From Center Hall: Winter — 2013

by Patrick White

February 13, 2013

Shaping the Dreams of the Future

“The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.”

                                                                        —William Faulkner

At Wabash we honor traditions built out of cherished memories, communal and individual, and this fall our life together has been especially marked by backward glances. 

Homecoming 2012 commemorated the 180th year of the College, the 100th anniversary of Homecoming itself, and the 120th year of the Glee Club giving voice to the music of our College. We also celebrated the recent history of the Challenge of Excellence, which surpassed our original goal and raised more than $68 million.  

In early October, evaluators from the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association visited campus for our reaccreditation work, asking questions of faculty, staff, students, trustees, and administration to understand more fully our 242-page report, Wabash College: Tradition and Change. This self-study looks at the last 10 years at the College, highlighting the success we have achieved in educating young men to think critically, act responsibly, lead effectively, and live humanely.  

Even as we look back, new initiatives springing from the Challenge of Excellence are gaining momentum. One of those, the Business Learning Committee, is devising a better mix of curricular and co-curricular experiences to prepare our students who wish to make a difference in business through the leadership of companies, institutions, and organizations in the coming years.    

Through this all, I am keenly aware that this is my last year as president of Wabash College. The search to select the College’s 16th president is ongoing, and we are working on the new Strategy Committee of the Board, chaired by John Fox ’64, to consider new ideas for Wabash. ??A presidential transition, the rounding out of the Strategic Plan, the conclusion of a major fundraising campaign, and wrapping up the two-year-long self-study process for accreditation make this a particular time for reflection.  

But not only reflection. Recall that Janus, the two-faced Roman god of beginnings and endings for whom January is named, both closes and opens doors. Janus makes a fitting deity for this moment as we assess the past and look ahead, looking back while discovering what we need to do in the future.

In that way, we are not unlike the young men I rang in on Freshman Saturday, or those considering Wabash.?This fall we rolled out new admissions materials that under-score the fact that Wabash is a college that will take young men seriously. For years I have been telling prospective students, “Gentlemen, you do not know how good you are. You see only a glimmer of what you can become. Wabash is a place where you can become heroes in your own stories, heroes in your own lives.” 

And here is where alumni recollections of the past at Wabash become not mere nostalgia, but a central act of moving forward: How can the young men of Wabash know what their stories might become unless they hear the stories of the honored men and women around them, of those who have taken this journey before them? 

A liberal arts education acquaints students with stories of lives well lived in the past, avatars for their actions in the future. We populate their minds and ambitions with the great ones—Lincoln, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Shakespeare, Pasteur, Newton, Bach, Plato, Kant, and hundreds more. Studying these lives, a Wabash man begins to chart his own course. 

Yet the map for his future is drawn, too, by what alumni have achieved and how they’ve lived their lives. He looks to men like Bill Wheeler ’83, Bob Einterz ’77, Tom Cole ’58, Kevin Clifford ’77, Jim Davlin ’85, Dan Simmons ’70, Peter Kennedy ’68, John H. ’42 and John C. Schroeder ’69, Bob Wedgeworth ’59, Michael Bricker ’04, Mac Petty H’82, Ben Rogge H’53, Greg Castanias ’87, Stephen Miller ’64, Bill Placher ’70, Byron Trippet ’30, and Pete Metzelaars ’82, to name just a few whose names I’ve heard students and alumni mention during my years here. You no doubt are adding names to this list, even as you read it.

Only in knowing the past, in general, and the Wabash past, in particular, can a Wabash student envision his future, imagine the stories ahead of him. He learns what it takes to be a leader from the captains of the football team who address him during the Monon Bell Chapel, from the men who write for The Bachelor or create the one-act plays or earn the summer research awards or travel to China or Greece. He hears these stories and his heart of hearts responds: “That is what I want to do. That is the road I want to travel. That is who I want to be.” He may never put on a Wabash helmet, appear in a play, nor do research in chemistry, but he learns from these athletes and actors and scientists what it means to be tested, to find success and failure, to act out in the public eye the inward grace of a Wabash man.??After the Challenge of Excellence celebration at Homecoming in September, a student asked me, “How do I get on the Board of Trustees?” He was not asking how he might contort himself to become like Steve Bowen ’68 or Allan Anderson ’65 or Ted Grossnickle ’73. He was not looking to be a clone or slavish copy. He was asking, “How does the story of my life going forward find the merit and the service that will enable me to become a leader at this College?”  

When I tell a prospective student, “You will be a hero in your own life,” he needs to believe that his story is not yet written, his future not yet determined. Yet he also needs the lives of others to fuel his dreams, to inspire him to imagine his own future beyond his own past imaginings. The men and women who have shaped this College as alumni, faculty, mentors, leaders, dreamers, and planners provide for him—for our students, for all of us—models of how to live the good life, to be heroes in the great stories of the future. 

When William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” he noted what we recognize at Homecoming, at Big Bash, and at every Wabash event: The memories of the past shape the dreams of the future. The courage and honor of men and women who have gone before us inspire our best imagination of ourselves, teach us how to be heroes in our lives. 

In relishing our past in this issue of Wabash Magazine and in your memories of the people and events that shaped your life at Wabash, you are not wasting your time in an idle nostalgia. You are taking on, once again, the essential task of the liberal arts: Know thyself. In doing so, you will better understand who you are now and who you will become, in your future and in the future of your College, the life story in which you and the men and women of Wabash will be the heroes who will shape the greatness of the College for years to come. ?


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