by Steve Charles
May 10, 2012
Tom Campbell didn’t plan to be a teacher.
He never intended to move from Colorado to the Midwest; he’d not even heard of Wabash College until he applied for the job to teach linguistics and medieval literature.
His first years here were difficult. But he found a faculty mentor in Professor Don Herring H’84. He discovered an unexpected family connection to Wabash.
And after 35 years in a profession he never expected to pursue, Campbell will leave a legacy of his own, not only in the thousands of students he has taught, in the English department he nurtured, and through his work as chair of the Humanities, but in two courses he developed that anticipated both his department’s creative non-fiction program and the College courses on language acquisition and linguistics.
Campbell might be surprised at that assessment of his Wabash tenure, but surprises were the norm throughout his teaching career. Starting with having a teaching career at all.
“I was a pre-med in college, my stepdad was a pediatrician, I was going to be a doctor; for various reasons I didn’t go to med school.”
After graduating from Stanford, the Denver native spent a year out of school.
“Then I started remembering back to seventh grade, how I’d write stories, or even back to fifth grade when I’d write puppet shows. I’d always enjoyed all that, but I never thought of it as something you do for a living.”
He talked with his advisor at Stanford, who suggested he apply to grad school. Indiana University gave him full tuition and a teaching assistantship for its Ph.D. program.
“Nobody had ever done that kind of thing for me before. I had to drive out there and see my name on the list to believe I had really been selected for the program.”
The program required him to teach classes in freshman composition.
“I found that I loved it. And after the first class the most beautiful girl in the class came up and gave me a book with an inscription in it.” Campbell laughs. “I thought, ‘Whoa, maybe this is a profession for me.’”
Little did he know he’d spend three-and-a-half decades at a college for men.
“I discovered I could teach more advanced writing courses, even create courses of my own and work with linguistics. I found I was good at it, and students really paid attention.
“College teaching is mostly nurturing and bringing students along. Aside from that, there’s the sheer enjoyment of the material. I love the literature. I just get a real hoot out of reading, say, ‘The Miller’s Tale’ by Chaucer. God knows how many times I’ve read it, and God knows how many times I’ve slapped my knee at various moments in that tale. It’s just so funny.
“I’ve often thought of the job as being like a medium. I feel like when I’m reading aloud, that’s Chaucer speaking, not me. If I can present Chaucer in a way that makes him real for students, then I’ve succeeded.
“When we’re reading John Donne, I want them to feel what he’s trying to do and appreciate what he’s doing with language. Can they hear that unique voice?”
The first Wabash voice Campbell ever heard was that of Don Herring.
Following grad school, Campbell had spent six years teaching at the University of California at Davis. Then he decided to return to the Midwest.
“I had never heard of Wabash, but it was just about the only job in my field in the region,” he recalls. At the time, Campbell was reading the popular job-hunting book What Color Is Your Parachute? It advised applicants to “by-pass the secretary and talk to the head of the company.”
“So I called Don and tried to sell myself, and I must have done a pretty good job. When I got the on-campus interview, he was very supportive.”
The professor and dean of the college would prove to be supportive of Campbell throughout his career.
“During my early years here, I had various traumas. I got divorced; there were other difficult moments. Don was always there.
“In some ways it was the hardest time of my life. Being a single parent, trying to divide my life between my daughter and my work at Wabash.”
He recalls teaching Milton’s Paradise Lost during those days.
“I had to teach that crucial scene in Book Nine where Eve says to Adam, ‘Look, I’m tired of working together. I want to go out alone.’ And Adam has to let her go because he loves her and that’s what love is. Love is free will.
“Well, I cried when I had to teach that.
“But there was also great joy, too. I had custody of my daughter, I bought a house, and I started putting my life back together. In a way, my job was my salvation during a very difficult time.”
With Campbell, Herring was also building the English department for the next 30 years.
“He hired Tobey [Herzog] and me in the same year, then successively Warren [Rosenberg] and Marc [Hud-son]. Then he had to negotiate with Bert Stern and Don Baker, sort of legends in their own right. I think he did a wonderful job there.”
Later in his career, Campbell would become an effective administrator himself—“a company man and team player,” Rosenberg calls him. “Tom has always had great pride in and affection for the department, giving praise freely and making his colleagues in the department feel appreciated.”
Campbell says he learned much from Herring.
“Don did a lot as dean that we now take for granted, and he taught me that, as a division or department chair, you’ve got to attend to every detail. You’ve got to think about everybody.
“Once I got a note from an older colleague—not a very nice note. I was going to fire off a nasty note in reply. Don said, ‘Just go talk to him.’ I did, and he backed off, and boy, what a lesson that was!
