Rabbi Ben Ezra, Don Quixote and Jean Valjean
Gordon Clinard, Gary Phelps and Pedalin’ Prof
from William Jewell College
by Ed Chasteen
I’m a teenager in 1950’s Huntsville, Texas. It’s the last night: one of the many two week revivals that come through our town and those nearby. I’m here in all most every night. This preacher tells mesmerizing stories. Tonight he leaves. I have yet to speak to him. Now I must.
“Where did you learn all those amazing stories?” I ask.
“Son, I didn’t learn ’em. I lived ’em.”
Now, as I shortly turn 80 in 2015’s Liberty, Missouri, I’ve lived my own. I came to this town straight from grad school when I was 29 to join the faculty of our local college. I live with the only wife I’ve ever had in the only house we’ve ever owned. Our three children graduated for our college. One now teaches here. The other two are staff members at nearby community colleges.
Professor William Yeats introduces me to Rabbi Ben Ezra. I’m a 19 year old sophomore in our local college. I graduated a year earlier from Huntsville High School. Two weeks later I walk across town and enroll for summer school at Sam Houston State Teacher’s College. Now in my second year at the college, I sign up for Professor Yeats Elizabethan Poetry and hear Rabbi Ben Ezra say: “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made.” He says more. Only this sticks with me. But these word play on a continuous loop in the deep recesses of my brain where other unconscious treasures reside. Without my willing recall, even against my occasional efforts to suppress, these treasures form a bedrock that will not let me sink. When years later I am told that I must live with a chronic crippling illness and depression comes, Rabbi Ben Ezra reassures me.
I have never read Miguel Cervantes’s two volume Don Quixote. But when I saw Man of LaMancha, Dale Wasserman’s stage play, depicting both the real life of the author and his fictitious knight, I was mesmerized. “Facts are the enemy of truth.” “Too much sanity may be madness, and the greatest madness of all may be to see life as it is, and not as it should be.”
When his friends say to him,”Wickedness wears thick armor,” Don Quixote replies: “And for that you would have me surrender? Nay, the enchanter may confuse the outcome ten thousand times. Still must a man arise and again do battle, for the effort is sublime.”
Early in Man of LaMancha, Don Quixote meets a serving wench he mistakes for a princess in a roadside hovel he thinks is a castle. He calls her “My Lady” and asks her name. She says she is no lady. “My name is Aldonza.” Don Quixote protests and calls her Dulcinea.
Several times in the story he comes again to this place and meets this woman, treating her as a lady and calling her Dulcinea. She protests. Near the end of the story, this woman hears that Don Quixote is dying in a distant place. She goes there. Finds him delirious. “My Lord,” she says. “Who is it?” He asks. “You called me by name and changed my life,” she says. “My name is Dulcinea.”
She now sees herself as he has seen her all the time. No better way of explaining how HateBusters see the world could I ever imagine.
Neither have I read Les Miserables Victor Hugo’s monumental depiction of the French revolution. But I’ve seen the play several times and two movie versions. I bought the sound track from the London performance. As the story begins, Jean Valjean is released from 18 years in prison, sentenced for stealing bread to feed his family, and forced henceforth to wear an emblem of his prison time, meaning that no one will hire him. A priest takes pity and invites Valjean for a meal and lodging. When the priest is asleep, ValJean steals silver candlesticks.
Days later Valjean is caught and taken to face the priest. When the priest verifies the theft, Valjean knows he will be returned to prison for life. He is resigned to his fate. But something else happens, the reason for which Valjean never will know, but a thing that will set him free and make him rich. The priest says to the policeman, “This man did not steal. I gave him these candlesticks, and I meant to give him still more.” He does so.
Years later when Valjean is owner of a factory and mayor of his town, he hears that Valjean has been arrested and is being returned to prison. They have the wrong man. No one will be looking for him any longer. He thinks of the priest. And he cannot let an innocent man suffer in his place. So Valjean goes to court and identifies himself. He is arrested. He escapes, but again is a fugitive, his money and position gone.
