In Harmony – Dick Strawn Turns 90

Professor Emeritus of French Dick Strawn, who joined the College in 1951, retired in 1987, but still teaches Wabash men. Here he enjoys a conversation with current students and staff during a video interview for the College’s Scarlet Yarns story project.

Steve Charles—Music has come up in almost every conversation I’ve had with Professor of French Emeritus Dick Strawn over the past 18 years. I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear it again when I interviewed him on camera at the end of May for the College’s Scarlet Yarns project.

But the frequency with which it arose in our conversation was not only surprising, but—well, musical. And some of both the funniest and most moving clips from the video focus on two of the College’s songs.

Dick turned 90 last week, celebrating the occasion over dinner and a long and enjoyable conversation with Michael Wright ’13. Those sorts of honest explorations punctuated with laughter are certainly one reason students and alumni—many who never took a class from him, as he retired in 1987 after 36 years teaching at Wabash—are drawn to this gentle and wise man. His is a name that comes up often when I speak with alumni. During a Chapel talk last spring, Professor Bill Cook ’66 cited a moment in Dick’s linguistics class that “challenged my simplistic assumptions and expanded my world view.” Bill took the class because, as he recalls, “I so enjoyed French 5 and 6 taught by Professor Dick Strawn that linguistics was one of those, ‘if he’s teaching it, I’ll take it’ decisions.”

Dick taught French, but his love and command of the English language would be intimidating if he weren’t so generous. I recall a phrase he used describe his wife, Doris—“not mawkish, but with deep sentiment”—that we included in a remembrance we published of her, Dick’s nuanced and precise use of language revealing both his love and one reason these two were such a good match for one another.

He is one of the group of professors (along with Ted Bedrick, Eliot Williams, Owen Duston, Don Baker, Vic Powell, Ben Rogge, Phil Wilder, Eric Dean, Lew Salter, and Harold McDonald) that President Frank Sparks hired in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a cadre, President Byron Trippet  wrote, “touch off in me the warmest feelings of respect, and even pride, for their association with Wabash.”

Dick actually dislikes the title “doctor” or “professor.” (That latter is a “loaded name” for him because his first violin teacher was called professor, like the con man Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man). He prefers, if titles must be used, Mr. Strawn: “It was good enough for Yale [where Dick did his graduate work], it’s good enough for me.”

As he mentions in our interview: “I’d rather be a student than anything else.”

To celebrate having this good man with us for so long in the Wabash community (Dick was hired by President Frank Sparks in 1951), I looked over the transcript of our recent interview and have excerpted here a few highlights from our conversation (including the candid musical assessment of Old Wabash that left students laughing so loud you can hear it on the video!).

We’ll have the longer story in the Fall 2013 issue of Wabash Magazine, but here are some of my favorite moments:

On the decision to consider the job at Wabash:
Doris and I had a three‑and‑a‑half year old boy and a baby on the way. I happily got wind of a job here, and there was the prospect of a job at UCLA. Hmm, Los Angeles? I wasn’t so sure. But Crawfordsville? Where’s that? Wabash College? What’s that? Never heard of it. We couldn’t decide.

So finally we did bibliomancy. [Grab] a Bible, shut your eyes, open it up, and put your finger down, and what it said was, “Do not go into the land of the stranger.” Well, thanks a lot, God! That was either UCLA or Crawfordsville.

Finally we decided on here because we were a small‑town family with small‑town experience. I did not like the idea of raising children in Los Angeles, so up we came.

On his interview for the job with Deans Byron Trippet and George Kendall:
I met briefly with Dean Trippet and briefly with President Sparks, who asked me what I thought of co‑education. I thought that was a curious question. Of course I was in favor of co‑education. It’s what I knew.

On the way back to the railroad station, Dean Kendall was asking me how [the interview] had gone. I said, “I guess it went well enough. I enjoyed meeting a number of people. I did have a kind of funny question from President Sparks. It was about co‑education.”

Dean Kendall said, “Did you not realize that it’s a men’s college?”

I said, “No, I did not realize that.”

On his and Doris’s life in Mud Hollow, the College’s faculty and student housing in the 1950s:
My first salary in September of 1951 was $3,600 and we could live on that, kind of.

That rent at the Hollow saved our financial lives and it put us right in the center of all that life there. We were young profs, student veterans back from the Second World War on the GI Bill. That was it. There was a young history teacher across the road, a student and his wife next door to us.

We all looked out for one another, took care of one another, babysat like crazy. There were lots of babies. It was a good experience.