“So when I was division chair and I got a nasty email, I never responded. I’d always go to the other person’s office and we’d work it out, face to face.”
A more pleasant though unanticipated encounter came earlier in Campbell’s career at Wabash. He discovered that his great, great grandfather was a Wabash man.
“His name is on the honor roll plaque on Center Hall that lists Wabash men who served in the Civil War,” Campbell says. He realized his family’s connection to the College after inheriting books from his grandfather’s library, among them a biography of Ben Hur author Lew Wallace, Crawfordsville’s most famous writer.
“I wondered what these books were doing in my grandfather’s library. I opened one of the novels and it was signed, ‘Mrs. Thomas Patterson, Crawfordsville, Indiana. 1868.’ I asked my mother about this, and she referred me to my second cousin, who gave me a dissertation about Thomas Patterson. I found out he had been a famous man, the first senator from Colorado.”
And a member of the Wabash Class of 1868.
“That was a complete shock for me. I’m named after him—Thomas Patterson Campbell. I’m sort of a legacy. I thought, holy smokes! Who would ever expect such a gift.”
There would be another.
On his first sabbatical studying medieval music and drama at Indiana University, Campbell met Rose Gold-berger, whom he would marry three years later.
“The most joyous moment of my life,” he says. “The woman of my dreams.”
And, he discovered on their first date, the daughter of Alexander Goldberger, Wabash Class of 1925.
“It’s karma.” Campbell laughs.
The Campbells celebrated that karmic connection by endowing the Patterson-Goldberger Award. Patterson had owned Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, and Goldberger had once led the College’s Board of Publications, so the award goes to the College’s outstanding freshman in journalism.
“I was hired to teach medieval literature and linguistics,” Campbell said during his final Chapel Talk last year. “I have made my living since, speaking in ancient forms of English and reveling with my students in the mysteries of language.”
With Campbell’s retirement, linguistics is no longer taught in the English department, although language acquisition is among courses offered in psychology, and modern linguistics is taught as a Division II Humanities course.
But another of the classes Campbell developed over three decades has proven the forerunner of many of the department’s offerings for its creative non-fiction writing track.
“Originally it was English 201, The Essay, and Don Herring taught it once or twice, then gave it to me,” Campbell recalls. “It goes way back—Pete Metzelaars ’82 took the class!”
The course proved a perfect fit for Campbell.
“I wasn’t a very good short story writer in college—I ended up just writing vignettes. But essays turned out to be something that I was very comfortable with, because they were, basically, vignettes. You pick a situation, and then you try to describe it and contextualize it and talk about it.”
Campbell was teaching creative nonfiction long before it gained traction today as one of the most popular genres, offering students a workshop experience and a taste of what it means to be part of a community of writers, an essential goal in the department’s new writing track. At the end of the semester, he published the best of the work.
“It’s been a good place to start. You can write several essays during the class. You can work on perfecting them. The students push each other in all kinds of ways—to be more clear in their writing, to ‘show, not tell,’ that sort of thing.”
For his last semester teaching the class, Campbell joined his students in completing all of the assignments.
“I think it was good both for me and the students. It really urged them on.”
Campbell didn’t hesitate to challenge them.
“One of the students turned in a memoir and it was only a page and a half. Some of the other guys had five and six pages. I said to this guy, ‘Well, you know, this isn’t much.’ He said, ‘I just can’t remember it that well.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding! I’ve written five pages about a camp I attended when I was 13; that’s over 50 years ago. You can’t remember something that happened last summer?’
“He came back with about six pages.” Campbell laughs. “It’s been fun for me to do the writing, and it’s developed another side that’s been good for me, both as a teacher and writer.”
The man who never planned to be either a teacher or a writer concluded his final Chapel Talk with a tribute to his colleagues.
“I never could have made it without you, without your counsel and advice, without your emotional and intellectual support, without your example of unselfish devotion to our students’ education.”
He turned to his students, “past and present, always (to me) the same age:
“I would never have stayed at this college for 35 years without your lust for learning, your desire to know, your willingness to put up with a few of my own idiosyncrasies…”
Then the scholar of medieval literature who had never heard of Wabash before he applied for a job here and eschews the sentimental in his own writing, read aloud and with feeling some very sentimental verse—not from Chaucer or Donne, but by Edwin Robinson, Class of 1900, a Wabash student 32 years after Campbell’s grandfather and 20 years ahead of his father-in-law:
Old Wabash, thy loyal sons will ever love thee,
And over thy classic halls, the scarlet flag shall proudly flash;
Long in our hearts we’ll bear the sweetest mem’ries of thee,
Long shall we sing thy praises, Old Wabash.
Read a sample from student work in Professor Campbell’s class on Creative Nonfiction—“A Boy and His Typewriter”