The Secret Lives of Professors: Peter Grandbois

It’s no secret that Associate Professor of English Peter Grandbois is an accomplished writer: He’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize; his book, Nahoonkara, was awarded a gold medal in 2011 as the Foreword Book of the Year; and in 2013, Domestic Disturbances, Grandbois’ short-story collection, was a finalist for another Foreward Prize. And if all that is not enough, his first novel, The Gravedigger, is set to be filmed in Mexico. But we sat down to chat with the professor about a completely different skill set.

After taking nearly 20 years off from fencing competitively, Grandbois, once the third-best foil fencer in the country, has returned to the sport (with style, we might add). After winning two national tournaments, Grandbois has qualified for a spot on the U.S. team for the Veterans’ World Championships this fall in Hungary. In doing so, he accomplishes a lifelong goal and simultaneously proves that professors do, in fact, have lives off campus.

How did you start fencing?
I’ve always loved sword fighting. When I was younger, I would try to play hooky from school to watch old Errol Flynn movies. I loved the sport but didn’t know it was “real” until my freshman year at the University of Colorado. Like Denison, we had a fencing club, but an honest-to-goodness, true French fencing master coached it. We became (and still are) best friends. He’s actually one of my main competitors.

How do most people react when they find out that you have this talent?
Most Americans don’t know anything about fencing. If you Google it you get things like electric fencing, chain-link fencing, and picket fencing. The U.S. Fencing Association says it’s the fastest growing sport in America, though. Columbus is actually hosting the national championships in June. I’ll be fencing there with 10,000 other entrants—all those people will be walking around downtown, with swords.

We know that you are also an award-winning author. Is fencing related to your writing at all?
I have a very obsessive and disciplined personality. Once I stopped fencing, writing started to take over. My first-ever published story, “All or Nothing at the Fabergé,” has autobiographical elements in it from the 1994 World Cup. I also wrote a short memoir called The Arsenic Lobster, dealing primarily with my life in fencing. I’m currently working on its sequel, Kissing the Lobster, which details my return to fencing and looks at what it means to grow older.

What made you want to go back to competition after taking close to 20 years off?
My kids. A year and a half ago, Santi (9) and Olivia (13) started fencing—maybe I talked them into it a little bit. I love watching them in the uniform, smiling, sometimes stabbing me. But I wanted to compete again. The coaches at the club told me about a veterans’ division for fencers over 50. I decided to go for it. I just turned 50 this spring, which means that I am the young guy. I’ve seen people in their 80s fence. The oldest person I’ve fenced was 70-something … that might be me someday!

After being a three-time first alternate for the U.S. World Championship team, how did it feel to make the team?
I felt giddy. It didn’t matter that it was for the old guys. I finally did it. Any regret I had from the past disappeared. In some ways, the sport feels more fun now. It’s a dream come true.

Life Lessons

In May, three longtime and beloved Denison faculty members retired after a combined 90-plus years of teaching at the college. They have spent that time working with students and encouraging them to think critically about the world around them in each of their disciplines—anthropology,religion, and history—but they’ve also encouraged those students to leave the Hill and become lifelong learners. As they themselves leave campus (at least in a professional sense; we kind of hope they hang around or visit often), we asked them what lessons they will take with them into retirement.

Barry C. Keenan
Professor Emeritus of History

I’ve learned that Denison students are deciduous. Each fall for 38 years, I watched as richly verdant new students began to experience the pressures of their first college semester. Gradually they internalized critical thinking and improved writing, and in the process,they started revealing their own colors just like the autumn foliage of Granville. By midterm exams, brilliant hues started radiating in the classroom, each delightfully different. Old knowledge dropped away, and by spring I could observe my advisees budding fresh new growth on their own. This seasonal change repeated itself with more advanced courses the following fall.

I’ve learned that close student-faculty contact provides the opportunity for Denison faculty to validate students as independent learners by taking their ideas seriously. And during this interaction, faculty enrich themselves by reaching out empathetically, always listening for the interests and growth of each student. We repeatedly extend that empathy over years, as if teaching were designed as an exercise in our own personal development.

Also, inspired by the freedom to initiate our own courses, teachers at small liberal arts colleges continue to learn through creating new ways to teach new material to new students. The process of learning by the faculty might be paralleled to the habit of lifelong learning that we hope undergraduates will acquire in four years; we just get a whole career to perfect it. (Don’t forget to write!

Kent Maynard
Professor Emeritus of Sociology/Anthropology

I began my professional life in 1978 living and working in the Andean highlands of Ecuador, trying to understand what it was like for converts to adapt to widely distinct evangelical and sectarian churches, and yet 98 percent of the population identified with Catholicism. The question was: What does religious identity mean in such diverse circumstances? In the end, I learned about social adroitness and civility in navigating potentially life altering situations.

Three years later, I joined my wife, Susan Diduk, as she pursued her own anthropological work in the small village of Kedjom Keku in the Grassfields of Cameroon, West Africa. That has led to five return trips and deep friendships with many families. Learning about indigenous medicine, about how Kedjom people understand morality and society, about healing and public health measures that originated in the pre-colonial era, has been truly amazing.

Finally, I have learned how to write better about the world and about trying to be faithful to other people who are living emotional and social lives very different from my own. To pursue this, I had the opportunity to go back to school at the age of 60 to earn my M.F.A. in poetry, and to write poems about what life is like in places like Kedjom Keku.

As with other disciplines, anthropology is not just about answers; it is about learning to ask the right questions, and then really listening to what people say. It turns out to be something that never ends.

Harold Van Broekhoven
Associate Professor Emeritus of Religion

In a recent New York Times essay, Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath explore the reasons why so many people hate work. In general, they conclude that employees are most happy in the workplace when they have the ability to recharge; when they feel valued; when they are able to focus; and when they feel as if they are spiritually fulfilled through a connection to a higher purpose.

What I learned at Denison is that I loved my work. Other Americans, no doubt, would envy faculty members’ occasional sabbaticals and slightly more leisurely summers and winter breaks to recharge physically. Conversations with students and graduates (and parents) have reinforced my own feelings of being “valued and appreciated for (my) contributions” to their lives. Teaching and focused reading and writing in my discipline have been tremendously absorbing and enriching.