Oh, you could hear everything. There were no secrets. We heard the neighbors and they heard us. One of Doris’s memories that she wrote about living in the Hollow recalled hearing our next door neighbor shout, “Here they come again.” She was talking about the roaches!

But most of us who lived there, at one time or another, stayed at Wabash, too—the Powells, the Salters, the Davises. We came to appreciate one another a little more deeply than usual.

On the joy of playing violin, bass, or whatever was needed with various groups at Wabash, including the Flat Baroque Ensemble in the 1960s:
We were just good enough that we could make the music work. We weren’t good enough to do the very difficult, elaborate kind, but we could make the music come into its own.

And when it works, by some magic, all the players are playing alike, understanding it alike, and that’s when the music comes into its own. You’re lost in it.

It has a lot to do, too, with physiology. It has a lot to do with breathing because when the music works that way, all of a sudden I find myself breathing differently. It’s in the whole body.

On “teachable moments,” one of the reasons the Strawns stayed at Wabash:
You can see it happening in students. They can’t mask it. Their eyes light up. They sit back. They breathe differently. Something physiological is happening, as well a psychological. That event, there’s just nothing like it, because it really is not so much because I made something happen. It’s because something did happen in that student. It’s incredible.

Interviewer: Sounds a little like playing music?

Dick: Yes, it really is.

On friendships at Wabash, especially professors Harold McDonald and Owen Duston:
We understood one another without saying much. We didn’t have to make explanations. There was a kind of harmony.

The 16th century essayist Montaigne had a close friend who died young, and Montaigne was trying to get at why he and this man were friends. Finally it comes out in the one sentence, which translates into English as, “Because he was he, and I was I.”

There’s no further getting at it. With Owen Duston and me, that was it. We never felt the need to say it.

It was something of the same thing with Harold McDonald. We were simply in tune. Singing the same music in harmony.

On good teaching and learning:
I came upon on a letter from a student who was reminiscing about Owen Duston and who set down in so many words why Owen was a good teacher for him: It’s because Owen would take anything that any student said, and work with it.

Owen never said, “Oh that’s stupid! What would make you think that?” Instead, he took whatever the student said and then said, “Where does that come from? Where do you get that idea? What happened to make you see it that way?”

The first thing you know, that student who said some pathetic comment was discovering that he could make his own responses to whatever the topic or text in front of him. All of the sudden the student realized that he was being educated.

On Professor Bill Placher ’70:
He was a real force, not only because he was an alum, but because of the quality of his soul. I’ve never known a more unselfish man. He didn’t have an agenda. He just liked to have people become themselves. He thought the College was the place where that happened.

On his practice of corresponding with former students:
Yes, I have, to my benefit. Why, I don’t know, except that I’m an unquenchable writer of notes. I ought to be more careful about that because sometimes I fire off a note that I ought to discard before I send it. I just can’t quit I guess. I have these vignettes in my head, views of student when they were students, and I get to wondering, Where are they? What are they like now? What’s life doing with them, and to them? What are they doing to life?

On the intriguing fact that many of the alumni (and current students) who correspond with Dick were not students of his, and many attended Wabash after he retired:
It has been a tonic. Thank God I’ve had that, because they kept me in touch with the world. It’s psychological food.

On defining the College:
I wouldn’t. I would be happy to say I can’t do it. I think the College happens. It happens over and over with luck, and it’s in the encounters between students and teachers, students and students, teachers and teachers. It’s the way we rub off on one another, or don’t, on this very small ground—and thank God, it’s small. It’s small enough that we can really sense one another. We don’t get lost.

On traditions:
I don’t think the College exists in those little comedic flares known as the traditions. Who knows how they started, but we keep them going because we like to think that there’s no end.

Yeah, some of them are fun. Some of them are hurtful.

On “Old Wabash”:
First of all, “Old Wabash” is a dumb song. It’s straight out of the French review. It’s a can‑can song. [Dick hums a can-can tune]. And the skirts go flying!

The “Alma Mater”, on the other hand, is perfectly beautiful and unique. My tears come when I hear it, though I have never sung it. It is not my Alma Mater. I won’t sing it. I don’t have an alma mater. I have several alma maters. I am the child of so many mothers it isn’t even funny.

But I think it’s a beautiful song. I think the words are beautiful, I think the sentiment is beautiful. Now there is a piece of college lore and tradition that I would preserve. Partly because it’s music, and music does something that nothing else can do.

Interviewer: So hearing Alma Mater brings tears, even though Wabash is not your alma mater?

Mr. Strawn:  They are tears of belonging to that long, long line of people going to school. I am a student. I’d rather be a student than anything else.


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