Things I Learned*
This is the second time in my life I have addressed a large gathering of this school. The first time was almost exactly twenty years ago. I had just returned from Nigeria, where I had spent two years teaching school, and Dan Flanagan, then in charge of chapel as Vice President for Student Life, had taken pity on my impoverished state and invited me to speak at convocation, with an honorarium of $250! What did I know then, at the tender age of 24, in those salad days when I was green in judgment? But I pulled together something. Afterwards, in the sanctuary of Big B, the Campbellsville Baptist Church, my great professor, the great curmudgeon, the great prophet, Dr. H. E. Coker pulled me aside and said in his salty, south Georgian drawl,
“Well, Greg, you’ll do just fine in the ministry. Because you know how to [and here he used a certain compound verb whose noun form means ‘compost’].”
My title today is “Things I Learned.” I will talk about what I learned at Campbellsville College.
You must forgive me if I call my alma mater by her maiden name. I knew her back when. I knew her before she became a university. I was a faculty brat. I roamed the campus like it was my backyard. It was my backyard. We lived in a house where the President’s House now stands. During my high school years, I germinated at Campbellsville College, and in my college years, I matriculated at Campbellsville College.
*A convocation address delivered April 17, 2002
There are some things I learned at Campbellsville that I cannot talk about in this public forum. I will not tell you what I learned from playing basketball and rooming with Rick Stansbury, now the men’s head basketball coach at Mississippi State University. I won’t talk about what I learned the season we went 4-24, and were the third worst college basketball team in America. I say “the third worst college basketball team in America” because there were two teams we defeated. The second worst college basketball team in America was Indiana University-Southeast which, providentially, appeared on our schedule three times. The worst college basketball team in America was Kentucky Christian College, who played a guard—God bless him—with only one arm. I won’t talk about what I learned that next season from Coach Lou Cunningham, who transformed that same hapless bunch into conference champions.
There are things I learned at Campbellsville that I won’t tell but should. I learned from President Davenport about dignity and faithfulness as, from a distance, I watched him work tirelessly despite daily pain. I learned from Dean Robert Clark about finding a middle way, and maintaining a calm presence. I learned from Professor Milton Rogers about raising all the questions and still staying in the church. I learned from Sylvia Morris about commitment to the welfare of students.
And what did I learn from Dan Flanagan, who had guided me to the Big Score at that convocation? I was still standing in the room of childhood and he was the first to open a door called Adult Friendship and say, “You are now invited in here with us. You belong with the grown-ups now.” That’s a great gift and it’s a gift your mother can’t give you and your father can’t give you. It takes an aunt, an uncle, a mentor. For me, it was Dan Flanagan.
There’s one thing, however, I never learned at Campbellsville College. I never learned where to find a place to steal a kiss, or maybe even do a little better, with some measure of privacy. Mrs. Walker with her knitting needle, like the cherubim with flaming swords, guarded the threshold to the girl’s dorm, and kept male trespassers out of the Garden. What did they expect us to do at Campbellsville College in our late teens and early twenties when June was busting out all over, and biology and chemistry and co-education were not just courses we took. I realize now what they expected us to do. Get married!
Okay. Let me get to my three points. I list them in an order that itself is not intended as meaningful: Dad, Doty, and the Dungeon.
During my senior year, I served on a faculty committee as the student representative, the kind of practice that looks good to accrediting bodies and rewards officers in the Student Government Association. As it turned out, that very semester, a situation arose in which my father, Russ Mobley, professor of speech and drama, appeared before that committee, seeking something, supporting the case of another faculty colleague. The issue itself is of no importance any more. Whatever the issue was, I felt that my father’s position was not the best one. As it turned out, mine was the swing vote, the deciding vote. I voted however I voted; it was not what my father had advocated. But there’s no lesson in that. (Unless it is Oedipal revenge.)
But I did learn something about an hour later when I went to my father’s office and told him how I had voted and why. He told me he loved me. He told me he respected my position. That’s when I learned that love and friendship and personal relationships are deeper and stronger than politics, whether academic or governmental.
I have another story about this professor of speech. He taught a student who had a speaking disability. Do I remember this correctly, that his speech problem resulted from abuse at the hand of his father? The professor had all the tricks and techniques of a speech professor at his disposal and the young man found his voice. But it wasn’t just the exercises and techniques that made the difference. He needed the antidote to the scorpion’s bite. What healed him was the attention of a loving father. I learned then that teaching is making a commitment to help people.
