Legend Lost: Wabash Mourns Placher

by Jim Amidon

December 1, 2008

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The Wabash College community is mourning the loss of one of its most influential teachers and scholars. William C. Placher ’70, the LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities, passed away over the weekend at the age of 60.

A memorial service will be held on Saturday, December 6 at 2:00 p.m. in the Pioneer Chapel on the Wabash College campus. A reception will follow in the Sparks Center. Pursuant to Dr. Placher's wishes, in lieu of flowers memorial donations may be made to Wabash College.

"Bill was one of the most influential and revered professors at Wabash," said College President Patrick White. "In a long line of great teachers, mentors, and scholars, Bill will be remembered as one of the legends. As a student, faculty member, leader, and role model for students, faculty, and all of us who love Wabash, Bill Placher was our teacher and will remain an exemplar of the best imagination of the mind, heart, and spirit of the College."

Dr. Placher was on leave from Wabash and was serving a one-year appointment as the Kilian McDonnell Writer-In-Residence at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota.

A summa cum laude graduate of Wabash in 1970, Placher was elected into Phi Beta Kappa and Eta Sigma Phi. He earned his master's degree in philosophy from Yale University in 1974 and completed his Ph.D. a year later, also from Yale.

Placher was in his 34th year as one of Wabash’s most popular teachers. He began teaching as an instructor while pursuing his graduate degrees during the 1972-73 and 1974-75 academic years, and was named an assistant professor in 1975. He rose to full professor in 1984 and became the LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities in 1999.

For decades, Wabash upperclassmen gave the following advice to prospective students and freshmen planning their careers at Wabash: "Make sure to take a course with Placher."

In 2002, the American Academy of Religion named him the best teacher in the country, honoring him with the Excellence in Teaching Award. He received the McLain-McTurnan Award for Excellence in Teaching at Wabash in 1980. In 2006, the Indiana Humanities Council honored him with the Indiana Humanities Award for his teaching, scholarship, and collegiality.

Placher was a member and leader of the Wabash Avenue Presbyterian Church in Crawfordsville. Early members of that church helped found Wabash College 176 years ago.

He was the author of 13 books, including the well-regarded books A History of Christian Theology, Unapologetic Theology, Narratives of a Vulnerable God, The Domestication of Transcendence, Jesus the Savior, and The Triune God. He also edited the textbook, Essentials of Christian Theology, which was honored by both Christian Century and Christianity Today. He gave more than 40 invited lectures and was the author of literally dozens of essays, articles, and reviews.

"We human persons are always failing to be fully personal," Placher wrote in A Triune God. "As persons, we are shaped by our relations with other persons. Yet we always deliberately raise barriers or cannot figure out how to overcome the barriers we confront. When those we most love come to die, or in the dementia of old age are no longer able understand what we may most want to say to them, we realize how much there was in our hearts that we never shared with them. When we best articulate our ideas, we cannot escape the feeling that there was something there we never quite captured. When we most rejoice in sharing with someone different from ourselves, difference nevertheless scares us. The doctrine of the Trinity, however, proclaims that true personhood, however impossible its character may be for us to imagine, involves acknowledging real difference in a way that causes not fear but joy."

Placher chaired the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Wabash from 1996-2002. He was also the Chair of the Advisory Committee of the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, was an editor at large of Christian Century, and, with Amy Plantinga Pauw, one of the two editorial consultants for Westminster John Knox Press’ forthcoming 36-volume Theological Commentary on the Bible.

Placher used his sabbatical leaves to teach elsewhere. He was a visiting scholar in the Religious Studies Department at Stanford in 1980-81; a visiting professor of religion at Haverford College in 1985, a member of the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton in 1987-88 and 1994-95, and was a senior fellow at the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago in 2001-02.

Placher served Wabash in literally dozens of capacities. He directed the Great Lakes Colleges Association Aberdeen Scotland study-abroad program for three years, and served as chair of the advisory committee for the program for decades. He was elected to serve on the 1988 Presidential Search Committee for Wabash, and twice served as the faculty visitor to the Wabash College Board of Trustees. He was the secretary of the Wabash chapter of Phi Beta Kappa from 1989 to 1995.

Placher was a superb colleague. Assistant Professor of English Tim Lake recalls an early encounter with Placher:

"We talked about my career development and research agenda and, in an awesome show of generosity to a newly minted PhD, he agreed to read my dissertation," said Lake, who is also Director of the Malcolm X Institute of Black Studies. "Placher's keen eye and subtle mind helped me to see the muddiness of some my arguments and, also, the few gems of genuine insight there as well. His comments on my work were careful and encouraging — even offering to put me into contact with his editor — and meant more to me than my note of "Thanks" could express. 

"Above all, I will always cherish the his sermons during Wednesday chapel. At times when I felt my own faith waning, I would recall Placher and find strength in the fact that he was a man of faith. I'd tell myself, 'If keeping faith puts me in the company of people like Placher, then that's not a bad crowd to be in.' 

"'Thank you, Bill' for being such good company."

Placher was a frequent and exceptionally popular Chapel speaker. At a chapel talk honoring the 175th anniversary of the College’s founding, he said:

"Dear friends, there is a live tradition in the air around us as well, a tradition of curricular debates and football coaches and poets and alumni who went far away but never quite forgot their old college. We learn from our history that this college can respect even those who disagree with its institutional decisions, that our traditions have a dark side of prejudice, and that even those who go furthest away can remember this small college with affection.

"What we love well, our true heritage, is above all the teaching and learning that goes on here, one person to another, very different kinds of people interacting and arguing and coming to care about each other, as people at Wabash do in 2007 and did in 1907 and have ever since our founders knelt in the snow in the midst of the frontier forest a hundred and seventy-five years ago this year."

At Homecoming Chapel in 1996, Placher said in a sermon, "The way we best show our love to the whole world is… to love with a particular passion some little part of it."

Indeed, Wabash College is blessed that Placher chose "this little part" of the world to love and honor throughout his lifetime.

Alumni and friends are invited to post comments to this story.

Bill Placher gave the Commencement Address at the graduation ceremony for the Class of 1970. You can read the address — and an ABC News Commentary about the remarks — by clicking here.

 


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