But I think that what I have most learned about myself at Denison—and for which I am most grateful—is that my spiritual need to feel “connected to a higher purpose at work” has been met here on the Hill. It has been a wonderful privilege to be a part of a rite of passage through which young people pass from high school graduation to full participation in the adult world, many of them with a far greater and more profound sense of their own humanity. And in a world where college indebtedness commands the attention of the president of the United States, and where higher education in general is contributing not so much to upward mobility as to growing inequality, I am profoundly grateful to have been able to teach at a place like Denison, which has made such a significant investment in an education that does provide access to a higher quality of life for our graduates. There are still colleges in the United States that challenge the growing inequality in our society and offer a bridge to a more just society, and I have loved being a part of that mission at Denison.

Did Mad Men Get it Right?

THE SECRETARIES: Pretty much right. We manned the phones, “covered” for three-hour martini lunches, unidentified liaisons, extended cocktail evenings, and late-night romps at The Peppermint Lounge or P.J. Clarke’s. We stonewalled wives and our bosses’ bosses, and dreamed of a better future. Our pay was $50 a week before taxes. A few successfully snagged and wed older bosses. One or two beat the odds and ascended the career ladder.

THE BOSSES: Pretty much right. They needed us. Most of the bosses, predominantly men, were kind and respectful, but there was always that one oddball “creative” who indulged in invectives (“dumb broad,” “stupid chick”). The bosses advised us, if asked, on love or financial woes, and attended our brunches or soirees on occasion, seemingly fascinated by our quirky digs and doings.

THE SEX: Absolutely right. Like an endless electronic hum beneath the city. A conscious or subconscious presence all the time. When not indulging, there was planning, considering, assessing, regretting. There were locked office doors, private calls, doctor appointments, and dirty laundry stuffed into filing cabinet drawers. Someone across the street filmed a lunchtime tryst in our building, resulting in pink slips.

THE SMOKING: Dead on. Everyone smoked—all the time. Brands were debated. Gold cigarette holders from Cartier, exotic ashtrays, silver lighters, and cigarette cases made the scene. As did matchbook collections. Lives were lived through a haze of gray smoke.

THE BOOZE: Nailed it. All booze, all the time. Secretaries bought little cocktail recipe books with instructions on how to make “sidecars” and “between-the-sheets.” Blurred vision was the norm for many. Hangover remedies were compared. All strata, from bosses to beginners, got blotto at parties. Silver martini shakers were the go-to gifts.

THE HIJINKS: Poor. Not enough craziness on the TV show. My floor was called “The Madhouse.” A continual soundtrack of yelling, bawdy laughter, singing, guitar and uke playing (lessons offered), ringing phones, swearing, arguing, etc. Jokes and recipes exchanged hands constantly. Someone brought in a new motorbike and did test runs down the hall. Shampoo bottles were dropped from windows to watch bubbles descend. When visitors appeared (moms, wives, clients) the place went silent as a tomb. My mother remarked, “What an efficient office!”

THE WORK: Fairly accurate. Lots of awards, new accounts, celebrations. Bright, innovative work. Energy and excitement. How and when it got done, who knows? It did, in between all the de rigueur diversions. Our agency was securely entrenched in the top tier.

THE HOURS: Pretty much right. Loose, at best. Arrivals and departures flexible. Two-hour lunches, at least. Time allotted for personal, pressing, or romantic pursuits.

THE OFFICE: Sort of right. No electric typewriters. Big black Underwoods. No air conditioning, just ancient fans. Offices closed when temps hit 90 degrees. Our set-up had small offices surrounding a large bullpen filled with secretaries and trainees.

THE CLOTHES: Oh-la-la, right on. For the ad execs: from Don Draper-distinguished to Brooks Brothers tweeds. Skinny ties, hats, overcoats, wingtips. For secretaries: heels, nylons, shirtwaist dresses with pearls. Pointy bullet-bras and death-grip girdles. Teased hair. The wives visited in snug suits or cotton dresses, plus hats, gloves, and shiny purses. Mona Abboud, a writer/songstress, lives in Sleepy Hollow, Ill.

(From Chicago Tribune, April 7, 2013 © 2013 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved. Used by permission and protected by the Copyright Laws of the United States. The printing, copying, redistribution, or retransmission of this content without express written permission is prohibited.)

The Flawed Hero

Shortly after daybreak on July 9, 1864, Brigadier General Erastus B. Tyler, U.S. Army, peered through his binoculars at the Confederate forces massing to his north across the Monocacy River just outside Frederick, Md. An 1844 graduate of Granville College, Tyler had established a credible battlefield record during the war as a “fighting general.” On this fateful day 150 years ago, he commanded the right wing of a small, hastily assembled force of Union soldiers consisting of inexperienced Ohio and Maryland National Guardsmen. His was a desperate mission to block a much larger, veteran Confederate army that was bearing down on a virtually undefended Washington, D.C.

At day’s end, the Battle of the Monocacy had resulted in more than 2,200 casualties and a tactical Confederate victory over the outnumbered Union forces. Nevertheless, the action delayed the Confederate advance on the national capital by a full day, due in part to the stubborn and obstinate defense led by Tyler. The critical delay enabled other Union troops to reach Washington, D.C., in time to frustrate Confederate plans to capture and sack the city. “The Battle that Saved Washington” was largely unheralded, but it did get the attention of President Abraham Lincoln, who conveyed his personal thanks to Tyler. It was the highlight of an interesting and, at times, controversial military career.

Tyler had developed an abhorrence of slavery and adopted a lifelong adherence to the temperance cause after his time at Granville College (later named Denison). He went on to work as an agent with John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company (where he acquired considerable wealth), and he joined the local militia.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Tyler threw all of his energies into the war effort. In a state where trained military professionals were practically nonexistent, citizen soldiers such as Tyler assumed major roles in enrolling, organizing, and training thousands of volunteers, and it was in that role that political controversy first found him. As Tyler worked to organize the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, he struck a deal with James Garfield, also involved with the 7th, in which the pair agreed that Garfield would be elected colonel; in turn, Tyler would be the second in command. But while Garfield was out of state on a mission to obtain firearms, Tyler accelerated the election, earning the title of colonel for himself. In a fit of pique, Garfield quit the unit. (Later events were to suggest that the future U.S. president could hold a grudge.)

