Jim Amidon — Wabash College is a pretty neat and somewhat quirky place.
It survives and thrives on traditions — like when President Pat White “rung in” the Class of 2013 with a hand bell that’s at least 175 years old and which Caleb Mills used to call the first students to class in 1833.
There are other traditions and rites of passage that I love, too — Chapel Sing and Homecoming, freshmen guarding the campus the week before the Monon Bell Game, and how the Phi Delts still tip their pots (caps) to professors and administrators.
Those are enduring qualities of the institution. Just like all the red brick and ivy, and professors who devote their lives to teaching eager young men.
Last night, while talking with about 30 freshmen about the Gentleman’s Rule and other Wabash traditions, one young man asked me about my favorite tradition. It didn’t take me long to respond.
Freshman Saturday is my favorite of all Wabash traditions. Funny, too, that I see it as a tradition. What makes it so incredible is that for 250 new students and their families, it’s all brand new.
The folks on the Public Affairs and Admissions staffs know the drill; we know where to be and when to get the best photos, to help a lost family find their way, and how to squeeze 1,000 people into a Chapel that holds 800. Most of us work through the unfolding of Freshman Saturday like we do our getting-ready-for-work routines each day.
But for those moms and dads — especially those taking their first child to college — it’s an awesome, eye-opening, and sometimes scary day; it’s all new.
What I like about this old tradition of welcoming the newest Wabash men is precisely that — sharing something old and grand and wonderful with a new generation of students and their families.
When Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Steve Klein welcomed everyone to the “ringing in” ceremony in the Chapel Saturday afternoon, I instinctively knew where to be with my camera and video camera to get the best shots. I knew that when the Glee Club came striding in singing “Old Wabash,” the dads in the crowd would be chest-out proud.
And I knew — and this is the special part — that when President White looked out to the parents in the crowd and said he knew precisely what they were feeling, almost every mom in the crowd would be wiping tears from their eyes. And they were.
President White has been there and done that with his three children. He knows the tension the parents feel, the tension between being proud that their sons are attending a fine liberal arts college and the sadness of knowing their little boys are all grown up. He knows the fears that cause the little knots to form in the stomachs of the parents as the minutes tick away and they realize they’ll soon have to say goodbye. Their little boys have become Wabash men.
And that brings me back to tradition. Freshman Saturday is embedded with so many little traditions — right down to the moms wiping away the tears — that it’s nearly predictable. (Though Saturday’s mild weather was anything but predictable.)
So it is our traditions that sustain us at Wabash. But there’s a quirky part, too.
Just as important as extending those traditional rites of passage to a new generation of students and families, the College needs new blood to keep pushing it forward. Wabash is not mired in its past; it honors its past by embracing its future.
People around here like to say that nothing ever changes at Wabash. Funny, then, that every August more than 30 percent of the student body is new. Those 250 students come from all over the world and bring with them experiences and dreams that will make Wabash better and stronger over time.
And that might just be the greatest of all Wabash traditions — the tradition of evolving and changing a bit every single year when the new students arrive to lift our spirits as we strive to help them achieve beyond their wildest imagination.
So that’s what I mean when I say Wabash traditions are quirky. That old 175 year-old bell that rang in the Class of 2013 doesn’t echo in the past. It rings out clearly and loudly to welcome a new class, to open new doors of possibility, and to encourage new dreams.