Christ In Winter: Reflections on Faith for the Years of Winter
It was one of those nights I was shuttling back and forth between groups on campus, trying to quell rumors, head off conflicts. Chuck sometimes shuttled with me, but usually he had to stay in the student government office, which we used as a command post, in case something flared up somewhere.
I got back from assuring the white guys, the ones who might be called “skinheads” today, that the black students were not intending to try to run a Viet Cong flag up the campus flag pole, despite what they had heard. That mollified them for the moment.
It was the time of “the days of rage” on the campus at Illinois State University, and almost every other campus in the country, following the murders of students at Kent State University, in the midst of the great divide over American involvement in Viet Nam.
I was tired. So was Chuck Witte. We had both been up all night for a long time, trying to keep our campus safe, he as the student body president, I as a campus minister. Sometimes we plotted strategy in his apartment on the top floor of one of the dorms, where his wife, Donna, was the director. Usually we were in the student government office.
We didn’t know each other well yet. We had been thrown together by necessity and had been busy ever since. I told him about the Viet Cong flag rumor.
“I don’t think anyone on this campus would even know what a Viet Cong flag looks like,” I said.
“I think I would recognize one,” he said, “but the ones I saw always had blood all over them.”
I’m not sure Chuck was even old enough to drink legally yet, but he was a Viet Nam vet. He was the perfect example of an oxymoron, in this case, “Army Intelligence.” He had been a lieutenant in that service branch. When I asked him what he did, he said, “I crawled out into the bush and located the Viet Cong and then called down air strikes on my own map coordinates.”
Chuck was the perfect student body president for that chaotic time on campus. He was a local boy whose father was a business man. He himself was a Business major. He was a Viet Nam vet, an officer. He had an intelligent and beautiful and professional wife. He was smart and articulate and mature. He had recognized the futility of the war. No one, of any persuasion about the war, old or young, could dismiss Chuck Witte.
Chuck was the perfect student body president complement to university president, Sam Braden. Together they kept ISU sane and safe, far more than any other state campus in IL, and most campuses elsewhere, despite fusillades of vitriol and hate from people [i.e, state legislators] who should have been supporting them instead of defying them. Chuck was more of a war hero for what he did after he returned from war than what he did in it.
He went to law school. He became a father and grandfather. He became a judge in his home town. For 20 years he taught about the criminal justice system to 6th graders in his court room, a program he initiated that was copied elsewhere. He was active in his church. He did well in all those roles. Both his daughters have “Dr.” in front of their name. He died yesterday at the age of 74.
After Chuck graduated and I had been moved to other ministries by my bishop, we had only one time of contact, when my daughter, who shares ISU alum status with Chuck, applied to be the judge’s secretary. “I would love to hire you, just because of who you are,” he said, “remembering your father, and what we went through together, but I’m legally and ethically bound to hire the most qualified applicant…”
That was Chuck Witte. He always did the right thing.