But that wasn’t the only controversial moment in Tyler’s military career. Several complaints alleged that he had treated soldiers in an abusive and threatening manner, and they sought disciplinary action against him from the War Department. Another dispute arose with General A. A. Humphreys, a West Point-educated career officer. A hard-drinking martinet with a dim view of citizen soldiers and the antislavery cause, Humphreys was not well suited to work with Tyler. The situation came to a head after the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, in which Humphreys threw his division into a hopeless attack across an open field against a well-protected enemy. Predictably, Humphreys’ forces were stopped cold and his division suffered in excess of 1,000 casualties in just 15 minutes. Tyler, who was wounded in the battle, resented what he believed was the needless sacrifice to help advance a West Pointer’s dreams of military glory and advancement. As a result, Tyler acquired an enemy who dedicated himself to destroying his reputation and career through a letter campaign that documented what Humphreys saw as Tyler’s cowardice and incompetence. The campaign culminated in Tyler’s arrest, and it initiated a court-martial on a variety of petty charges. While the court-martial charges fizzled, the damage had been done, and Tyler didn’t see much combat until that fateful day at Monocacy.

Once Upon a Time…

A room of one’s own would be prized by a student of any era, but this 1899 crib would have been the top lottery choice at Shepardson College, the lower-campus sister to Denison, which was still all male at the time. It was not only a single, but it was the tower room of Burton Hall, now the music building, with a round, many-windowed nook where the lucky resident could read or gaze out at the expanse of trees and lawn.

When this photo was taken, the room was occupied by Grace Brumback, Class of 1899. Grace’s father, Henry, was an 1863 graduate of Denison who moved to Missouri, so it would have been a more than 700-mile journey for Grace and her trunkful of enviable stuff, including the staghorn footstool with “99” stitched on the top, and a throw pillow embroidered with the signatures of Denison gentlemen.

A member of Phi Beta Kappa, Grace was as serious about her studies (Latin, math, rhetoricals, paleontology,
philosophy) as about her housekeeping, and she went on to do graduate work at Stanford. Denison and Shepardson merged several years after she earned her Shepardson diploma, so that degree was reconferred by Denison. Her son, Henry Brumback Henson ’29 met his wife, Isabelle Smock ’28 at Denison, and this past May brought members of the Brumback family back to Granville to see the graduation of Grace’s great-great-granddaughter, Kristina Isabelle King ’14.

Figure Eights and Ocean Plaits

I’m sitting on the stern deck of the Queen Mary, a once-majestic trans-Atlantic ocean liner. It is now forever moored in Long Beach, Calif., pinned in by a man-made reef, protected from the whims of the bay at the mouth of the Los Angeles River. Instead of smartly dressed travelers, it is swamped daily with hordes of tourists, both foreign and local. The ship is not what she used to be, of course, but out on the sunny deck with the seagulls hovering in the steady wind, if I close my eyes and concentrate, I can just feel her rock ever so slightly. But I must pay attention to the strange task at hand: learning to tie rope halters for horses at the annual meeting of the International Guild of Knot Tyers. I don’t ride horses, and my guess is that few of the six grown men, sitting in a circle with me on the deck of this ship, don’t either. No matter. All eyes are on our teacher, Mike Bromley. He’s about six-four and sturdy with dusty brown shoulder-length hair and a long beard, denim overalls, leathered hands. He’s the kind of guy who cries out for the moniker “Big Mike.” Yet he’s a gentle instructor with a disarmingly soft tone—more teddy bear than biker tough.

“That’s nice, real nice,” he gestures to a guy named Seth sitting on my right. “Now you have to make this next knot a Matthew Walker.”

On the other side of me is a knotter named Brad. He leans over me. “Seth, can you help me with this one? I have trouble with Matthew Walkers.”

I’m wondering who this Matthew Walker fellow is and why he’s so troubling, so I ask Seth. “It’s an interlocked overhand knot,” he explains, as he nonchalantly corrects Brad’s work. “Oh, okay,” I say. I’m a knotting novice and Cub Scout dropout, and I’m here to do research on my forthcoming book about the history of the noose. I’m also very impressed watching all these people expertly rig functional halters out of rope.

Besides me, 30-something and baby-faced Seth is the youngest guy here. By the looks of it, everyone else has at least 20 years on him. He’s wearing mostly black, despite the afternoon sun; a messenger bag with a biohazard logo rests on the deck next to him.

“I first learned Korean knot-tying,” Seth tells me, “so I don’t know many of the old nautical names for knots.” He keeps working on his halter, then suddenly pulls out his cellphone and shoots off a text to his girlfriend.

“Telling her where the bread crumbs are. She thinks they’re not there, but they are,” he says. “She’s stressed from organizing a 221B Con.” He sees the confused look on my face. “Sherlock Holmes conference.” As if I didn’t know that. Of course I knew that.

Brad complains some more about Matthew Walker, how he can’t tie it without looking. Most of the time, he says, he ties knots without looking at them. And then to impress me, he looks into my eyes while maneuvering a piece of cord with his hands. In about three seconds, he has executed a bowline knot.

Seth tells me that for him, knot-tying is meditative. Like many knot-tyers, who often come from the engineering set, Seth has a predilection for math, for problem solving—he studied physics and animation in college. So for him, intricate knot work is about confronting a conundrum with logic and symmetry—the process of resolution is relaxing.

“The more intricate the knot is, the more the stress comes out. It’s like a reverse massage.”

He picks up his phone with one hand and keeps working the line with the other.

A Day in the Hijab

I’m standing in front of my bedroom mirror,trying my best to exude confidence. My preparation includes not only a mental pregame speech (think Miracle or Braveheart), but also a little physical primping. Armed with eyeliner and mascara, I exaggerate and lengthen the look of my eyes with a skilled hand—my secret compensation tool for mounting insecurities. With two perfectly lined cat eyes staring back at me, I unfurl the day’s challenge: a floral J. Crew scarf.

Trying my best to follow the instructional YouTube video playing in the background, I twist, turn, and safety-pin my outlet-mall find around my hair. Somehow, I manage to make myself slightly resemble the helpful Muslim preteen on my computer screen (even if I do have to fight that small, female voice in the back of my head saying she wears it better).