That unmerited good favor, that grace, bestowed by the priest upon Valjean has far reaching consequences. Valjean is now on the run from the law in 1780’s France, the revolution is underway. Valjean befriends the young revolutionaries. At the barricades one day, Valjean spots Javert, the prison official who has sworn to apprehend him. Javet is a spy. He has infiltrated the revolution. When Valjean exposes Javert, those in charge turn Javert over to Valjean. Javert is resigned to his fate. He will be killed. This man, Valjean, is evil. Javert has devoted his life to his capture and return to prison.
Even though he knows that Javert will forever pursue him, ValJjean sets him free. And the foundation of Javert’s life shatters. This man he has sworn to punish, this man with every reason to kill him, has spared his life. He has been wrong to pursue this good man. And he cannot live with that knowledge. Javert leaps into the river. Valjean is free.
Gordon Clinard comes to pastor Huntsville’s First Baptist Church when I’m in high school. Without raising his voice or gesturing with his hands, Brother Clinard lifts us all above and beyond ourselves. How we can all love each other and why we should: the message that morning brings heaven into the room and will go with us into our town. So I tell myself.
As I walk up the aisle toward the door, a deacon stands to either side. From that day until the day I die, their names and faces will be etched in my brain. The words I hear them say blink on and off inside me like neon in the night and make me sad. One says, “If them niggers try to come in this church, I’ll beat ’em back with a baseball bat.” The other says, “Me, too.”
If not in our town, at least in our church heaven seems close. After another year of hearing Brother Clinard twice every Sunday and once every Wednesday evening, I cannot resist. As he concludes his sermon and issues an invitation one Sunday morning, I walk down the aisle to take his hand and tell him I’m surrendering to preach.
Soon after, the seminary from which Brother Clinard graduated comes calling. His reputation as a preacher has brought them. They want him to return to campus and teach aspiring preachers. He feels the call and plans to return. Then one Sunday afternoon just as church members are sitting down to dinner in their homes, fire sirens sound. Word soon spreads that the Baptist Church is on fire. A crowd quickly gathers. The church is gutted. Only the shell is left.
Brother Clinard does not leave. For the next year, my church meets in my school. Our school auditorium becomes our church sanctuary. The lectern becomes the pulpit. Secular classrooms during the week become sacred on Sunday. Through it all, Brother Clinard keeps us together. Then when we are back in our church, Brother Clinard answers the call. None of us wanted our building to burn. All of us are grateful for the added year of Brother Clinard’s presence with us.
After teaching at Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Ft. Worth for a while, Dr. Clinard was made Billy Graham Professor of Preaching at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville. He would come now and then to visit Midwestern Baptist Seminary in Kansas City, not far from where I now lived in Liberty. I would meet him for lunch, and I would feel the urge again to say what I never worked up the courage to say.
After a short time at Southern, Brother Clinard’s heart began to fail. He returned to Texas to take a less visible and less stressful teaching position. Returning home one day to his wife, Christine, his car was struck by a drunk driver, and Brother Clinard was called to his eternal home. And I cried. My last chance was gone to tell him this: “That Sunday in church when I told you I was surrendering to preach. I should have said,’I want to be just like you’.”
That is exactly the way my life has gone. After he left our church in Huntsville as pastor, Dr. Clinard became a professor. I pastored two small Texas churches while in college, long enough to know that this work was not for me. So instead of pastor of a Baptist Church, I became a professor at a Baptist College. Brother Clinard taught theology. I taught sociology.
I joined the faculty of William Jewell College the year I got my PhD. And here I met Gary Phelps. Gary Phelps belonged to William Jewell College in the same way many of us belong to a church or a political party. From that day in the late 1960s when he came as a student, Gary was committed to William Jewell as a way of life. Here on this campus, as Gary has told countless prospective students and visiting parents over these many years, “I learned to think, to write and to care. Bob Trotter taught me to think. Marilyn Walker taught me to write. Ed Chasteen taught me to care.”
I remember the day in the early ‘70s when Gary appeared one day on campus after being away at graduate school. His face aglow with pure pleasure, like a small boy who has found his most desired treasure beneath the Christmas tree, Gary breathlessly explained to me that he was coming back as a member of the staff.
“I never recovered from your Race Relations class,” Gary would say to me in our early years as colleagues. The Black Student Association on our campus was born from Gary’s heart and mind. The 1960s had been a tense time in racial terms. Gary cared about justice issues. He resolved that on his watch, our campus would be a place where all students felt safe and valued and at home.
