Wabash” rather than chanted and grunted it. I miss Blue Key Stunt Night on the evening before the Bell game, when living units competed for first prize by cleverly mocking the Dannies. I once entered the chapel half naked, wearing some sort of black loin cloth and cardboard wings, playing, I thought quite credibly, a harpy, in Lambda Chi’s classical parody of The Rivalry. Now there is no stunt night and no Blue Key. I liked the Mother’s Day Sing, even though the Lambda Chi chorale, as I thought of it, was disqualified one year because we had an illegal prop, a skeleton borrowed from the Biology Department as a visual aid when we sang “Dry Bones.”

Thanks to the Sphinx Club, Wabash still has Chapel once per week, although it is not mandatory. About 100 students and a few faculty attend. I valued those twice weekly chapels I attended, under duress to be sure. Some speeches I still recall well. Jim Barnes did a tongue-in-cheek Marxist analysis of “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” We had the Grand Mutfi of Syria, about whom Jack Charles later asked: “If a pontiff pontificates, does a mufti mufticate?” We had controversy in the fall of 1962 when a group of faculty protested chapel speaker Herb Philbrick, a zealous Cold Warrior. The Indianapolis Star covered this event and implied that we had commie profs even at Wabash!

Speaking of the Sphinx Club, I never understood its raison d’être when I was a student. I knew that Sphinx Club guys had green legs for a while. I also knew that all Sphinx Clubbers shaved more often and had a lot more body hair than I had. We had a couple members in the Lambda Chi house, but I still never got what they were about. Today, Sphinx Club is a positive force at Wabash. Its members organize chapel, act as our cheerleaders, and always seem to be grilling hamburgers and hot dogs. I was honored when the Sphinx Club initiated me as an honorary member. I think I look pretty damned good in a Sphinx Club pot!

But there are so many wonderful things about today’s Wabash that were not part of my experience as a student. First and foremost, there are women on the faculty. In my era, the only women we saw were fraternity cooks and secretaries. Now we have female professors, department chairs and even holders of named chairs; in addition we have a female associate dean of the college and a female registrar. We have women who are fundraisers, and we have had a female coach. Our archivist is a woman. I celebrate all of this.

When I studied at Wabash, only one fraternity had African American members, and I salute TKE for being first. When I was here, my fraternity debated whether we should pledge a Chinese American. Brother Frank Ling and I have remained friends ever since. Now, Wabash has more students of color and more colors, and they live in every housing unit. My freshman tutorial (13 students) contained two Mexican Americans and a student from Kenya. My immersion trip to Italy last March included students from China, Vietnam, and Mexico as well as an African American Phi Delt. Just this week (April, 2010), I joined the Latino students for a fabulous dinner they put on for the college community. Later in the week I returned to Detchon for a dinner and speaker sponsored by the Muslim Student Association. Then Saturday, the international students had a dinner in Chadwick Court featuring Vietnamese and Thai food. Wabash is no longer just pork tenderloins, as good as they are!

I usually arrive in Center Hall a few minutes before class, which on Mondays is in Center 215, where Bob Harvey taught me literature. My World Christianities class has nine students, freshmen and seniors, religion majors and guys fulfilling a distribution requirement. It is fairly intense because students at Wabash are intense, especially when discussing religious issues. Recently, the class was lightened a bit by the presence of Dan, a Sphinx Club rhynie. Since it was the Friday before Valentine’s Day, he was dressed in pink tights, something that resembled a tutu, and had a lovely pair of magenta wings. At one point Dan raised his hand, but I didn’t call on him right away. When I got to Dan, he had forgotten his point. I suggested that he re-attach his wings because I was reasonably sure that fairies’ memories are better when they wear their wings. He re-winged and immediately remembered what he wanted to contribute to the conversation.