While I pull my simple black shirt on over the headdress (or “hijab”), I’m silently grateful that I don’t have to tame my bed head this morning. As someone who showers in the evening, I feel that every morning is a gamble as to the size and direction that my long, wheat-colored hair will assume. Today I woke up looking like Hermione Granger.

I slip into my favorite pair of skinny jeans and brown boots before I take one more quick glance in the mirror. I have to admit: I look pretty good. The headdress has a way of focusing all attention on my face. No one can avoid eye contact.

It takes another 30 seconds for me to build up the courage to walk out the door of my Taylor House apartment. With a deep breath, I reach for the handle and remind myself of the purpose behind my headdress and this exercise.

As the February air hits my face, I realize that I am completely out of my comfort zone.


The shortwave radio towers in Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada, had been built during World War II. Sheilah Wilson had seen them plenty of times as a child, returning to her home in Nova Scotia after visiting family in the States, and she anticipated their blinking red lights welcoming her as she entered Sackville, home of Mount Allison University, where she earned her undergraduate degree.

But when she drove into Sackville in May to begin a residency at Struts Gallery and Faucet Media Arts Centre, Wilson knew something was missing. Just a few months prior, the government had begun to remove the towers in an effort to cut back on upkeep costs in the Internet age. Their absence made Wilson think about what those towers meant to her and to the residents of Sackville. “I was thinking of the body as its own transmission site, where emotion and memory are projected outwards,” she says, “always holding us in subjective relation to a space.”

During her residency, Wilson—whose photography often incorporates community stories—put an ad in the local paper asking for 13 volunteers to take her to the spots from which they most remembered seeing the towers. Wilson used the photographs and stories to create a series of postcards called “Body Transmission Towers,” with each postcard representing one of the towers.

Wilson’s photos probe into the loss of the familiar, and explore the ways in which language and memory retain geography long after the structures themselves have disappeared.

Under Cover

I’m standing in front of my bedroom mirror, trying my best to exude confidence. My preparation includes not only a mental pregame speech (think Miracle or Braveheart), but also a little physical primping. Armed with eyeliner and mascara, I exaggerate and lengthen the look of my eyes with a skilled hand—my secret compensation tool for mounting insecurities. With two perfectly lined cat eyes staring back at me, I unfurl the day’s challenge: a floral J. Crew scarf.

Trying my best to follow the instructional YouTube video playing in the background, I twist, turn, and safety-pin my outlet-mall find around my hair. Somehow, I manage to make myself slightly resemble the helpful Muslim preteen on my computer screen (even if I do have to fight that small, female voice in the back of my head saying she wears it better).

While I pull my simple black shirt on over the headdress (or “hijab”), I’m silently grateful that I don’t have to tame my bed head this morning. As someone who showers in the evening, I feel that every morning is a gamble as to the size and direction that my long, wheat-colored hair will assume. Today I woke up looking like Hermione Granger.

I slip into my favorite pair of skinny jeans and brown boots before I take one more quick glance in the mirror. I have to admit: I look pretty good. The headdress has a way of focusing all attention on my face. No one can avoid eye contact.

It takes another 30 seconds for me to build up the courage to walk out the door of my Taylor House apartment. With a deep breath, I reach for the handle and remind myself of the purpose behind my headdress and this exercise.

As the February air hits my face, I realize that I am completely out of my comfort zone.

The experiment of wearing a headdress for a day is the result of a vow that I and 30 other Denison women took to participate in Denison Hijab Day—a campus wide event sponsored by the Muslim Student Association (MSA) and inspired by World Hijab Day.

Both celebrations call for women of all ethnicities, religions, and backgrounds to don a head scarf for a day in order to demonstrate support for veiled Muslim women, or women who wear the Islamic headdress, and to promote awareness of the discrimination they face.

By creating a cross-cultural, international event, Denison’s MSA and Nazma Khan, the founder of World Hijab Day, seek to challenge stereotypes forced on Muslim women who cover their heads, and to a lesser degree, those who choose not to.

The inaugural Denison Hijab Day took place two weeks after the World Hijab Day celebration. “We needed some more time to prepare not only ourselves but also the Denison community, so they wouldn’t be too shocked,” says MSA president Aissata Barry ’15, who moved to Boston from Senegal in 2008.

Preparation for Hijab Day included creating a Facebook group reaching out to campus organizations such as the Denison Feminists and The Open House (Denison’s Center for Religious and Spiritual Life) for promotional support, and staffing an information table in Slayter. For days MSA members tirelessly recited the hijab’s purpose to anyone who would listen and explained why veiled Muslim women need the support of friends, faculty, and peers.

Despite MSA’s diligence, it was clear that my floral headdress startled many students. I am known on campus (if people know me at all) for being heavily involved in Denison’s Christian life. Perhaps it was my own insecurity, but I felt as if the expressions of passers-by were asking, “Why are you wearing that?”

Small interactions suddenly became significant: The first person I encountered didn’t answer my smile; the friendly cashier at the IGA didn’t make eye contact with me when he scanned my milk; a group of first-year students stared and whispered in the library.

Were these people all having bad days? Or could their strange behavior really be related to a simple scarf around my head?

Treading Lightly

I didn’t walk across the stage at my own college graduation. I didn’t even attend. I’m not entirely sure why, but I had this feeling that I would much rather hang out with my college buddies for our waning few hours as college kids, doing the things that college kids do, before the rest of life set in. When I shared this little tidbit of my past a few years ago with a Denison Magazine intern, a Denison student, she was appalled. Graduation, of course, was exactly what college kids did. And she was going to do it. With flair and sunglasses and an entire family watching from the crowd.

I should mention that I had a stellar college experience. I went to a school that allowed me to work closely with English faculty and writers. I was given opportunities—like working with a writer serving time in prison, coordinating speaker series, and more that I might not have had the chance to pursue until grad school had I chosen a different university. I met some of my very best friends, including my husband, there. I had tough experiences that challenged the way I thought about the world. I made some of my greatest mistakes (believe me, there were doozies), and I achieved some of my best accomplishments during those four years. In many ways, Denison reminds me of my own alma mater.

But I wasn’t a big follower in those days, and tradition and ceremony seemed silly to me. I suppose I thought I was bucking the system, and in some ways, that made me kind of proud.

