In Memory: Wally Chessman

Charlie Dee ’69

My first exposure to Wally Chessman was sophomore year, my first at Denison, when he did the Greek philosophers lecture in the Western Civ. course. After the first ten minutes or so, during which I laughed with him, and, I’m ashamed to say, at him, I turned to whoever was sitting next to me and said, “This guy is goofy.”

And he looked goofy: tie askew, shirt billowing out over his belt, arms flailing and that rubber face of his contorting with passion and humor. Ten minutes later I said to the same student, “This guy is great!”

And he was. There were other great lecturers at Denison; Bill Preston, for example, was extraordinary, but nobody there or anywhere else I’ve been was as fully uninhibited as Wally. He was so passionate about the subject matter, so naturally humorous, and so comfortable with his own, unusual persona that it was impossible not to like him and be infected by his enthusiasm.

There was certainly no deterioration of his sense of humor as he got older.

One time in the eighties after I had started teaching, Wally and his wife Eleanor picked me up at the Columbus airport when I flew in for a visit. At the parking booth, Wally rolled down the window but didn’t hand over his money until he had chatted up the young woman in the booth. “Hello, Dear, how are you tonight?” And he was off. He went on until the car behind us started to honk.  I guess Eleanor wasn’t as impressed by the man-of-the-people as I was because she started in on him, “Do you have to be friendly with everybody, Wally?  Really!!”

Wally was as enthusiastic about Denison as he was about people and ideas. What institutional loyalty he had! When Blair Knapp died suddenly in ’68 and Parker Lichtenstein became Acting President, Wally accepted Parker’s request to replace him as Acting Dean of the College. I remember sitting in the living room drinking what Wally and Eleanor called “martinis” but were really double gins on the rocks, after Wally had been offered the job. Eleanor was her usual skeptical self and listed the reasons why he would hate trading teaching and writing for the drudgery of meetings. Wally cackled loudly, told a story about a meeting that very day that perfectly matched Eleanor’s description, then cleared his pipe and said, “But the college needs me right now.”

Wally and Eleanor welcomed me into their home as a college sophomore and treated me as an adult. They discussed current events, campus politics, popular culture with me as if my opinion was as worthy as theirs. They told me when they thought I was full of it, and they gave me credit when I raised something they hadn’t thought of. By taking me seriously and extending friendship across a generational divide, Wally and Eleanor were facilitated my transition to adulthood.

Two years ago, Sandy Ingraham, John White ’69, and I came a day early to a Denison reunion so we could spend some time with Wally. We took him out to dinner at his beloved Yesterday’s Pub in Newark. Despite a memory that was at that point declining and intermittent, Wally remembered the names of the staff as he joked and flirted with them, and, of course, they doted on him. Half the patrons in the place seemed to know him also. It was a delicious night.  Of course Wally tried to pay the bill. We told him, “No way, Wally.  You taught us about Greek Philosophy; this one’s on us.” As we got up to leave, despite needing his walker, Wally had enough balance to try stuffing $20s in our pockets.

For years Wally entertained alumni coming back for reunions with his Tour of Granville. When I return, I always drive by the house on Briarwood Lane where, in many ways, I grew up. If there’s ever a statue of the prototypical professor, the model is clearly G. Wallace Chessman, several books under his arm, each one bulging with dog-eared papers sticking out.

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