In one of the ironies of life, I was thinking about Bill on my drive from Indianapolis to West Virginia last weekend and planned to write him an email this week. Instead, I'll be driving for much of Saturday to attend his memorial service in the Wabash College chapel in Crawfordsville, Indiana.
I expect that many others will be making the drive. Bill was an exemplary teacher at our college (from which he graduated in 1970 and to which he returned to teach full-time in 1975) for almost 35 years, touching countless lives with his intelligence, his graciousness, his humor, and his compassion. In announcing his death, the Wabash College website unabashedly says "Legend Lost."
Bill was a real-life legend. In part, this was because Bill was one of the most prolific authors on our college faculty, which we as students took to mean that he was the college's most influential scholar in the larger academic world. (In hindsight, I think that we failed to recognize, or even realize, the influences of others on the faculty within their academic disciplines, and we almost certainly over-imagined Bill's influence. At least, I know Bill would say we over-imagined his influence.)
But Bill's legend came mostly from his interactions in the classroom. In a college filled with scholars who were passionate about teaching, Bill was the ideal. He had the uncanny ability to lead classroom discussions that explored topics with depth and sophistication, guided by his well-timed questions and answers and by Bill's almost singular ability to take the most convoluted student question or comment and highlight its particular philosophical relevance to the discussion at hand. (Click here for another Wabash reflection on Bill's teaching.) And Bill always did this with great warmth and affection for his students and no small amount of humor.
After leaving Wabash, I unconsciously compared my teachers to Bill for quite a while (and almost always with disappointment). That was foolish on my part, and Bill almost certainly would have been disappointed to hear it (I don't believe I ever told him). But those comparisons grow out of my own quite conscious self-image that I am primarily, even as a pastor, a teacher, and I often compare myself to Bill. I know I do not meet his high standards, but I always strive to be more like him -- to be more approachable, more gracious, more thoughtful, more receptive to the great nuggets of wisdom lying behind other peoples questions and answers -- even as I know that I will never match him because I do not have his unique combination of gifts. As I write this, I can hear Bill lightly contradicting me, telling me (probably in an off-handed, joking way) that he simply did what he could in the classroom, and that I should do the same and not worry about it. But I know he cared passionately about his teaching, as I know he knew I care passionately about mine, and passionate people never really stop worrying about such things, even though we grow more comfortable with our own strengths and weaknesses.
I cannot remember the first time I met Bill. I know that I knew him long before I ever took a class with him, and I already trusted his council and advice. We had too many conversations to remember when I was at Wabash on a whole range of issues. But like many of Bill's students, it was my conversations after I graduated that I value most. Bill never forgot his students, and he always wanted to know what we were up to. More than that, he was always available for advice, and I trusted Bill's advice highly.
After I graduated, we had a series of frank conversations about my future. At that time, I expected to immediately work toward a Ph.D. and pursue teaching in a college. He offered me lots of good advice, including some books to read about what I might be getting myself into. He offered me his unvarnished opinion of my prospects, during which he was equally candid about his own career. And he suggested (more than once) that I should also consider becoming a minister (not instead, but perhaps alongside an academic career); eventually I even listed to him. So for those who think that my being a minister is a good thing, one of the main people you have to thank is Bill.
Selfishly, I will miss Bill's advice in the future. For a long time I have anticipated asking Bill how to do certain things when I got closer to actually doing them, like trying to earn a Ph.D. while pastoring or trying to write and publish a book. Like many others, I always assumed that he would be there.
And I will miss Bill's continued teaching. I was fortunate to spend some time with Bill when he was on sabbatical in Chicago while I was studying there. We talked about countless things, and he heard some of my earliest sermons -- including my first effort to preach on Ecclesiastes, which is unquestionably the worst sermon I've ever given. When I said that to Bill after the service, he laughed, and then said, matter-of-factly, "The gospel was preached," which I think was his way of saying that I took the Biblical text seriously and faithfully, if not necessarily competently. Since then, I've always set that as my goal, and taken comfort that "the gospel was preached" regardless of how "well" the preacher preached.
But more than that, I will miss my conversations with Bill, which ranged through all sorts of topics. Over time we discovered that we were both students of Abraham Lincoln, and we talked about the new books being published. We talked about sports and the news. We talked about our beloved alma mater, its goods and its bads. During one visit, he proudly took me on an impromptu tour of the nearly completed athletic facility and science building, and we marveled at the positive changes at Wabash -- an early experience for me of how Wabash will change during the rest of my life, and yet another one for him who had seen thirty years of change at his Wabash.
In death, Bill becomes one of Wabash's ever-present ghosts, a giant whom many future students will hear stories about, just as I heard stories of ghosts who preceded my time as a student there, just as Bill surely heard stories of ghosts who preceded his time. Bill, as the acknowledged, if unofficial, historian of Wabash knew more about those ghosts than anyone else. I just wish that future students could experience Bill at his best, in conversation in the classroom, rather than through his writing or through countless stories about him.
In Narratives of a Vulnerable God, which is probably Bill's most influential book, Bill wrote at the end of the Acknowledgments:
I have dedicated the book to my students at Wabash. Their interest and friendship has been one of the joys of my life for nearly twenty years now. One of those students, Steve Webb, has become my friend and colleague, and an ongoing conversation with him has been one of the two principal influences on this book -- the other being an ongoing conversation with the memory of Hans Frei.
I immediately connected with this passage, not so much for the dedication to the students -- after all the book was published before I met Bill and was one of his students -- but for Bill's description of his ongoing relationship with his advisor from Yale, the noted narrative theologian Hans Frei. I thought at the time that it was a graceful way to describe my intellectual debt to Abraham Lincoln. In many ways, even though I never met Lincoln, I have an ongoing conversation with his memory.
Now, sadly, I imagine that I will experience a relationship more akin to the one Bill alludes to with his teacher. I know Bill has had a tremendous impact on my life and my thinking. In the past year, in my sermons I have mentioned Lincoln several times, and made a few references to Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, who also have greatly influenced me. But it is no accident that I have mentioned Bill more often than anyone else (and have probably thought of him and his teaching more than I've mentioned him). I will miss my friend, Bill. In the years ahead, I must content myself with the gift of his legacy to me and others, an ongoing conversation with the memory of Bill Placher.