Which is why I find it so surprising that I carefully avoid stepping on Denison’s college seal every time I make my way past Swasey Chapel. (For those of you who graduated more than 20 years ago, a six-foot-wide seal now adorns the brick plaza—and current students avoid stepping on it at all costs for fear they might not graduate.) I’m not entirely sure what I suspect might happen if I just stomp on the darn thing as I walk to Huffman for lunch or trample on it heading into the Chapel for Alumni Convocation every summer. Heck, I could spit on the thing (don’t worry, I would never), and it would have no effect on my life whatsoever.

Yet I don’t spit or trample or stomp. I carefully make my way around the seal, just like nearly every Denison student. But I don’t have a Denison degree, and I’m not currently working toward one. So what gives?

There’s a little part of me, I realize, that is feeling all right with tradition these days. Perhaps that comes with age. Plus
tradition gets pretty intense around here as spring heads toward summer—there’s really no avoiding it. There’s the gear-up for Reunion Weekend, of course, when Denisonians come home to revisit their college days, but before that, there’s Commencement, a time when soon-to-be graduates try to soak up everything Denison before leaving the Hill. It’s really sweet how they start missing Denison before they’ve even left.

One of the big events leading up to Commencement is Senior Week, during which students are handed a “bucket list” to work through. Because I didn’t do much of this kind of thing during my own college years, and because I feel—every once in a while—as if I’ve missed out on something having not gone to Denison, I spent one afternoon in early May working my way through the bucket list right alongside the seniors. I climbed the bell tower with a group and rang a Swasey bell on my way back down. I heard the history of the tower and saw the notes on the walls written by the bell-ringers of years past. I saw the beautiful interior of the observatory for the first time, and I learned all about its construction and inner workings. I even headed over to Cookie Sunkle’s office in Gilpatrick House to take a look at the advice offered by the Class of 2014 in what would become the last all-class email they would receive as students. I’ll admit I did skip the Whit’s frozen custard offered up by Alumni Relations—that’s one tradition I probably embrace a little too often. (Pre-2003 alumni: Whit’s has become a Denison tradition just as solidly entrenched as the Evergreens’ red velvet cake was in your day. And that’s pretty entrenched.)

In just a few hours, I realized why my intern was so appalled at my lack of excitement over my own graduation. To her, walking across that stage was the last item to be checked off her bucket list. While I’m still happy with the way I spent my own graduation day—with friends who are now scattered all over the country—I’m glad I have made way for a little more Denison tradition in my life. Though I don’t have a degree from this college, I do feel like a Human of Denison, a true Denisonian. And that is why I will never set foot on that seal.

College Connections

When I stepped on campus, I knew this was where I wanted to go to college.” That is the sentence I heard most during my first year at Denison. It made sense to me, because I experienced the same thing. I fell in love with Denison the moment I saw it.

At first, I thought it was the beauty of the Hill, but over time I have come to believe that it is the power of relationships and the values of the people who make up this great college.

In a recent book, How College Works, sociologists Dan Chambliss and Christopher Takacs empirically document the importance of relationships to a positive college experience. “This pervasive influence of relationships,” they write, “suggests that a college—at least insofar as it offers real benefits—is less a collection of programs than a gathering of people.”

Don’t get me wrong, Denison has some incredible programs and a stellar curriculum, but much of its strength comes from enduring relationships that are formed in classrooms, residence halls, athletic fields, arts studios, and faculty offices. Our students talk about our faculty with great admiration. And our faculty members talk about our students with enthusiasm, commitment, and joy. The student-faculty relationship has always been special at Denison, and continues to be so today—it anchors the student experience, faculty careers, and the college.

Relationships run equally deep between and among students. At Reunion Weekend this year, I was struck by how many students had come to Denison and built friendships that will last a lifetime. It is remarkable how many Denison friendships transcend generations and anchor the lives of our graduates and their families.

And relationships run deep between staff and students. From residential life staffers to academic department assistants, our staff members and students forge relationships that are unusual for a college and speak volumes about Denison’s values and culture.

As is typical of new presidents, I am working with the faculty, students, staff, parents, alumni, and community members on plans for the future. Our focus is on building and strengthening relationships to give students a fantastic education and prepare them to lead great lives.

To do that, we are working on new ways to bring students and faculty together. Denison Seminars—team-taught courses that have an off-campus component—will be new this year. We also have new programs that will bring students and faculty together around meals. And we are looking to expand our undergraduate research programs, allowing more students to work with faculty over the summer, including at research stations around the world.

We’ll also focus on strengthening relationships between students. Denison is a diverse place, giving our students an array of opportunities to learn to live and work with people who are different from themselves. The campus should be a design studio in which students can practice their liberal arts skills. Rather than solving problems as faculty and administrators, for example, we are focused on self-governance, giving students the responsibility to solve campus issues and problems, thereby sharpening their leadership skills.

And of course, we are focused on our alumni. You are one of our greatest resources. We need new ways to connect you with the current generation of Denison students. Denison alumni always have succeeded across the professions. As students transition from the liberal arts into the professions, they need to hear your stories, learn from your mentorship, and benefit from your networks.

I do have a few favors to ask of our alumni and our parents. Denison is a great college. But we need to raise our visibility and be on people’s radar screens more. First, bumper stickers on cars, coffee mugs in offices, and Denison pens in your house are simple but effective ways to remind others that we are educating the brightest students and producing successful alumni. If you need a bumper sticker, email me (, and you can order a T-shirt or coffee mug online at Second, you can change a life by getting a high school student to consider Denison. Please email, call, or text people whose families include high school juniors or seniors. Encourage them to look at Denison. If you are so inclined, consider a simple Facebook post or tweet.

Encouraging a family to look at Denison is a gift to the college, to your friends, and to the young person whose life will be changed by the relationships that grow at this great college.

Takin’ It Slow

As a culture, we love speed. We love our food fast and out Internet faster. We love instant gratification, speedy delivery, and accelerated learning. But what do we lose when we prioritize efficiency over, well, just about everything?

We asked faculty, staff, and students who take a more contemplative approach to share how slowing things down just might make life a little better.

