Winter 2009: From the Editorby Steve Charles
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Several years ago I was on my way to the Homecoming Concert in Salter Hall when I encountered a group of middle-aged men and women huddled around the College’s Senior Bench. They had been carrying out the request of a friend; his dying wish had been to have some of his ashes scattered in different places on campus. The Senior Bench was the final stop, and his friends had been telling a story when I approached. Some of them were laughing, others had tears in their eyes in the late autumn air.
I mentioned this last fall to sophomore Cody Stipes during an interview for an article in The Bachelor. I was being named an honorary alumnus and Cody had asked me, "What makes Wabash special?"
"Actually, it’s not what, but ‘who’ makes Wabash special," I had said, trying to explain why I’d chosen 1970 as my class year. I spoke of my admiration for writer Dan Simmons and my gratitude for our friendship. I recalled my first interview with Bill Placher. I mentioned David Blix’s love for this learning community and its students. I told Cody about the late Mike Bachner ’70, who had come to Wabash because he loved Sugar Creek and stayed because he found joy in both.
"Vic Powell had told me to choose the class whose reunion you’d most like to attend," I said. "I want to be at Mike’s."
I recalled the day Professor Paul McKinney ’52 walked me to the Archives to see his friend Lew Salter’s notebooks and said, "Now there’s a beautiful mind." I told Cody about professors Charlie Blaich and Scott Feller continuing Paul’s work after his death, and how Aus Brooks ’61 had assembled a team to do the same for his mentor, fraternity brother, and colleague Tom Cole ’59.
All these friendships reminded me of my friends Maroof Khan ’03, Julian Moreaux ’05, and fearless Joe Warfel ’04 and the way we learned to truly "play" music in Wamidan, the College’s world music ensemble.
I remembered the veracity in my colleague Susan Cantrell’s voice when she had answered "Oh, yes" to my question, "Is Wabash a place you can believe in?"
At Homecoming Chapel I thought about the Wabash men I’d interviewed over the years and how they made me want to become a better man. Many of them had stood on the same Chapel stage where I now stood to be named an honorary alumnus, an honor I accepted alongside Professor Ed McLean H’03. I knew the impact this man had on so many lives. I felt humbled, but sometimes it’s better to stop questioning whether you deserve to belong in a place and simply savor being there. For a moment I wasn’t telling the Wabash story; I was part of it. With the exception of my wedding day and the birth of my children, it was the proudest moment of my life.
The next day was tragedy. Freshman Johnny Smith died. Eight weeks later, as we were all still struggling with such a loss, the flag facing the Chapel fell again to half-staff. We had lost Bill Placher. As Professor David Blix said in paying tribute to his closest friend, "In some sense that flag will always be at half-mast."
Bill was this magazine’s first advisor. It was a minor role compared to other ways he served Wabash, but it was my chance to have a "class" with Placher. Many have called Bill "the conscience of the College," and he was that for WM and more. I had the luxury of interviewing him after his books were published. But my favorite project with Bill was the series of articles we co-edited about Professor Don Baker, the man Bill called "the best reader of poetry I’ve ever heard."
So like many of you I kept returning to the 80-plus tributes to Bill posted to the Wabash Web site in the few days following his death. I wanted to see who else had written, what "piece" of Bill they had brought to this virtual wake. It was the best use of the Internet I’ve yet experienced. We did not have to grieve alone.
We also had Bill’s own words. I began re-reading those more intimate sections of his Jesus the Savior and The Triune God.
Friends, colleagues, and former classmates brought their own preferred Placher quotes. Here’s one of Vic Powell’s favorites: "We do manage to be a family of sorts. We share our joys and sorrows, we tend our sick, we bury our dead. Sometimes it even takes a death to drive certain realizations home. One discovers that a life spent teaching at this College, even when cut short, doesn’t seem wasted but a good life. When it is the life of a good man, what higher tribute could one pay an institution than that?"
Yet the words I found most comforting those first few bitter cold nights after Bill’s death were gleaned by sophomore Jacob Stump in The Bachelor from Bill’s address celebrating the College’s Sesquicentennial.
"Walking around this campus at night with a new fallen snow, I always fall in love with it all over again."
This evening, I drove back to Kane House from the west along Wabash Avenue. There was snow on the Sigma Chi, Phi Psi, and Teke houses. The light was still shining on the monument to Tom Cole in front of the once and, I hope, future Delt house. The campus seemed cold and wrapped in a white shroud.
Yet Bill’s words redeem the scene for me, even as his life taught me about this place and family he loved.
I think of those people I met that autumn night years ago gathered around the Senior Bench fulfilling their friend’s dying wish and telling his stories. I remember the way students painted the bench in honor of Johnny Smith. Students gathered around that same bench on a frigid December night just this past week, painting it red and singing Old Wabash in Bill Placher’s honor.
I see snow fallen on sacred ground. Sacred not by creed or theological claim, but by those who have taught and learned together here.
I see this winter at Wabash and hear Bill Placher’s voice: "Walking around this campus at night with a new fallen snow, I always fall in love with it all over again."
Bill called Wabash "a family of sorts." And in that spirit we bring you "The Great Northwest" issue of WM, articles gathered by Director of New Media Howard Hewitt during a summer trip to visit alumni in Washing-ton, Oregon, and British Columbia. Each of these men is a part of the Wabash story, a story that extends into one of the nation’s most beautiful and mysterious places. I hope you enjoy the visit as much as we have.
Thanks for reading.
Steve Charles H’70 | Editor