In the late 1950’s and early 60’s how many young men left the Commonwealth of Kentucky to seek their fortune in Hollywood? I know of at least five. Two, Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton, carved out similar careers playing misfits in off-beat films: Oates in “The Wild Bunch;” Stanton in “Cool Hand Luke.” Two others found the roles of a lifetime: Lee Majors as “The Six Million Dollar Man;” Don Galloway also found that one big role, the role of a lifetime, playing Raymond Burr’s sidekick on a detective show called “Ironside.” There was one more hillbilly who drove into Hollywood from Kentucky in the late 1950’s. But after a month or two, a young wife and twin infant sons in Lexington, pulled him back home. Russ Mobley returned home and found the role of a lifetime: father.
Would you want to play pick-up basketball with Tayshaun Prince?
I have learned that Campbellsville College—excuse me, The University—now offers courses in Bluegrass music. Would you want to say someday that you had jammed with Ricky Skaggs?
Don’t you realize that in this entire world you will not find a better, wiser, broader, wilier humanities professor?
In athletics you want a challenge. In business you want a challenge. Many of you are very serious about your faith and would never back down from some kind of spiritual challenge. Why shrink from a mental challenge? Why not an intellectual challenge?
Don’t be afraid. He will mess with you. He will blow your mind. And if you allow yourself to do that, you will someday say, “Bob Doty? Yeah, I studied with him. You know, I worked harder and learned more to get that measly B- from him than in any other course I ever took.”
Sisters, brothers: I am here to testify. I have climbed some of the most ivied towers in American academics. I have studied and worked firsthand with some Hall of Famers, Big Leaguers: the Big Boys and the Big Girls in Biblical Studies like Frank Cross and Phyllis Trible. The best teacher I ever had? Not at Southern Seminary, not at Harvard University, not at Union Theological Seminary.
I’m not the teacher Doty is. I’m an old softie. You can’t fake it. You are who you are, and Doty is not putting on. He believes: he believes that learning is sacred and he believes that teaching is sacred and he believes that God is in the details. He believes books should be read with care, and words should be written with care, and life should be lived with care. Why? He’s not being school-marmish. Because these disciplines and techniques of careful speech and thought may be the only thing that keeps your soul free from the Big Lies: the Big Lie that all the stuff they sell at Wal-Mart will make you happy; the Big Lie that looking like the sculpted, steroided, implanted, liposuctioned people on television will make you happy; the Big Lie that it is enough for you to seek to be happy, and ignore the misery of others.
Here’s my Doty story. Daylight Savings Time had just ended and winter’s chill had just started on that late afternoon in November of my sophomore year. In the gloaming, I went to the office of Professor Doty because I needed help. I had entered college full of my childhood faith, on fire for God. You see, in high school, I had been the religious kid in the group. While most of my friends in the early Seventies were experimenting with drugs, I was experimenting with God. I went to every Bible study. I did the Baptist thing and the Pentecostal thing and the Methodist thing. Despite my denominational confusion, however, when I prayed I had a clear picture of God. And God in my mind looked like an old white man with a beard; a lot like the character of Moses played by Charlton Heston in the movie, “The Ten Commandments.”
But in college I was reading books and hearing about ideas that we had not talked about in Sunday School. And though I had always picked up the divine signal crystal clear on my receiver, I was starting to hear some static.
So I went to Professor Doty.
“Dr. Doty,” I said, “When I used to pray, I saw a picture of God in my mind. Now, when I pray, I see nothing.”
Dr. Doty replied: “Congratulations, and I’m sorry.”
Congratulations, because as important as my childhood picture of God was—and it had gotten me that far—it was not going to take me the rest of the way; it was too small, too simple, too clear, too shallow. And unless I wanted to spend the rest of my life afraid to open books, afraid to encounter new ideas, feeling motion sickness if anyone suggested that there was more to the universe than what the preacher had said, I had to say good-bye to that.
And he also said, “I’m sorry,” because it was childhood’s end. Moreover, it would never be as simple again. It would never be crystal clear again. From then on, I have seen through a glass darkly.
Later that same month I roamed after hours, sat on the steps of the amphitheater behind the cafeteria and made my little speech to the night sky:
God, if you exist, I’ll find you on this road, but I must take it. There’s something in me that won’t let me stay where I am.