(By Erin Peterson; Illustrations by Lorenzo Petrantoni)

Board Certified

 Douglas W. Mabie ’86

Mabie, who earned an M.B.A. from Northwestern University in 1995, is a managing director in the private wealth division of Robert W. Baird Inc. He manages customized investment portfolios for individuals, families, and institutions. Prior to joining Baird in 2012, Mabie spent 24 years at William Blair & Company as a partner and portfolio manager in its investment management division. Mabie also is the founder and director of the Springboard Foundation of the Chicago Community Trust, a director of the Western Golf Association/Evans Scholars Foundation, and a trustee of North Shore Country Day School.

Mabie has been active with the Posse Foundation, creating internships and scholarship opportunities for Denison Posse Scholars. In addition, he has served Denison as a career advisor, as a President’s Associates volunteer, and as a member of the President’s Leadership Council and his Reunion Gift Committee. Mabie is a member of the D-Association and received an Alumni Citation in 2011. During his time at Denison, he played varsity basketball and became a member of Phi Delta Theta fraternity.

Thomas E. Szykowny ’79 

This is Szykowny’s second term on  Denison’s board of trustees, having served as recent student trustee from 1979 to 1982, immediately following his graduation from Denison. During that time, he worked toward earning a J.D. from the Ohio State University Michael E. Moritz College of Law, graduating in 1982. Today he is a corporate, business, and insurance regulatory lawyer. Szykowny joined Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease in 1982 and has served as the chairman of the firm’s Business Development Committee and as a member of its Management and Investment Committees. Currently he chairs the full-service insurance practice of the firm.

Szykowny was the recipient of the Columbus Jaycees Distinguished Service Award and received the Ohio State Bar Association and Columbus Bar Association Community Service Awards. He is a past president of the Buckeye Ranch and I Know I Can. He also serves on the board of directors of CBS Agency Inc., and is a trustee of The Griffith Foundation. In August 2010, Szykowny was announced as a new member of the Greater Columbus Arts Council. He was a trustee of The Columbus Academy and served as board president from 2007 to 2010. Szykowny has served Denison as an Annual Fund volunteer, campaign volunteer, career adviser, DURF trustee, President’s Associates volunteer, and chair of his Reunion Gift Committee. He was awarded the Alumni Citation in 1995.

Banner Year

One of the most recent additions to this growing collection is a mystery. A banner stolen from Denison’s athletic center, then Livingston Gym, resurfaced this past June during Reunion Weekend and is now proudly displayed in Alumni Relations’ front window.

“One of the alums on the 50th reunion planning committee came up to me and said, ‘A fellow classmate would like to return this to the college. He’s lived with guilt for 50 years and wants to give it back,’” said Steve Crawford, director of alumni relations. The previous “owner” wished to remain anonymous.

These types of donations, however, are not new to the Alumni Relations Office. “This has happened other times,” said Crawford. For instance, about five years ago the staff received a package in the mail containing tools that would be useful in a theatre scene shop. The accompanying written confession said, “I stole comparable items during my time at Denison and would like to replace them.”

Similarly, Alumni Relations often gets bequests from visiting alumni or the families of deceased Denisonians. The staff also has been known to “rescue” valuables, such as pictures used for events, from the trash.

The recovered banner, however, is the largest artifact in the office and a favorite of Crawford. “I hung it up right away before it could be moved down to Mitchell,” he said with a laugh, noting that he’s certain the athletics staff would love to have it back home. “I have no plans of taking it down there.”


Back from the Edge

It’s hard to believe that the talent and energy of Frank Zappa, a man who refused to be measured by any conventional standard, have been gone for 20 years. When I was lucky enough to meet him briefly in 1971, it would never have occurred to me that he would also be kind. By then he had released only a dozen of his 70-plus albums, any one of which could drive the guests from a party with its collision of styles and angry lyrics. He might target the news media’s lurid coverage of the race riots in Watts, or the violence for sale with Christmas toys, or the hypocrisy of a congressman’s affair with his teenage queen. But as often he’d directly scold his own audience: “You think we’re singing about someone else!”

Zappa was on tour with a newly re-formed Mothers of Invention, which brought them to a former skating-rink-turned-concert-venue in Kansas City, Mo.—the Cowtown Ballroom. It was my first concert. Desperately in need of some alternative to my high school culture, I wasn’t going to miss seeing Zappa.

When “Flo and Eddy” (who had quit the Turtles and joined the new Mothers) started singing “Happy Together,” I broke into tears that I couldn’t stop for the rest of the performance. After the concert, the crowd dispersed, but I remained standing, still crying, watching the roadies break down the equipment. No doubt I was conspicuous. Zappa saw me there and walked up, extending his hand in a business shake, and asked me what was wrong. I was so overwhelmed, all I could think to tell him was about my mother’s poodle—a dreadful animal with painted nails who would have panic attacks when the television was turned off (attacks that eventually killed her, though not yet). Zappa gave me his business card and told me to write him a letter about it. He offered me the best two words of advice I could have gotten: “Convert it.” I understood him to mean that I should change the way I saw circumstances I couldn’t change, convert them into something I could survive. Maybe that’s not what he meant at all, but at that moment, it helped.

Zappa’s early works always had an edge that made it difficult to tell if he was mocking or paying tribute to major musical figures of the ’60s. He scrambled together lines and sounds of Dylan, Donovan, the Beatles, and Hendrix, splicing in stoned dialog, the scratch sounds of a stereo needle, obscene lyrics recorded backwards, or perhaps some orchestral pieces by Holst or Stravinsky. The jacket notes for his double-album debut in 1966, called “Freak Out,” boasted that it had “no commercial potential,” with a song that even mocks his audience, “Maybe that’s not for me to say. They only pay me here to play.”

How ironic that Zappa’s distinctive face became an emblem of the counterculture when in truth he was one of its most insightful critics.

Within a year of the Beatles’ release of “Sgt. Pepper’s,” arguably the anthem for the late ’60s, Zappa released a prophetic satire of it and the culture it encouraged, called “We’re Only In It for the Money,” with the lyrics, “Every town must have a place where phony hippies meet, psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street.”

Zappa was the first person I heard warn that hippies would be shot by the police (two years before the Kent State shootings), that the movement would devolve into a shopping style, that “flower power” was only escapist laziness.

For all the self-critique Zappa brought to the counterculture, he also offered the best-reasoned defense of its constitutional right to self-expression. He printed the first amendment on the record sleeves of his earliest albums. In 1985, when Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center nudged the U.S. Senate to consider mandating content warnings on sexually explicit music, Zappa testified before Congress that the proposed censorship measure was “the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation.” “People who write bad laws,” he added, “are more dangerous than songwriters who celebrate sexuality.”

