Vic Powell at 90: A Sense of Wonder
April 6, 2010
“I’ve got all the things you worry about if you live to be 90,” says Professor of Speech Emeritus Vic Powell H’55, as relaxed as he is energized in front of a video camera in the College’s Media Center on this late November morning.
“I’ve got a little arthritis, stuff like that, but by and large, for a guy who has survived 90 years, the Depression, and a World War, I’m in pretty good shape.”
Asked the secret of his longevity, the man who served Wabash from 1947 to 1989—as professor, Dean of the College, and Acting President, and who continues to serve today as the College’s goodwill ambassador, grimaces.
“This is the most pedestrian, unimaginative answer—I was born with a near insatiable appetite for fruits and vegetables. I never can eat enough of them. I don’t care if I eat meat or not.
“And I like to walk.”
Living more than a mile from campus, Powell walked to work for most of his Wabash career.
“When we first came here in 1947, I walked out of necessity. You couldn’t get a car.”
Even after Wabash President Frank Sparks convinced the local Chevy dealership to free up a car for the Powells to buy so that Vic could drive students to debates, the professor preferred his feet to the seat.
“You think of all kinds of things while you’re walking; you can solve a dozen problems a day just walking.”
The speech department was on the third floor of Center Hall when Powell arrived at Wabash. “I went up and down those steps a dozen times a day. And I was a skinny kid—my wife said I looked as if I’d just come out of a Japanese prisoner of war camp.
Marion Powell was that “skinny kid’s” companion on many of those walks.
“She walked about halfway with me. When we took vacations to work, we went west and we walked in the Tetons; we’ve walked in the Sierras, we’ve walked in the Smokies, we’ve walked in the desert.”
Vic says Marion is another reason he’s lived so long.
“I call her my child bride—she’s only 84. We’ve been married 63 years—we’ve learned to put up with each other pretty well in that much time.
“If it is a comfortable marriage—and we’ll assume that, because if it’s not, I suppose every day is hell and 100 years—there’s a companionship there. A routine develops that’s rather important, you know. And Marion is organized! Breakfast is at 7:30, lunch is at 11:30, dinner is at 5:30, and if she’s two or three minutes off, she apologizes for being early or late. I think you establish some rhythms that are helpful.
“If you’re a bachelor you probably eat out more often than you make your own meals. I think restaurants have a jug just labeled calories, which they pour over everything you get! No matter how abstemious you try to be, they pour the calories in.”
Twenty years after his retirement, Powell continues his daily walks to campus.
“Sometimes I get up feeling lethargic—and I do, often enough. But by the time I’ve walked down to the school, picked up the New York Times, and am sitting at the [Scarlet] Inn with my colleagues around, I’m restored.” Those relationships have proven essential to Powell’s long life.
“I loved this place almost since the day I set foot on it, and part of that was the relationships we had,” he says. He singles out Professor of Economics Warren “Butch” Shearer and Professor of Classics Jack Charles.
“Butch and I fought about everything. He was a fairly conservative Republican, and I was a pretty liberal Democrat. We had two things in common: a great love of Wabash and the St. Louis Cardinals.
“Butch wouldn’t buy himself a radio to listen to the Cardinals, so he would come over to our house every night, bring his own beer, and we’d sit there and argue and listen to the game. One night, my oldest daughter, five or six years old at the time, heard us arguing. She ran to my wife and cried out in a confused voice, ‘I thought Daddy and Mr. Shearer were friends.’”
He laughs. “We’d carry on like that, and still we were great friends.”
Powell calls Jack Charles “as close a friend as I’ve had.”
“We would meet every Sunday morning in his office and smoke at each other, and solve all the problems in the world. He was the most learned man I’ve ever known in my life.
“He understood the importance of community, and that’s what Wabash has, doubled in spades.”
For Powell, that community has included both Crawfordsville and Wabash, as well as his family and “a circle of friends,” including Bill Degitz ’42 and Professor of French Emeritus Dick Strawn.
“The Powells and the Degitzes still eat out together once a week, and Thanksgiving wouldn’t be Thanksgiving at our house if Dick and Doris didn’t come by,” Powell says. “One of the things I loved about Wabash College was the sense of community with the students. That manifested itself in some unusual ways.
“[Professor of Political Science] Phil Wilder and I were at opposite poles politically, and we got into it in the Scarlet Inn one day,” Powell recalls. “Not in a nasty way, but a real knockdown political argument. By the time the bell rang, and students had to go, faculty and students were all gathered around that table just following this argument.
“I thought it was important that students see faculty disagree with each other, argue with each other, but clearly respect each other and enjoy each other’s company. Disagreement didn’t mean enmity or disregard. It was one of the things that endeared this place to me. We could disagree and argue with each other, but we knew there was a fundamental respect there for each other. I think that’s necessary for one’s well-being.”
After 90 years on the planet and more than six decades at Wabash, what else does Vic Powell see as necessary for one’s well-being?
“I don’t know how you get through this life without a sense of humor,” he says. “I suppose you would want at least a fair measure of health, but beyond that, the network of relationships is so important—friends and family. I’m blessed with two great daughters, daughters who call me every single week.
“I think isolation would be soul-destroying, and a sense of well-being means you have people whose companionship you enjoy.”
“I put in long hours at Wabash, but there wasn’t a day that I wasn’t eager to get down here to teach. It wasn’t a job,” he says, as if the word itself leaves a sour taste in his mouth. “I feel sorry for people who have jobs. I thought Wabash students were the world’s best, the faculty colleagues were wonderful.
“I had an understanding with my wife that I owed the family Sunday afternoon; the rest of the time I was likely here. I give great credit to Marion—she understood that sometimes Wabash had to take a priority. She took that in good faith.”
As for his own faith, although his father was a Methodist minister and Vic has served on the board’s church-related groups, he admits to having a “complicated” relationship with established religion.
“But I think there is a sense of spirituality about life—wonderment—and I’d hate to think that I don’t have any of that. I have a sense of wonder about the world. No, I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t think anyone else does. But there are lots of wonderful questions to think about, turn over in your mind, and pursue in all sorts of ways.”