I took that road; I’m still on it. And God is there. This is what some people cannot understand. They get to that crossroads and stop. “If I go any further, I might lose my faith. If I join this big conversation about what it is all about, and don’t simply repeat the same words I was taught to say, I might get it wrong.”
One thing I learned from Bob Doty is that you can take that road of inquiry and curiosity and still emerge faithful.
Another thing I learned from Bob Doty is that if you get a glimpse of that road, and don’t take it, you might be faithless, because you were being called: called to think and called to question and called to enter the sacred company of holy doubters. They’ve got a space for you on the row behind Job; just in front of Thomas; right next to the father of that ill child in the Gospels who said to Jesus, “I believe. Help my unbelief.”
I was still in high school. I was hanging out on a Friday night on campus. We were shooting pool and playing pick-up basketball in the Old Gym, where sweat and dust were thick. We called its downstairs the Dungeon. Mom and Dad let us have the run of campus and the Old Gym was our hang-out. Who else was there that night? My brother Jeff? Logan Parrott, our dearest friend?
Someone ran in the gym and said, “There’s a fire.” A fire in one of the married student houses, where the football field is now. One of the students playing basketball lived in one of those huts and we followed him out as he sprinted, at increasing speed, behind the administration building, past a run-down tennis court, across a, then, empty field. His house was on fire. The house where he lived with his wife and infant child. He saw his wife. Her arms were empty. He screamed, “Where’s the baby?” Stunned and mute, she looked in the direction of the house without saying a word.
That was the night I learned that firemen do not always rescue the people in a burning house.
That was the night I learned that sometimes firemen have to run into burning houses to pull people out who tried to run in.
That was the night I learned that you could take—yea, even scream—the Lord’s name in vain from the bottom of your lungs on the campus of a Baptist college and no one, not even the president of Gideon’s International, would say a word.
Maybe, even, at that moment, we all agreed, and that blasphemy was its own kind of prayer. I now know that the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah said far worse. It was the cry of abandonment but still, still—and here’s the faith in it—this profane prayer was in fact addressed to God by the father, hysterical with grief, restrained by brave men, finally reunited with a stunned mother.
Maybe it was that experience, maybe it was always my nature because I have chosen or been called to live and work on campuses, but I never bought for one minute the idea that schools are Ivory Towers or that there is any world more real than the world of an school.
This is the real world. Love as much as you can. Pray as fervently as you can. Exercise as strenuously as you can. Think as deeply as you can. Read as much as you can. Enjoy your friends as much as you can. You are not in any backwater. You are not in some cocoon waiting for the next stage. You are not here to get credentials or your ticket punched. You are here to be alive, in mind, and soul, and body, and spirit.
That was a mouthful, wasn’t it? Forgive me for getting preachy. I’ve got one final story.
This past Christmas, I visited Professor Coker. Professor Coker: there’s something in his brain that is boring holes in his memory and lots of important information about who he is and what he did and what he thinks and who he knows, it’s slipping out, a little more each day.
The problem is in Coker’s head but you can see it in his field. Coker had always kept a large garden; he had bought the lot next to his house and kept it in okra, tomatoes, melons, corn: Southern food, soul food. Now, with every visit, I saw less field in cultivation, and this last time, nothing was planted. It was like the words of an old Bluegrass song, “The fields have turned brown.”
Professor Doty was there when I last visited Professor Coker. Doty is always there, although his heroic friendship still can’t touch the devotion and courage of Mrs. Coker. Every time I’m home, I visit Jim Coker; every time he’s different. At Christmas, Professor Coker struggled, then failed, to recall who I was, and sat quietly while, for an hour, Doty and I kept up this odd conversation in front of him, for him, around him. Coker never said a word. It was as if we were not in the same room.
After about an hour, I stood up to leave. As I paused where he sat, Professor Coker gripped my arm, and fixed his gaze on my face, plugged—for a moment—that sieve in his brain and pulled together all the pieces, and spoke in that Chattahoochie voice of his, cut on peanut shells and peach pits.
He said to me, “Don’t let the prophet die.”
I should have rushed out and transcribed it word for word because now I cannot remember the rest of what he said. In essence, it was this:
Don’t let the prophet die. Don’t let the difficult truth go unspoken. Don’t avoid the path you know is right but is not easy. Deep down, the people want to hear the truth. Deep down, people need to hear the truth. One day they’ll understand.
I’m done as soon as I pass this on to you. The most recent thing I learned in Campbellsville University: don’t let the prophet die.