Bankarts Reflect on Long Joint Careers at Wabash

by Gary James '10

May 14, 2008

After more than 30 years of service to Wabash College, Psychology Professors Brenda and Peter Bankart have decided to retire. The 2008 Commencement Ceremony marked their last official day, but, like the members of the 2008 senior class, the Bankarts have accumulated memories and established connections that will survive long after they leave.

The Bankarts, who were the first couple ever hired to teach at the college, have experienced many high and low points during their near four decades in Crawfordsville. And the changes they have seen during their tenure have helped them mature as professionals and scholars.

"I think this was a wonderful first career in which I grew a great deal as a professor and as a human being," Mrs. Bankart said. "I owe Wabash a lot."

Mr. Bankart agreed with his wife. "I would say Wabash gave me the opportunities to really develop professionally. I’m leaving here a very different scholar than I was when I came in. I’ve gone through several phases of that while I’ve been here. I think a lot of people when they get into jobs end up doing the same thing for 35 years. We have not had to do the same thing for 35 years."

The Bankarts, who recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary, met at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, while pursuing their graduate studies in psychology in the mid-sixties. Mr. Bankart, originally from Boston, moved back to his alma mater Dartmouth College with Mrs. Bankart, originally from Toronto, in 1968, the year they were married. 

The Bankarts arrived at the college in the early 1970s. Thaddeus Seymour, a former Dean of Dartmouth and the 11th President of the college, had informed them of an opening in the psychology department. Mr. Bankart was hired as a Professor of Psychology in 1971. Although there was not an available teaching position for Mrs. Bankart at the time, the college was instrumental in her becoming the Executive Director of Crawfordsville Disability Services and the Youth Services Bureau. She was hired as an Assistant Professor in 1975.

Among the high and low points of their tenure, the Bankarts include the relationships they have forged, the strengthening of their department, their time in Japan, the increased diversity of the faculty, and the death of their former department chair Dr. Elton Parks.

"I think the high points have been 37 years of very amazing close relationships, with students as well as faculty," Mr. Bankart said. "Another high for both of us was that we had an opportunity to spend two years teaching in Japan. We were both directing an international education program and teaching psychology at Waseda University in Tokyo. Brenda was the first Wabash person and the first woman to be director of that program. That was a pretty phenomenal experience."

Although their experience in Japan was transformative, the distance made dealing with the death of Dr. Elton Parks difficult.

"We had been here for less than a decade when we were in Japan and got the news that our department chair, Dr. Elton Parks, had been killed in an automobile accident," Mrs Bankart said. "That was really devastating. We weren’t here to be a part of that. It was very difficult to be so far away and get that news. He was really young. That was a low point for me."

The Bankarts were present to see the college and the psychology department evolve over time. When Mr. Bankart arrived there were no female faculty members and only one faculty member of color.

"To see the tremendous growth in diversity of the faculty over years has been really exciting," he said. "Also, the number of diverse students over the years has increased dramatically."

They were also part of the last co-ed debate in the early 1990s.

"That was a very active time on campus," Mrs. Bankart said. "It was really interesting to be a part of that. I was the chair of the committee that worked up the statement for the pro co-education committee. It was a debate held between gentlemen – if I may call myself that as a part of Wabash faculty. I think it took us time to recover from that but Wabash seems all the stronger for having made that decision to remain single sex. I imagine it’s going to be single sex for an awful long time."

The Bankarts actually wanted to retire a few years ago, but they remained to assist what has become one of the youngest departments on campus.

"We’re leaving a very strong, young department here," Mrs. Bankart said. "And we feel very proud of the people that are continuing on. It was very important for us to make sure that there was a strong psychology department being developed. We worked pretty hard to make sure we had a great department. And we do. It’s going to be in place for the next 25 to 30 years. We feel very pleased with the department we’re leaving behind. It’s been a great place to work."

Peter and Brenda are moving to Vermont at the end of the May and will be living on a nature reserve. Brenda plans to become a textile artist and use her psychology background to help abused women. Peter plans to continue his writing career and become more involved with environmental issues, especially water quality.

"I guess you could say we’ll be living more like Thoreau than Caleb Mills," Peter said.


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