That Little Thing

Completing my undergraduate major requirements in mathematics before I was a senior, I had grown impatient with mathematics largely because it seemed to me at the time so isolating from people.  I was utterly naïve of course and had become a math major simply because my mom told me to do so believing, why I have no idea, that with a degree in mathematics I’d surely get a good (meaning well-paying) job.  I took a course in business administration from Professor Larry Jones.  He was a tall clean-cut pipe-smoking intellectual-looking man.  On one assignment I was asked to indicate what I would do in a particular business situation and the situation was extensively described.  I wrote my paper on the many reasons I was sure that I would never have gotten myself into that situation in the first place and would thus not have to deal with the thorny problems clearly present in the situation.  He gave me a “D.”  I was not, however, discouraged because I caught a glimpse of a sea change that was at that moment taking place—this was the mid-‘60s—a shift from a behaviorist perspective to methods of quantitative analysis supported by the introduction of computers into the business environment.  I realized that with my background in mathematics I was rather well placed to put this to use in the business environment.

Entering a graduate degree program in business I found myself positioned with the right stuff at the right time.  Professor Jones had landed a senior administrative position for the Coleman Company—he would later become president of the company (and would later run for governor of the state)—and he was not so put off by my performance as to recognize that I might have something to offer even if I could be counted on to argue with premises.  I was hired in a research position at the Coleman Company, I somehow landed a position teaching a class in the Business School at Wichita State University on quantitative methods, and I was a full time graduate student.  I enjoyed many privileges and opportunities in these interrelated capacities, even though I was a bit busy.  Financial and business success seemed completely assured.  All was smooth sailing I felt and I totally loved everything I was doing.

We never know what comes next in life, what little thing might happen on any day that will alter the course of our lives, or so it would seem anyway.  As I had been impressed by Professor Larry Jones and did all I could to learn and be inspired by him, I admired even more Professor Harry Corbin.  He had been a young president of Wichita University, a municipally based school when I entered in 1960, and in the early ‘60s he ushered through the Kansas State Legislature the necessary measures to have the university accepted into the state system of higher education under the new name of Wichita State University.  As an undergraduate student leader in numerous capacities I had had many opportunities to observe President Corbin in action.  He too was a tall handsome reserved quietly powerful clearly brilliant man.  He seemed to me the very epitome of an academic.  Once the school had been accepted into the state system, Corbin gave up his presidency and returned to his research and teaching.  He had studied political science at the University of Chicago and was deeply interested in religion.

During my graduate studies in business, I learned that Professor Corbin was teaching a course on world religions.  I knew it was likely similar to history and I was concerned about that since the only “C” grade I had ever gotten was in a world history course.  Still, I truly wanted the experience of being in a class taught by Professor Corbin.  My business advisor allowed me to take the course, most likely because Corbin was so respected that it would be unacceptable to suggest that his course would not contribute to any student’s work.

So there it was.  That little thing.  A course that didn’t fit my program, taken for personal reasons.  Once the course started, it didn’t take long.  I have often described the experience I had in that course as like discovering a door theretofore unknown to me that when opened revealed the enormity of a world I didn’t even know existed.  Small town Kansas education is not all that worldly, for sure, nor are studies in mathematics and business even in a state university.  But here it was … an enormous rich complex confounding luscious world of peoples in era after era and culture upon culture.  That little thing had suddenly turned into one of almost unfathomable dimension.

Though my work and study and teaching were all exciting, the success I experienced in all of them was perhaps the greatest wedge to the need for change.  In the research capacity I enjoyed at Coleman I was centrally involved in replacing groups of working people with computer applications.  I saw upper level executives forced into early retirement because they couldn’t adjust to the tsunami of computer technology.  My satisfaction with a job well done, with my role in facilitating the march of technology, was tempered by my experience of the human costs I observed on people being displaced and outmoded.  As my power and accomplishments grew, so did my doubts and concerns.

Somehow I got the idea that I would benefit from a brief sabbatical from business to reflect and regroup.  I sensed that the timing was crucial, because I could feel that I was quickly approaching a point of no return.  My superiors at the Coleman Company were sympathetic to the idea, so I set about considering what I might do for a while to beneficially fill a leave of absence.  This took me to Professor Harry Corbin.  And this is actually the part of the story I want most to tell.

I met him in the office he had occupied as university president, retained I’m sure as a way of honoring his considerable contributions.  It was handsome and elegant and simply made one feel important to be in.  I explained my situation to him and asked his suggestions.  Corbin said, “Well, I’ve studied off and on for decades at the University of Chicago.  Might you consider that?”  I very clearly remember asking, “Oh, do they have a university in Chicago?”  He assured me that they did and that it might be worthy of my consideration.  Since I had studied world religions with him, I thought that might be fun to continue those studies and asked if that would be possible there.  He indicated it was and referred me to the Divinity School.  The story gets better, or perhaps worse.

Knowing not a thing about it, I contacted the Divinity School and asked for an application for admission.  I received it and filled it out and sent it back.  I was informed that I’d need to take an entrance exam and that they had their own exam which would be sent to Wichita State where it would be administered to me.  I remember taking the exam, but absolutely nothing about it.  This whole thing was premised on my firm belief that I’d be there just a few months.  I was then notified that I had been accepted to the Divinity School and was asked what field I wished to study.  I wrote back to ask them what fields I might choose among.  They sent me a list and I really didn’t recognize much of anything on the list so I selected “Christian Theology.”  They wrote back indicating that that field had filled, but might I be interested in a field called the “History of Religions?”  Even with my concerns about studying history, I knew it really didn’t matter, short termer as I was planning to be, so I responded, “sure.”  And that is how I entered the University of Chicago and a profession that is still unfolding over more than forty years.

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One Response to That Little Thing

  1. Jane Bunin says:

    the combination of experiencing you salsa dancing and reading this story of your early life brings big smiles to my face….