When his predictions about the counterculture came true, he apparently lost interest in significant satire and started singing nonsense lyrics about yellow snow, songs about farms that grow dental floss, even a song about a poodle. But if he lost his spirit for angry lyrics, he kept his energy for composing jazz, classical music, and that distinctive sound I can always recognize as his.

Frank Zappa died from prostate cancer 20 years ago on Dec. 4, 1993. Were they musical geniuses, too, satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert might be seen as his successors today, but they don’t come close to expressing the raw anger and frustration of today’s generation that Zappa did for us. Rest in peace, Frank Zappa, or maybe not.

Once Upon A Time …

Well into the 20th century, vigorous rivalry between the freshmen and the sophomores was part of the Denison culture, and every October the superiority of one class over the other was tested and proven during an annual release of energy known as “Scrap Day.” That’s “scrap” as in “tussle.”

Cane rush, flag rush, and pole rush were the most common scraps, and all three involved one class rushing at the other on the playing field, tackling and even tying up the opposing team members with rope and dragging them off the field. In cane rush, the stick or “cane” was the object of the battle—to possess it and to move it as deeply as possible into the opponents’ territory. The cane can be seen being held by the fellow at the base of the “1,” probably freshman class president Robert B. Whyte.

The Denisonian of the time described the event in great detail. “Slugging and kicking” were against the rules, but college administrators were clear that “Wholesome class rivalry over this beautiful Denison tradition is a thing to be commended.” This particular brawl lasted all of 15 minutes, after which “the majority of both classes was ready to quit.”

It was tradition that the young ladies of the two classes would arrive on horse-drawn hay wagons decorated in class colors, singing and cheering throughout the scrap. At the end, the winners were served cups of hot coffee by the girls, and after this 1908 scrap, it was reported that they made room on their wagon for an injured sophomore to be carried back to campus from Beaver Field.

@AdamAtDenison: Let’s Talk

For years, my wife Anne has had to listen to my concerns about higher education. During my first semester at Denison, she listened to me talk endlessly about how Denison does it right, and how we should work harder to tell our story and engage in important public debates.

Denison has a great story to tell, and I am convinced we need to tell it more frequently and better. So I have decided to join the age of social media and tweet. When the idea was first raised, I was a bit hesitant. To be honest, I had never been on Twitter. But as I experienced Denison, I began to see the possibilities.

I want to find more ways to communicate with the larger Denison community. And I want to do this in ways that are regular, interactive, and unfiltered. Twitter will allow me to post short snapshots of Denison and the state of higher education in this country. It also allows you to respond and ask questions, which I will try to answer as best I can in 140 characters or fewer.

Here are a few items from my first semester that Twitter would have allowed me to share:

In December, there was a fascinating editorial in The Wall Street Journal that discussed the disengagement of faculty at many colleges. Denison is a counterexample to this trend in every way. Our faculty are deeply engaged in the education of our students and the college. By staying true to certain prin- ciples, we have managed to retain a teacher-scholar model that is the essence of a great college education.

Second, there is growing national concern about financial aid and student loan debt burdens. Our conservative management philosophy and commitment to multiple forms of financial aid have run counter to much thinking in higher education. They also have allowed us to achieve a 57 percent discount rate, meaning that on average, students pay only 43 percent of the full Denison tuition, with the college picking up the rest of the tab through grants and scholarships.

Third, Denison has become a benchmark liberal arts col- lege for diversity. This year, 32 percent of our students bring some form of ethnic or racial diversity to campus and 13 percent are first-generation college students. Our campus dynamics suggest ways of educating and training a genera- tion to move beyond the polarized political discourses of our society to invent a new form of civil democracy.

In other words, I want to use Twitter to put the spotlight on some of the major issues facing higher education and how we address them.

And of course, I’ll also keep you posted on the progress Denison is making in areas such as admissions (Denison has become one of the most selective colleges in the country, admitting 46 percent of our applicants, compared with 84 percent in 1994); arts (we had an amazing fall filled with bluegrass music, theatre and dance performances, art shows, comedy troupes, and everything in between); and athletics (this fall, field hockey was 17-2, football was 7-3, men’s soccer was 11-4-3, women’s soccer finished first in its league, and women’s rugby finished 13th in the country and claimed the DII Ohio state championship for the third year in a row).

Sociologists talk about finding the abnormal in the normal. This expression captures my first semester at Denison.

The “normal” daily events at Denison are extraordinary for the impact they are having on a generation of stellar students, preparing them to be the world-class human beings who have defined this college for generations.

I need your help raising the visibility of Denison by letting the rest of the world know about the tremendous things happening at this college. If you find something interesting, please retweet it and/or post it to Facebook, LinkedIn, or your other social media accounts. Email links to friends, especially those who have children of high-school age. Help me use technology to raise Denison’s visibility in ways that are important for Denison and higher education.

For those who are well versed in social media, advice is welcome. For those who have been slow to embrace social media, consider opening a Twitter account and learning with me. For those who are not inclined, know that I will continue to focus most of my time on the face-to-face relationships that define Denison, making it the college we admire and cherish.

Blue Moon

As moments in musical history go, the events leading up to the formation of the Hilltoppers, Denison’s oldest male a cappella group, might seem inauspicious. They’re also somewhat vague. Accounts vary, and one of the group’s key instigators, Peter Frame ’82, is no longer available to answer questions, having lost a 20-year battle with a brain tumor in 2013, the same year the ensemble celebrated its 35th anniversary.

According to Laura Gray Frame ’83, her soon-to-be boyfriend and eventual husband was studying in his dorm room in Smith Hall on Halloween night in 1978 when Andy Zweig ’82 appeared outside his ground-floor window and began belting out Broadway show tunes. Frame went outside and began singing along, hoping eventually to quiet Zweig. The next day, the two decided to form a vocal group.

Zweig remembers things a bit differently. It was midnight on the West Quad and the song was the national anthem. When Frame begged him to stop, Zweig replied, “The only way I’m going to stop is if you sing with me.” Frame consented, joining Zweig in perfect harmony. It was, Zweig recalls, an aha moment. “I didn’t know what we had,” he says, “but I knew we had something.”

