Commencement: A Father’s Perspective

Steve Charles—Bill Cook ’66 is one of the finest teachers and scholars to have graduated from Wabash. (Scholar with a capital "S"—this photo of Bill was taken Sunday as he waited in the Chapel for Baccalaureate to begin and passed the time with a little "light" reading.)

The Distinguished Teaching Professor of History at SUNY at Geneseo, and an authority on the life of St. Francis of Assissi, in 2005 he was a finalist for one of the nation’s most prestigious teaching awards.

Bill is also a father—a father who on Sunday experienced the joy of seeing his son graduate from Wabash. He passed along this memory of the event. After reading it, I just had to post it here.

The Best of Both Worlds
Last Sunday I sat in the bleachers on the Green of Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, and watched Eric Cuong Thanh Huynh receive his bachelor of arts degree in history. It was sunny but not too hot, breezy but not windy. There were no long speeches, and the graduation took a total of 75 minutes. It was the perfect day.

Let me back up a bit. Forty-one years ago, I walked across that same platform on that same Green and received my bachelor of arts degree in history. Even at that time, I imagined how wondrous it would be to see a son of mine (Wabash is a College for men) follow me across that platform. However, I dared not dream it too much. As my kids looked for colleges, Wabash did not appear to be a good fit for any of them for a variety of reasons. I had hoped that Angel would look at Wabash, but its distance from Geneseo and its lack of coeds meant that I was hoping in vain, and I did not try to make Angel fit Wabash.

When Cuong—he added the name Eric when he became a US citizen during his freshman year at Wabash—started to look at colleges, I suggested Wabash because I thought it would be a good fit. He was not interested. Hence I encouraged him to look at places that in some ways resembled Wabash, especially Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. When I asked him one last time if Wabash was worth looking into, he said ‘yes,’ and we were soon on a plane to Hoosierland. He had a good experience there and decided to apply, as did his good friend Devin Bennett, who also graduated last Sunday.

Cuong was accepted to Wabash, though I would still not quite allow myself to look ahead four years to his graduation. By the time he heard from Hamilton, it did not matter, for he had chosen Wabash. I sent him out alone to look one more time, and he came back with a fraternity pledge pin—not my fraternity but one he found as a community he wanted to be a part of.

Cuong and I drove out to Wabash together in August, 2003. He appeared pretty calm; in fact, Cuong rarely appears excited or disoriented. I had a sense he was nervous about being so far from home and nervous about being in a place with only one person he knew. A few weeks later, when I flew out for what was my first of many visits, I sat in the stands during a football game and watched him with his pledge brothers on the sidelines. Cuong was fine and had made friends.

Like most college students, Cuong had some academic successes and some disappointments. He had a pretty good first semester. In fact, he had a professor whom I had studied with during my first semester 41 years earlier; we got the same grade from him. I joked with Cuong that Professor Barnes must have grown soft in his later years, but he knew I was not serious, and Jim Barnes and I had remained in contact so I knew it was not so. If Cuong earned a B from Jim, he was going to be fine academically.

Cuong thought about majoring in English but finally decided on history. I think Cuong relied too much on cramming and last minute research, but he succeeded in fulfilling all of his graduation requirements.

Whenever I was with Cuong, be it in Crawfordsville, Geneseo, or somewhere in Europe, I got to see the effects of a fine liberal arts education on him. I saw it more clearly than he did, especially since I saw him only from time to time. It was thrilling to see him, imperfectly to be sure, derive the benefits of a first class education. He knows more than he thinks, and thinks better than he knows. Wabash had worked some of its magic on Cuong as it had on me, and I suppose that his is as indelible as mine.

So there I was at Commencement, 2007, singing every word of the College’s fight song and alma mater since I had sung them countless times during four years in the Glee Club. I saw a few alumni I knew who were now associated with the College. I chatted with Cuong’s friends and their parents. I gave a big hug to Devin Bennett. Before commencement, the College’s photographer took pictures of legacy graduates, those who had relatives who were Wabash men.

When John Kennedy received an honorary degree from Yale, he proclaimed to have the best of both worlds—a Harvard education and a Yale degree. I felt like the man who really had the best of both worlds—a Wabash degree and a son with a Wabash degree.

The tears flowed. Life just doesn’t get much better than this.

—Bill Cook ’66

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2 Responses to Commencement: A Father’s Perspective

  1. Adam Crowe '85 says:

    Beautifully written. Congratulations to them both!

  2. Rick Warner says:

    Great story, Bill. Our department was blessed to have Eric as a major, a quietly sincere fellow who held his own in Mexico City. The parallels to Vietnamese urban life that he drew when our class was there were quite thoughtful, I thought.
    Thanks much for your support of the college.
    cheers (over a Genesee?),
    Prof. Rick Warner
    History