Gary had a house in the town, but more likely than not on any day of the week or hour of the day or night you would find him in his office in the Union or about somewhere on the campus dealing with a crisis. When pagers came available, Gary got one and widely distributed his number. He never wanted to be more than a few minutes away from any student or staff who might need him.
We would have tarried longer that day in 2001 had we known we would never meet again. I had rushed to Gary’s office to make final plans with him for our Human Family Reunion to be held in a few days in the Union. Gary had been at our first Human Family Reunion held beneath the trees on the president’s lawn in 1976. He worked the crowd, explaining to each and all how glad William Jewell was to host this good event.
When in later years we would hold our Human Family Reunions in other parts of Greater Kansas City, Gary’s duties on campus would often prevent his attendance. Always, though, he would send greetings and tell me that he was with us in spirit. That last morning, Gary’s parting words to me: “I would like to host the Human Family Reunion at William Jewell every year. Our students need to be a part.”
“Way to go, Gary. I like the way you think.” I didn’t know these would be my last words to Gary. I would have said more. How much I loved him. What a good man he was. How valuable he was to William Jewell. I had said, “Way to go,” to Gary many times for many different reason over many years. I hope he understood my verbal shorthand as the blanket endorsement of his person and his profession.
Gary told me that last morning together that President Sallee had to be out of town on the day of our Reunion, so Gary would bring greetings from the college. People of all colors, creeds and colors come. Who is right is the wrong question this night. Once we have become friends, we can handle such a question. Gary loved the ambiance of the evening when all these good folks come to campus. He was making big plans to make everyone welcome.
We agreed that I would call Gary the next Monday morning to touch base and make final plans. As I am about to call, my phone rings. Judy Rychlewski says, “Ed, it breaks my heart to tell you this, but Gary died this morning. He was in the cafeteria when he collapsed. We called an ambulance, but they couldn’t revive him.”
Hours pass before I can trust myself to speak. My heart is breaking. I can muster no enthusiasm for our Reunion without Gary. I think of calling it off. Then it comes to me that Gary would not want to be the reason we have no Reunion. So in a few days, Tuesday, April 17 2001, at 6:30 in the evening, we all gather in the east cafeteria of the Union for THE GARY PHELPS MEMORIAL HUMAN FAMILY REUNION.
We meet in the very building where a few days before, Gary died. How I wish Gary had not left us so early. How happy I am that he chose to live and work among us. How fitting that he died early on a Monday morning having breakfast with students and staff and preparing for a new week. How privileged we all were to have Gary Phelps in our lives. He came as a student to learn from us. He stayed to become our teacher and our friend. He left us quickly and suddenly, with good memories and great stories to tell.
Way to go, Gary
From Rabbi Ben Ezra, Don Quixote, Jean ValJean, Gordon Clinard and Gary Phelps, I had come to believe that inside every person burns a spark of goodness and genius. I’m 50 years old when I think of a way to test my belief. I get on a bicycle in Orlando, Florida. I’m alone. I have no money. I pedal north and west to Seattle, then south to Anaheim. Every time I need to eat or rest for the night, I say to the first person I meet: “Hello, my name is Ed Chasteen. I’m ridin’ across the country. By myself. With no money. I need (a sandwich, a bed for the night, some water, whatever my exact need at that moment). Can you help me?”
In the 105 days it takes me to reach Anaheim, I ask more than 500 people to help me. No one says no. I’m never hungry. I always have a place to sleep. I carry no map. I ask in each town how to get to the next.
I find the goodness and genius I expected. When I get to Disneyland, Disney holds a parade just for me. Mickey Mouse gives me a trophy, a foot-tall replica of himself on a four inch high wooden base, fronted with a brass plate and this inscription.
“PEDALIN’ PROF” FROM WILLIAM JEWELL COLLEGE
HIS COURAGEOUS BIKE RIDE ACROSS AMERICA
DISNEYLAND COMMENDS ED FOR HIS FIGHT AGAINST
MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS AND FOR HIS FAITH IN PEOPLE
OF ALL RACES AND CREEDS
To passing motorists and those in towns I ride through on my bicycle, I appear to be alone. So to the unaided eye does the earth seem flat. But as surely as the earth in fact is round, so on my bicycle are six riders.