A few minutes after class the other day, Mike, a student from my recent immersion trip, drops by my office on his way to class. This sort of conversation usually starts with a comparison of the best food we had in Italy with what he is expecting to have for lunch. This is a ritual I perform with quite a few of my students. Later, Andrew comes by to tell me that he is applying for a summer grant to study Hindi in India and would like a recommendation from me. This is an easy task because he is a great student, and he laughs at all of my jokes! I just learned that he got that grant.

My afternoon class, Christianity from the Reformation to the Present, is in the room adjacent to my office; it has about 30 students, so it is mostly a lecture format. I took this same course in 1965 as Religion 10 with Eric Dean. Now it sounds more advanced because its numerical designation is REL 172. I try to arrive a few minutes early in order to find a good piece of chalk and to banter with some students. I have four from last fall’s Freshman Tutorial, and I like to hear what they are up to. I have another winged Sphinx Club rhynie to harass a bit. We need a little humor because the topic of the class was John Calvin’s understanding of human depravity. It is so much easier teaching Martin Luther! I jokingly ask one of my serious Catholic students whether three weeks of Protestant theology have driven him away from Rome. He smiles and suggests that he is not an apostate!

After class, two students come to my office to ask specific questions about an upcoming assignment. Usually I have several men come by my office for various reasons (or no reason) in the afternoon. Jake, a townie and a Beta (they often go together), wants to bounce off me his concerns about one of his courses. I do a bit of a pep talk. Incidentally, if someone ever asks me how a Hoosier talks, I will simply get a recording of Jake. He is the Platonic form of a Hoosier. You may have seen him on the web. He is one of the two Jakes who takes prospective students on a video tour of campus. That other Jake drops by too to tell me about his life changing experience during spring break working in a clinic in El Salvador. A year ago he boarded his first airplane for my immersion course in Italy. Since then he has studied in Greece and organized the excursion to Central America. He is what Wabash is all about.

Every few days I have a visit from Long Cao, a student from Ho Chi Minh City who participated in both of my immersion courses in Italy. I always begin our conversation by forbidding him ever to wear his ugly plaid shorts to my office. Obviously this does not work. Long and I may talk about Italy or about a presentation he did a few weeks ago when Wabash pauses to allow our students to show one another the results of their research. Long did a great talk about mathematical principles in Renaissance architecture. Today, however, we talked about the possibility of him switching his major to history with the intention of going to graduate school. I had that talk 45 years ago with Jack Charles, Jim Barnes, and Wendell Calkins (aka The Baby-Faced Assassin).

Shortly after Long leaves, Seth comes by for our weekly conversation about gothic cathedrals because he is taking an independent study which also led to us examining several cathedrals in Paris over spring break. Seth is one of those students who make you realize how little you knew when you were 21. He is smart and knows it, but wears his developing wisdom lightly. He is a junior majoring in philosophy while minoring in physics. He has twice run in the Division III Cross Country Nationals. He has participated in an immersion trip with me in Italy and last summer received a summer grant to study in the Cameroon.

Today we talk about a classic book on the gothic style by Otto von Simson. He has come with a list of questions. I have something to say about most of them, but on a couple I was winging it. I told him that, and he hinted that he could tell. We also talked about Wabash because Seth in mightily involved in a number of activities including editing the Wabash Commentary.

Colin drops by to ask about an event known as Pasta of the Month. I try to cook for my spring, 2009 immersion trip veterans once a month. Last semester, we ate together in two different off campus apartments and at the Kappa Sig house, where I also fed a helluva lot of Kappa Sigs. Colin is the organizer. He is a senior chemistry major and religion minor. He is simply one of the nicest students I have met. I know him well and have become acquainted with his lovely fiancée. I’ll probably be trekking around Italy on the day of their wedding, but I am unhappy to miss it. I have decided that I want Colin to be my family doctor, and some medical school sure as hell better take him!

I do not pine for the old days, because nostalgia is about something wonderful that is lost. It doesn’t matter whether “Rhynies Read and Reading Tremble” posters decorate the campus in the fall. I don’t care that comps are in January rather than April. I like new traditions such as groups constantly repainting the senior bench and faculty serving late night breakfast to students one evening during finals week. I am happy that some of our rituals are still around, for example freshmen guarding campus during Bell Week and the beauty queen contest at Homecoming, although they somehow feel atavistic.

