End Notes: Third From the Bottom

by Jo Throckmorton ’87

May 24, 2006

Commencement Day for the Class of 1987 was hot, just like so many before and after. We stood on the walk in front of Center Hall, gathered as a group for one last time. In a few hours we would be bound only by memories of each other and this place.

Time had run out on our chances to do all the things we had come here to do. Some things we’d accomplished, some we had started and never finished, and some did not turn out the way we had planned. But we had tried.

The sun beat down as I reached into my pocket to find the final readout of my academic career at Wabash. All my classes, all my grades. One notation stood out—class ranking. The numbers didn’t lie; I had come in third from the bottom.

Not bad, I thought.

Whatever possessed me to come to a place that was incredibly competitive, and yet so supportive that I could look at a statistic that told me I was near dead-last in a class of 112 students and still think, Not bad? This was so far from where I had begun my college days, I had to wonder: Why Wabash?

In the spring of 1983, I had received the acceptance letter from my college of choice: Pepperdine University in California. I’d never questioned it—I would move to the West Coast and, soon after graduation, find myself in a Hollywood career.

The only person who didn’t quite accept this was Wabash Coach Rob Johnson H’77. Throughout my senior year in high school, I had rebuffed Coach Johnson’s attempts to get me to forsake my destiny in California so I could run track at Wabash, but he kept coming at me. He had challenged me to pursue a rigorous academic curriculum and become involved in a demanding athletic program.

And during the fall of my freshman year at Pepperdine, his words kept popping into my head.

But why would I consider this nonsense?

I had two outdoor hot tubs within 100 yards of my campus house. I had the "Battle of the Network Stars" running around on the commons within sight of my front window. I was five minutes from the beach and 30 minutes to Westwood, the hotbed of college life for students in Los Angeles.

It was a Pepperdine professor who made me reconsider. He took me aside at the end of my English class, the first week back for second semester. I could hardly believe what he told me.

"You strike me as someone who cares about your education," he said. "You might want to consider transferring; you’re only wasting your time here."

At first, I thought he was talking to the wrong person. I was on course to end my second semester at Pepperdine on the Dean’s List. Things were going well. Why would I want to transfer?

But my English professor was right—I did care about my education. For the next three months, he helped me explore my educational options. He urged me to push myself, to do more. He got me thinking of the possibilities. But there was really only one thing I considered—to accept the quiet challenge of a man I hardly knew from a college near a place I thought I had left for good.

So I transferred to Wabash, knowing the challenges I would face both in and out of class.

As I walked up the steps of the Sparks Center to register, I was met by Coach Johnson. He gave me a pat on the back, smiled, and said, "I never thought I’d see this day." He then turned to my father, grabbed his hand, and said, "We’re going to take good care of your son. We’ll help him develop into a fine, young gentleman."

And though my track career at Wabash never turned out the way it might have had I not taken a year off from the sport while at Pepperdine, I feel neither regret nor dissatisfaction. Coach was right. Wabash challenged me in and out of the classroom. I took on new opportunities that demanded my participation. If I had remained on the West Coast I would never have become involved in anywhere near the number of extracurricular activities I enjoyed at Wabash.

But while Coach was the reason I came, there was another reason I stayed.

In the fall of my sophomore year I met a man who would change my college experience as well as my desire to remain an active graduate of this place. I had walked into a general call for volunteers to help staff WNDY-FM, the campus radio station. He sat in the corner, watching the proceedings and offering his advice when necessary, but for the most part he let the lunatics think they were running the asylum. That man was Horace Turner H’76.

Over the course of my three years at Wabash, I was well-counseled by my faculty advisor—the incomparable John Fischer H’70. I got to know the terrifically talented and inspiring artist, Doug Calisch. I was motivated by the passions of both Brenda Bankart and Dwight Watson. I even looked forward to my daily floggings at the hands of Vic Powell H’55 and Papa Joe O’Rourke H’65 over in the speech department. But Horace Turner was there for me in a way that made this place feel like home.

He helped me understand the foundations of my frustrations. He pushed me to take up the battle when others wouldn’t. He gave me more responsibility than a young man of my age and experience deserved. He listened—and he listened carefully. I never took a class from Horace, but I went to school under his tutelage. He challenged me to put into practice the ideas and concepts I learned in the classroom. He opened my eyes to experiences beyond those I’d found growing up in Des Moines, Iowa and West Central Indiana. As much as any professor at Wabash, Horace was a teacher. Many of the lessons learned while working with him remain with me to this day, never to be forgotten.

One lesson, learned from both Coach Johnson and HT, stands out most of all: "the fierce urgency of now." It is an often-overlooked phrase from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. It was only uttered once, but its meaning was made real to me by Johnson and HT. We only go this way once. We only have one shot to do what we must. It is our responsibility to see what is happening, assess the possible outcomes, and to make a commitment to act.

It makes no difference where you end up in class rankings. The honors from college don’t translate to assured success. The conquests of Saturday afternoons on the gridiron, victories on the road in hoops, or breaking the tape in first on a brilliant spring day are terrific memories, but not the measure of the Wabash man. It is so much more and very personal to each one of us who have come through this place.

For me, I came to Wabash because of the quiet challenge of one compassionate man and stayed because of the challenge of another. Both are men who have made more of a difference to the character of this place than can ever be known. Both are examples of what makes Wabash great. And, neither cared that I was third from the bottom.

Not bad.

Jo Throckmorton is a filmmaker and has won the CINE Golden Eagle Award, as well as multiple Telly Awards for his writing and directing. His current projects include the documentary film The Malcolm X Institute of Wabash College.

Contact Throckmorton at jo@jothrockmorton.com

 


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