A Century of Service: Charlton, Thompson, Wilgers

They are braided through the life of Southwestern College like ribbons, these three professors. All were fresh young faculty members in the mid-'60s, when returning Vietnam veterans made their classrooms occasionally intimidating, but almost always exhilarating. Through the years the faces that have stared back at them as they studied biology, or Chaucer, or world politics, have belonged to baby boomers, and Gen-Xers, and now to the children of their early students.

As different as these three professors are, it is these students they point to as their lives' greatest satisfaction.

They have shaped and influenced and mentored for a total of 100 years-a century of service that will evolve to its next phase when they retire this year:

Judith Charlton, who returned to her alma mater in 1965 after serving in the Peace Corps in Africa. She taught English, African studies, and integrative studies courses, sharing her passion for books with anyone who ventured into her office. If books could talk, the noise in this third-floor Christy warren would be deafening; volumes pack the floor-to-ceiling shelves, and spill off piles on her desk, on the floor, on the windowsill. They must be moved off chairs, and Judith loves them. "Isn't this gorgeous?" she exclaims as she unfolds a detail of a Van Gogh. "Take it-look at it." But books aren't her primary passion. "I have loved teaching. I don't like all the garbage that goes along with it, but I love learning and I love telling people what they should know." And she throws her head back and laughs at herself with a vigor that brings dust motes cascading down from the shelves.

Max Thompson, whose intellect has made him the foremost expert on Kansas birds and a nationally-known judge of orchids, but whose proudest accomplishment is the rapport he has developed with students. As he looks through the collection of bird skins he developed over the years he see beyond feathers. "When I look at the skins I see the names of students who were dedicated and hard-working and never quibbled about what they were asked to do," he says. And the friendship has been returned; like the other two retiring professors, he has seen the children of his early students pass through more recent classes. Nearly as important as his teaching and mentoring of students have been his tireless advocacy of the college. His friendship with Tom Mastin, who had no ties to Southwestern before he met Max, resulted in the endowment of the prestigious Mastin Scholarship, a million-dollar commitment.

 

Larry Wilgers, the only one of the three retirees who didn't graduate from Southwestern-"It was pretty accidental," he says of the path that brought him to the college's history faculty in 1968. But here his path intersected with that of Alfredo Rodriguez, "one of the most aggravating, the most interesting, and most challenging people who ever happened to me." And from this encounter this Kansas boy developed a world view that suffers along with every suffering person. "I've said to students that I don't have many things I can share with them, but that somehow, one way or another, we have to learn to try our best to see the world through the eyes of other people." Minority students often chose Wilgers as the faculty member who best empathized with their role on campus.

Now these three professors will begin different relationships with Southwestern College. Charlton will move to Independence, Mo., where her family ties are strongest. Thompson plans an update of his Birds of Kansas books, and will continue to operate SC's greenhouse.

Wilgers will continue to live in Winfield. He pronounces his valedictory:

"In spite of sometimes feeling that I was living very critical of everything, and other people thinking I was always very critical of everything, it's been a good trip. I can't imagine myself in another workplace where I could have had as much freedom to do what I want to do and say what I want to say. If that's what you're looking for, it's an ideal place." -by Sara Severance Weinert

 

Judith Charlton

Tribute by
Patti Calvert '00
Calvert graduated in December 2000 and is applying to graduate schools. She hopes to earn a master's degree in English

I first met Judith Charlton in the spring of 1999 as I was taking the necessary steps toward gaining admission to Southwestern. My assigned advisor was off campus that day, and Judith inherited the dubious task of sorting through my transcript and making pre-enrollment suggestions. I had spent the previous year in a much larger school, and had become resigned to the anonymity that a large university provides. When I went to Judith's office that day, I was expecting the sort of student/instructor meeting to which I had been accustomed-a short meeting, 15 minutes at most, during which the instructor would look through my papers, make a few suggestions, send me on my bewildered way, and promptly forget about me. I am happy to say that my meeting with Judith did not go as I expected.

I spent the better part of an hour in Judith's office that afternoon. While she did offer me academic counsel, we spent most of the time just chatting, mostly about me. I discovered then that Judith was a questioner; she asked me about my life, my background, and my plans for the future, and seemed genuinely interested in my answers. By the time our meeting was over, she knew most of my life's circumstances; she knew my son's name, age, and facts about his life and personality; she knew my parents' occupations and where they resided. I left Judith's office with my transcript, a stamp set that she'd given me for my son, and the feeling that I had chosen the perfect school for my needs.

But even more remarkable than the fact that Judith took the time to learn so much about me was the fact that she didn't forget what she'd learned. When I walked into her Classical Mythology course the following August, she greeted me: "How was your move to Winfield, and how's your son, Timothy? Did you get him enrolled in first grade?"