What they had turned out to be the nucleus of the Hilltoppers. Seeking like-minded harmonizers, Frame and Zweig went to William Osborne, founder of the Denison Singers and now distinguished professor of fine arts emeritus. Osborne, in turn, pointed them toward Teddy Pearre ’80, a junior who also had been trying to get a male a cappella group off the ground. Pearre showed up at rehearsal with five other singers in tow, and the Hilltoppers were born.

From the outset, the group’s emphasis on four-part harmony meant that most of its material consisted of barbershop quartet tunes (“Peg o’ My Heart,” “Strolling Through the Park One Day”), 1950s doo-wop hits (“Duke of Earl,” “Blue Moon”), African-American spirituals (“Ride in the Chariot”), and the occasional show tune, all of which were either acquired as written arrangements—some of them mooched from high school choir directors over winter break—or lifted by ear from recordings. The octet also managed to score prime evening rehearsal space: a basement lounge by a stairwell in what was then an all-female Shorney Hall that offered both excellent natural reverb and scores of curious nightgown-clad coeds. “That’s when I knew I wanted in,” recalls Rick Houpt ’81, a sophomore whose future wife, Patty Ripley ’81, was a frequent target of the group’s romantic serenades.

That first iteration of the Hilltoppers wasn’t short on musical talent—everyone had some singing experience, and Frame in particular was a gifted first tenor—but opportunities for  performances were hard to come by, and sometimes a bit rough: Houpt persuaded his fraternity to let the Hilltoppers sing at a Parents Weekend cocktail party; Patty landed them a similar gig at her sorority; and the group butchered the national anthem at the annual Homecoming game. Their big break came in 1981, when a private performance for the board of trustees—a de facto audition that led to a multicity tour during which the group entertained alumni clubs from Boston to Pittsburgh. That same year, the group recorded its debut album in a basement studio in Pataskala, Ohio. To save money, the sessions began at 10 p.m., typically ending at 2 or 3 a.m.; and just to make things more interesting, Zweig and a couple of other Jewish members teased the engineer, who had never before recorded anything but Christian religious music, about “singing a couple in Hebrew.” (They didn’t.)

Bill Wexler ’79, another founding member, never imagined that the group would have such legs. Wexler himself was in the ensemble for only a year, and might never have joined at all if Teddy Pearre hadn’t heard him humming in an adjacent lane during an intermediate bowling class in the alley that once occupied the third floor of Slayter Hall. Yet today, Wexler hosts a monthly gathering at his home in Cincinnati that draws members of the Hilltopper Alumni Club (HAC) from Columbus to St. Louis. “I’m not sure if they come for the free food and beer, or for the harmony and camaraderie,” says Wexler, who considers his fellow participants—none of whom he knew at Denison—to be among his closest friends.

A plaque honoring the eight founding members now stands outside Higley Hall, and 20 or 30 members of the HAC gather on campus each spring, with even larger numbers coming together at five-year intervals to participate in “Generations” concerts that see clusters of former and current members performing together on stage. Something similar occurred at the memorial that was held for Frame in Swasey Chapel in August, when more than 50 alumni joined the current batch of Hilltoppers to sing “Abraham, Martin and John.” “It was very difficult for me to make it through that song, because I remembered singing it with Pete,” says Wexler.

Yet the presence of so many past and present Hilltoppers paid fitting tribute to a man whose timely musical intervention one Halloween night helped establish an institution that continues to play an outsize role in the lives of its members. “It was a testament not only to Pete,” says Houpt, who spoke at Swasey of Frame’s commitment to the ensemble, “but to the group.” And Frame’s legacy lives on, not only through the current Hilltoppers, but through his two daughters, Taylor and Campbell. Like Dad before her, Taylor, a senior at Denison, belts out tunes with one of the college’s all-female a cappella groups, Ladies’ Night Out.

Advice from the Expert: It May Look Like Dinner, But …

Show up early, locate the restrooms, and get yourself situated. Let the host or hostess know that you’ve arrived. If your interviewer is already seated, you will be escorted to the table. Remember, do not sit down until you are offered a seat—your interviewer will determine where he or she wants you to sit. 

Put your napkin on your lap when your interviewer does so. And remember, that napkin is to blot your mouth should any food go rogue, otherwise it should stay put. Dinner napkins are folded in half, with the fold facing you. Luncheon napkins, generally smaller, should be opened fully. Should you need to excuse yourself from the table, place your napkin on the seat of your chair—never put a soiled napkin back on the table until the meal has ended.

Consider it all a game of “follow the leader.” Pick up your menu when the interviewer picks up his or her menu. If she orders an appetizer, you order an appetizer; if he orders dessert, you order dessert. The rules change only when alcohol is involved. If your interviewer chooses a martini, you’re better off with sparkling water or an iced tea. Oh, and stay away from heavily carbonated beverages, the results can be embarrassing at best.

If you’re not sure what to order, ask your interviewer what she would recommend. By asking, you will get an idea of a price range. By no means is this an opportunity to order the most expensive item on the menu or to try something you’ve never had before. Play it safe and stick with an entrée that is easy to manage—stay away from meat or fish with bones and never order pasta or other potentially messy foods.

Is that bread and butter plate hers or yours? What about the water glass? Here’s a trick to figuring out which plates and glasses belong to you. Take both hands and join your thumbs and index fingers. Your right hand forms a “d” and your left hand forms a “b.” Drinks are on the right, and bread and butter plates are on the left. But, please, if you need this guide, reference it inconspicuously under the table. (Speaking of that bread, if there is a basket of bread or rolls, always pass it to the right, and you never spread your butter on the entire piece or tear your roll open and slather both sides. It may be efficient, but it’s wrong! Always break off a small piece of bread or roll and butter each piece. )

What about the forks? Which one when? Always start from the outside of your place setting and work your way in toward your plate, course by course.

And just because your mother won’t be there, let me fill in for her: Don’t slurp your soup; don’t tuck your napkin into your shirt or pants; don’t take medication at the table; don’t pick your teeth; don’t text or take a call. In fact, turn your phone off. Don’t apply make-up or ChapStick at the table. And, of course, don’t put your elbows on the table. The entire meal should be spent sharing your skills and knowledge and the reasons you are a good fit for the position. If you’re doing it right, you won’t even notice the food!