The memorial service for Professor Emeritus of Mathematics and Computer Science Paul Mielke ’42 was three days ago, but like the life of the man it celebrated, it’s not something the mind and heart want to let go of. You could do a lot worse things for your soul than meditate upon the lives of Paul Mielke and his wife, Mary Lou, lost to the Wabash community within months of each other.
I tried to write something about Paul’s service right away, on Saturday
night, but I was overwhelmed after hearing his son, daughters, and grandchildren remember him; listening to two of his favorite poems by William Stafford, a favorite poet of mine; hearing the wonderful love story of Paul and Mary Louise, how they loved to dance, and how their life together mirrored that dancing.
And hearing that the last thing written out by this mathematician was a reference to Micah 6:8—“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you. but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” I hope Paul realized that in his gentle manner, love for family, friends, and students, his co-founding of Crawfordsville’s chapter of the NAACP, and his support of his colleagues and community, he personified those words for many of us.
It was all too much to “sum up” in a news story. I can’t even begin to
do justice to the man. Especially for those who did not know him. And those at Wabash who didn’t know him, need to.
So we’re gathering the words his children and grandchildren spoke on Saturday and we’ll have them for you next week. Their words are what you need to hear about this man.
For now I want to pull on one thread of what Kathy, PT, Mardie, and their
children shared with us so beautifully on Saturday.
His daughter, Kathy, said: “My parents had many, many sons. Most every
Sunday and holiday, students were welcomed into our home.”
And: “When my father was a student at Wabash, his fraternity brothers
called him ‘Yogi’ for his uncanny ability to help them with his
homework. ‘Yogi, look into your crystal ball and gives us the answers,’
“It gave him great satisfaction to help his fraternity brothers.”
Paul’s only biological son, PT, read this about how the satisfaction he found helping his brothers was transformed into a lifelong passion:
“His enthusiasm for teaching was palpable. He was passionate about the
subject at hand. He was always prepared. It is evident that many of his
students felt the depth of his commitment to teaching. It is remarkable
how many of them remained his lifelong friends. He took a genuine interest
in their progress, both as students and as human beings, and they repaid
him by keeping in touch throughout his life.”
At Saturday’s service in the Wabash Chapel, I sat in front of one of those
students—Ted Wiese Jr. ’60. He and his wife, Sandra, established the Paul
Mielke Fellowship Fund in 2003 to pay tribute to Paul’s “mentoring of
generations of Wabash men.” There’s a brick on the Alumni Patio
representing another donation by Ted. It reads simply, “In honor of Paul
Mielke ’42.” One look at Ted after Saturday’s service made it clear how
much Paul had meant to him.
We heard from other students of Paul’s, too, soon after word of his death was posted here.
Jack Hauber ’66 wrote: “In 1967, I received an NSF grant to attend Dartmouth and learn more about using time-shared computers in high school education … not possible without Dr. Mielke. In 1971, I received one of the first MS degrees in Computer Sciences from Purdue … not possible without Dr. Mielke. He introduced the computer to Wabash and to me, and changed the lives of both. I would be honored to be considered a member of his ‘brotherhood’.”
Steve Kain ’63 wrote: “I spoke to Dr. Mielke at Homecoming and he remembered my name from years ago. I had my son and grandson with me at the time and they were impressed that a professor remembered a former student so easily. Dr. Mielke was my first advisor at Wabash, and a great Little Giant for the students.”
And this from Phil Vincent, Ted Wiese’s classmate: “Paul Mielke was one of
the greatest teachers in my academic life. He was always supportive. I switched to economics upon applying to graduate school at Stanford, but I suspect that it was his aid that helped me into the latter program; I know that I was ahead of most fellow economics graduate students in math training at that time. I had hoped to see him again at the class 50th reunion in 2010.
Wabash has lost a great son, professor, and benefactor.”
Several years ago during an interview for Wabash Magazine, Paul said,
“Wabash gave me the brothers that nature denied me.”
Perhaps knowing what it felt like to be an only son, Paul cherished more
wisely the brothers he made at Wabash and throughout his life. He never
took them for granted. He celebrated them in his photographs every bit as
much as he celebrated the beautiful places he photographed out West. I
remember looking over photographs of friends and students as we made
selections for a Faculty Gallery in the magazine. He told me stories about
all of them, then what they were doing the last time he’d heard from them.
Usually that time was measured in weeks or months.
He had many brothers. He had many sons. His niece, Cherie Dwhytie, called
Wabash Paul’s “extended family.”
He received much from this College; he gave back more.
There was a quiet strength at the center of this man who tended a garden,
but also fought in World War II on Okinawa. It was a “brotherliness” that
allowed folks like me, who met him late in his life and spent relatively
few hours with him, to feel completely at home and at ease in his
presence, even as we were learning so much.
I thought of that quiet strength as his daughter read one of Paul’s favorite poems by William Stafford, once poet laureate for Oregon, another place like Wabash and Washington State, that Paul loved. She talked about how her father taught his children to be “outdoorsmen” on their many trips to the most beautiful places in the West.
“He made us rich in the only way he knew he could,” Kathy said.
You will never be alone, you hear so deep
a sound when autumn comes. Yellow
pulls across the hills and thrums,
or the silence after lightning before it says
its names—and then the clouds’ wide-mouthed
apologies. You were aimed from birth:
you will never be alone. Rain
will come, a gutter filled, and Amazon,
long aisles—you never heard so deep a sound,
moss on rock, and years. You turn your head—
that’s what the silence meant: you’re not alone.
The whole wide world pours down.
Paul’s daughter read it, but I heard it in Paul’s voice. He spoke it as a
blessing, not only on his children and grandchildren, but on the students
and teachers of Wabash: that we, too, would discover what he had found in his life and had given back to the people and places he loved. I carried phrases from it with me as I walked home through the arboretum after the service that celebrated Paul’s life—words that spoke of him, that spoke to us.
“You were aimed from birth: you will never be alone. You hear so deep a
sound when autumn comes… That’s what the silence meant: you’re not alone.The whole wide world pours down…
“You will never be alone.”
We’ll have more about Paul Mielke next week, and in the next issue of Wabash Magazine.