As the course progressed, I had the opportunity to learn more about Judith. I learned that, although she spends her life teaching, she is also a perpetual student. I remember her saying that when a person stops learning, she/he might as well stop living. (This is paraphrased; she probably said it much more eloquently than I.) I learned that she is a strong, capable woman-she was an independent woman when independent women were not readily accepted in most circles. While this might have caused heartache at times, we who know her know that adversity certainly didn't stop her. Like the literature she teaches, Judith is a classic-strength, curiosity, and compassion are qualities which will always be admired, and by which the Southwestern family will always remember Judith Charlton. Judith, I thank you, my son thanks you, and my bookshelves thank you (they're nice and full now). Good luck on the next leg of your journey, and God bless you.

 

Larry Wilgers

Tribute by
Todd Diacon '78
Todd Diacon earned a Ph.D. in Latin American history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is now director of Latin American Studies at the University of Tennesse

Here's the greatest lesson Larry Wilgers taught me: You should choose as your profession that which makes you happy. I don't remember him actually telling me this. In fact I'm sure he did not. He didn't have to. Instead, one only had to observe how much Larry enjoyed teaching. And like all great teachers, Larry loved to learn. In fact, that's what teaching was for him: expressing his love of learning to his Southwestern students. If Larry became interested in something, be it the environment, or global capitalism and multinational corporations, or whatever, you too, as his student, were soon drawn into that subject.

I don't remember exactly what I had written, but on one of my papers Larry scribbled "This is slang, never use it again in a paper." To my knowledge, I never did make that mistake again. You see, Larry Wilgers pushed students to improve their writing. He encouraged us to develop critical thinking skills. Studying with Larry meant that coursework became a treat, and not a burden, because we too were now learning. In other words, Larry Wilgers embodied the benefits of a liberal arts education at a small college.

A herd of copying machines fill a room in the basement of Christy Hall today. That's a shame, for in that room I experienced much of my learning at Southwestern College. No, it wasn't a classroom. It was a break room, a faculty lounge of sorts, where one often encountered Larry and Alfredo Rodriguez, and Dan Daniel and Troy Boucher. Over endless cups of coffee, students and their professors discussed the world's problems and the day's burning issues. In that room interested students were welcomed and made to feel that their opinions and knowledge were important. And in that room I came to realize that for Larry class was always in session. I guess that is what I think is special about Southwestern:

Class is always in session.

 

Max Thompson

Tribute by
Rick Johnson '69
Rick Johnson is director of career services at Bethany College in Lindsborg.

During the first January Interterm for Southwestern College in 1969 and midway through my senior year, I traveled with approximately 25 other biology majors under the leadership of faculty members Max Thompson and Bob Wimmer to New Mexico and Arizona to study desert life. Little did I know that this would be the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Max.

In 1969 he was relatively new on the Southwestern biology department faculty, but was nonetheless very impressive to most of us for how much he knew, especially about birds! That spring semester, Max hired me to "put up bird skins" for the Southwestern study collection. He taught me the fine art of scraping the fat from the skins without tearing them. I remember a Saturday field trip that Max had organized to Cheyenne Bottoms near Great Bend where we observed many different species of migratory birds. He also took some of us with him in the early morning hours to check the bird nets that he had set in wooded areas around Winfield to band birds for research purposes. During spring break of that same semester he took a few of us with him to the Oklahoma panhandle to collect mammals and birds for the college collection. In all these settings Max not only shared his knowledge about birds and biology, but he became a friend to us as well.

Due to his encouragement and international connections, three of us spent the summer of 1969 in the Bering Sea blubbering fur seal hides for the U.S. Department of Commercial Fisheries. For the Kansas farm kid that I was, that summer work experience was unforgettable and expanded my view of the world. I would not have had this experience, had it not been for Max Thompson.

Max continued to influence and assist our family in a variety of ways after my wife, Rita (Webster) '70, and I graduated from Southwestern. In 1972 he recommended me for an admissions counselor position opening with Southwestern. During the next three years while I worked for the college, Max was a caring friend toward our family. For example, during my first year when Rita was pregnant with our first child and I was gone on recruiting trips, Max would check on her from time to time.

I respect Max Thompson greatly for his intellect about birds, orchids, and biology in general, but most especially I respect his lifelong commitment to Southwestern College. His continuing efforts in fund-raising, planning, and shepherding the building of the remarkable new science hall are part of his great achievements for the college.

Finally I am grateful for having had the privilege of sharing a lifelong friendship with Max. He has enriched my life first as a professor and then more importantly as a friend.