“THE PAUSE THAT REFRESHES”
Bill Cook ’66 and I share a common vice: Diet Pepsi.
I discovered this the first time I photographed him teaching in Center Hall—his Diet Pepsi can was in half of my shots. It was all I could do not to grab it and take a swig.
Bill’s reputation as a scholar of St. Francis, an adoptive and foster father, flashy dresser, and award-winning teacher had preceded his arrival at Wabash. I was delighted to find something that made him “one of us.” Or, at least one of me. If Bill Cook drank Diet Pepsi, maybe I wasn’t the addict-courting-death-in-a-12-ounce-can that my daughters thought I was. Or at least, I wasn’t alone. His habit made him less icon, more human.
That humanity shone for all on campus that Fall of 2008, and we needed him. When Bill Placher ’70 died that November, Cook— who had been hired to sit-in for Placher during his sabbatical— helped us mourn the loss of the most beloved and respected teacher Wabash has ever known. Cook was grieving too—he’d been the one to introduce Placher to Wabash. He told me some of those stories in his office, a can of Diet Pepsi never far out of reach. I learned to bring my own whenever I interviewed him, just so I wouldn’t get the shakes.
Bill stayed on at Wabash for an extra year and I followed him, Rick Warner, and 16 students to Kenya to explore the History of Christianity in Africa. On the first night there I learned he had a stash of Diet Pepsi in the fridge at the monastery where we were staying—out of desperation I’d had a Diet Coke on the plane and was tapering, but I was secretly hoping he would offer me some of the good stuff. I don’t remember that he did.
The next day at the Damietta Peace Center in Kibera, the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa, Bill sat with Christian and Muslim clergy and talked about St. Francis, reconciliation, and both faith’s shared responsibility for justice and the poor. At the orphanage where we worked, played with the kids, and cooked lunch, he said the right things and the prayer to begin the meal. But he seemed most comfortable with the children, one-on-one.
I realized then that, like all good teachers, Bill could play the part of the extrovert, and he genuinely enjoyed meeting people. But despite the intensity of his speaking voice and choice of wardrobe, he was, at heart, an introvert. He needed solitude to recharge. He didn’t necessarily wish to be the center of attention, but he needed the spotlight to get done the things that mattered to him.
On the long bus ride home that afternoon we stopped at a Western-style mall just a few miles from the monastery, and Bill was one of the first out of the bus. “You can get some Diet Pepsi here,” he called back to me, and I practically knocked Rick Warner off the bus step running after him.
in the issue of wm about that class, Bill wrote of being moved by parishioners in Machakos in rural Kenya:
“People here need our help to obtain clean water and medical care. They need our support of their schools. They need assistance in order to produce more food. But we who listlessly sit in church and check our watches, we who moan about not being able to buy a new Buick, we who throw away food grown in our good soil—we need the help of those folks I prayed with in Machakos.”
That made me wonder what Bill might do after he retired from teaching. As an internationally respected scholar he could have laid back in Florence, where they love him, and given talks about frescoes, eaten delicious food, and sipped wine to the end of his days. He does some of that. But his attention, his heart, is in the places and people I saw him with in Kenya. At some point he decided it wasn’t enough to learn about St. Francis. He asked himself, “How might I, given my limitations, live my life more like him?”
You can read the answer to that question in “Teach the Children,” page 35.
a moment of reflection like that— to borrow a competing cola’s slogan, “a pause that refreshes”—is behind most of the second acts you’ll read about in this issue. We teach it here. A few minutes, a few months, or a few years asking: Given what I know, who I love and what I value, what will I do with what I have left of this “one wild and precious life?” (as Mary Oliver wrote). It’s a counterintuitive gesture in a world where efficiency rules and the value of ideas is measured by hits and likes.
At this year’s Big Bash Sunday worship service, Rev. John Sowers ’99 put it this way: “We are so good at moving so fast we fear those quiet moments when we must ask ourselves: What is the difference between making a living and making a life for ourselves? Am I happy with who I am as a person? Am I living my life as it was intended to be, or am I just going through the motions?”
However they’re spending their lives, whatever their ages, you won’t see the men and women featured in this issue going through the motions.
bill and i met up a couple weeks ago for breakfast in Crawfordsville, and I asked about the rewards and challenges of these first three years running his nonprofit.
“The greatest reward? The kids,’ he said. “If they can’t inspire you, nothing will.”
The biggest challenge?
“It’s hell trying to get a Diet Pepsi in some of these places.”
Thanks for reading.
STEVE CHARLES Editor | email@example.com