Butler Praised as Teacher, Mentor, Friendby Steve Charles • December 8, 2012
In the spring of 1976, Professor David Hadley and his political science department colleagues concluded job candidate Melissa Butler’s interview with dinner at Crawfordsville’s Redwood Inn.
“It was a dark and potentially stormy night,” Hadley said with a grin, recalling the moment Wednesday during a reception for Professor Butler, who retires this winter after almost four decades at the College. “During dinner, I said, ‘Melissa, if you hear something that sounds like a freight train coming, you should duck under the table, because it’s probably a tornado.’
“When a freight train did come by soon after, Melissa didn’t flinch. I knew we had the right candidate for the job; she had the moxie it was going to take for a woman to join a faculty that had infinitely more Davids on the faculty than it did women.”
Thirty seven years later, the College’s first tenured female faculty member may be the most deeply respected teacher, innovator, colleague, and mentor on campus.
Professor of History Stephen Morillo described that tenure as “37 years of dedicated and often trail-blazing service,” as faculty, staff, and students packed the Rogge Lounge on Wednesday to pay tribute and wish Professor Butler well.
“I know I’m not alone in counting her not just a colleague, but a mentor and friend. She’s a fount of good advice because she’s never been afraid to tell people what they’re doing wrong, as well as what they’re doing right. And she does this with genuine interest in her colleagues and their families.
“She guided Division III with a deft combination of policy wisdom and personal interest in those whom she was leading, protecting the interests of her group of social scientists while clearly bearing in mind the larger interests of the College,” Morillo said, with a nod to Professor Butler’s avocation as a sailor. “When I became division chair myself, I really had one simple goal: Keep steering Melissa’s ship on a steady course."
“Throughout my 26-year career at Wabash, Melissa has not only been my best friend at Wabash, but has been a wonderful advisor and mentor,” said Professor of Economics Kay Widdows, who has taken students around the world with Professor Butler. “I took my first immersion trip with Melissa, and I can’t say enough about her way with students, her ability to make every kind of experience into a learning experience for the students, and her ability to cope just about anything.”
“If I could do anything to convince her not to leave, I would,” Widdows added. “But I wish her the best.”
As chair of the College’s humanities division, Professor of Theater Dwight Watson worked closely Professor Butler for six years.
"She is an amazing resource, and I learned so much from those many meals we had together, the kind of substantive questions that should be asked and consideration that should be given during candidate interviews.”
Watson recalled an evening he and his wife, Jamie, spent with Professor Butler last summer while traveling in China.
“She had taken us to the French section of Shanghai and it was pouring rain, so afterward she shepherded us through the city and back safely to our hotel,” Watson said. “And that’s a fitting description of who Melissa is and has been to me—a shepherd—and I’m very grateful.”
Professor Butler recalled that during her 1976 trip from the East Coast to Wabash to be interviewed for the job at Wabash, she encountered the Bicentennial Wagon Train outside of Philadelphia as it prepared to make its way west.
“I wondered, how could I possibly be going out to Indiana, wherever that was,” Professor Butler said. “But I figured it was just two years, and you could put up with anything for two years!
“As it turned out, after 37 years, it’s been a wonderful career, with wonderful students and wonderful colleagues, and not nearly as much of a wild place as I thought! Thank you for being such good students, such good colleagues.”