Tuesday, December 18, 2012

the best among us

Getting back to older posts left incomplete as the semester ended...

Four years ago last months (November 30) Bill Placher died suddenly in Minnesota.

In some ways it was surely just another tragic, unexpected death.  Bill was sixty and there was, apparently, some family history of heart problems.  Heart disease remains the nation's leading cause of death, killing more than half a million Americans each year. 

Every human death is a cause for sadness. Among those who knew Bill, though, his loss tore deeply into the fabric of their lives.  Nowhere was this more true than those of us who, like Bill, graduated from Wabash College.  A small (900 students), all-male liberal arts college in west-central Indiana, Wabash defies casual description.  God knows, though, how people have tried.  The students are "cavemen" or "Wallies."  Faculty there routinely bemoan either the all-male student body or the students' apparent lack of concern for diversity and difference of opinion or, most usually, both.  The all-male environment creates a myriad of unique situations:  single-sex classrooms, living units, and, more often than students want to admit, parties.  Wabash students and alumni are well-known for their pride in their school as well as their willingness to address--in quite specific and shocking details--its problems. 

Amid it all stood Bill Placher, class of 1970.  He returned to teach at Wabash after doctoral studies at Yale University with George Lindbeck, David Lindsey, and Hans Frei (who had taught at Wabash during the 1950s).  In a college known for its great teachers, Bill moved about in rarefied air.  He was, one "Rate My Professor.com" evaluation stated, "simply THE MAN."  Most Wabash men major in the real world disciplines like Biology, Chemistry, or Economics;  fields that can get you a lucrative career.  Those students often considered a Placher class just as required as Physical Chemistry II or Macroeconomics.  Others, though, basically majored in Placher classes.  His offering the course indicated it was required material:  Christian Theology, Augustine, Aquinas, Modern Philosophy, whatever.  Bill's teaching skills matched his writing, which made understandable the complex and initially confusing.  No matter the reading--Wittgenstein, Plato, Karl Barth, feminism (which he insisted we read--lots of funny stories of his leading a room full of 19 year boys/men through a detailed reading of The Color Purple or a passage by Mary Daly)--if you had questions entering the class, they'd be answered clearly when you left.

 Bill knew the College's history (starting with its origins in Presbyterian mission work) and appreciated its potential precisely as an all-male college in the small-town Midwest.  To me, at least, it seemed that Wabash embodied, in all its limits, fallibility and human-ness, the mustard seed parable in Mark's Gospel.  From small, humble origins great things could come.  Thus Bill not only inspired and supported the students but his faculty colleagues, too.  When he spoke, it was an *event* on campus.  E.g., see here.  His student and colleague, Steve Webb, offered this assessment of Bill's theological legacy just after Bill's death. 

At his funeral the congregation, at Bill's request, this hymn. Also at his request, it was sung briskly.  More than the words spoken, I've always treasured that last request.  The Christian life should a celebration, sung briskly and joyfully, of this life but always with an eye for the life that is to come.  Bill taught us this and lived it himself.  He was, humbly, a great man and he now rests, as Steve wrote, in the arms of God. 

No comments:

Post a Comment