I celebrate Dear Old Wabash, although there are some pieces of my experience that I have long regretted. The night of our freshman bonfire, several of my pledge brothers and I hopped in someone’s pickup, drove past Yountsville, and stole (we probably said at the time ‘liberated’ or ‘borrowed’) a 2- seater outhouse, brought it to Mud Hollow, and piled it on the bonfire to the adulation of our fellow rhynies. (NB: I have been assured that the statute of limitations has kicked in here on outhouse borrowing.)

I celebrate Dear New Wabash, where a large number of students will go to the ends of the earth to study and students are engaged in high level research in all three divisions. I liked the old CC and prefer it to its successors, and I would like mandatory chapel at least once a week. But those pieces of my experience are gone, and there is need to honor them but no need to mourn them.

Actually, of course, Old and New Wabash are not two Wabashes but two iterations of what we proudly in 1962 and equally proudly in 2010 call “Dear Old Wabash.”

I shall begin packing soon, probably because I can justify taking a break from grading papers as much as of necessity. I take memories and mementos with me, including a few of Bill Placher’s books and a somewhat tawdry imitation Greek kylix that Jack Charles bequeathed to Bill and then Bill offered me just before he died. That cheap souvenir that someone hauled back from Athens many years ago will always remind me to love and honor two great Wabash legends.

More important than the trophies from Wabash are the images of this shrine of cherished memories. I could not have imagined myself speaking in Chapel, let alone doing it several times and the last time wearing my Sphinx Club ‘pot.’ I leave a newly restored Goodrich and a slightly run down Baxter. I still cannot find my way around Hays Hall. I have eaten many interesting meals in Detchon/Yandes. I’ll miss the Scarlet Inn less than I had imagined when I returned because it has lost something of its centrality in the lives of Wabash men.

More than trophies and images, I leave with new friends as well as renewed relationships with people I met almost a half century ago. Jim and Patience Barnes are once again more than Christmas card acquaintances. Vic Powell and Joe O’Rourke and John Zimmerman and Raymond Williams are on campus so often that I sometimes imagine they are hustling off to class. I leave my department, Religion, with the knowledge that it is well even though Bill Placher is gone and the department has lost his position. David Blix represents Old Wabash while John Baer, who received tenure last year, is part of the best of Young Wabash.

Most of all, I will miss the students I have taught and mentored. How will I get along without Long Cao, the great student with really ugly plaid shorts (I like to think Eric Dean and others once described me that way). I will wish for DJ Singfield, who went to Florence with me and now always greets me with a hug. Michael Carper, a freshman, took 3 courses from me this year; I have enjoyed watching him quickly grow into a premier student and leader; I’d like to watch him continue to grow. I’ll have to find out how much Hindi Andrew Kunze learned in the summer of 2010 thanks to his Dill Grant. Oh how I shall long for Seth Einterz popping into my office with a slightly goofy grin to ask a penetrating question.

Maybe my fondest memory is being in the midst of deliriously happy Wabash men on the field at DePauw after we won the Bell. The chant was, “We love Wabash,” and I joined that chorus.

My two years here have seen their share of tragedy—the death of freshman Johnny Smith and the closing of the Delt house, Bill Placher’s death, the loss of endowment that has translated into the loss of eight faculty positions, the end of C & T and its replacement soon with a still undefined new course. Although not all at Wabash would agree that the end of C & T is a tragedy, it is clear that these years will be looked back on as hard ones for the College. Yet, I leave with undiminished respect for my alma mater and genuine belief that are halls are just as classic as they have always been and that this new crop of loyal sons will continue to instate our College in the highest ranks. With and for Michael and many Jakes and Seth and all the rest, I shall continue to bellow out my praise of Old Wabash.


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