Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Tuesday, June 18, 2019


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith & Life for the Years of Winter — 

In yesterday’s column, I mentioned the statue of Herman B [That’s right; there’s no period.] Wells-- and I called Hermie, as we students always referred to him, with great affection--“IU’s perpetual president.” And he is, even though his more recent presidential years have been in brass. Daughter Katie Kennedy, the famous YA author, [1] posted a Fathers Day picture of Helen and me with the statue of Hermie, seated on a bench in the middle of the campus he loved so much.

He was a business prof at IU, starting in 1930, and was named acting president in 1937. From 1938 to 1962 he was president, and from 1962 to his death in 2000, he was chancellor.

Hermie insisted that education was done best when surrounded by beauty, music, drama art, academic freedom, foreign languages and foreign students, and people of all skin colors. He insisted on that for a long time. Although other presidents, like Clark Kerr and Nathan Pusey, got the publicity, Hermie was the most important figure in higher education in the 20th century, for his stances on academic freedom and civil rights and international education. He never married. IU was his passion. It got all his attention. He was famous for personally signing every diploma IU granted—thousands of them—during his presidential years.

We need models when we are young, people we can look to and say, “Oh, that’s how life is to be lived.” We need models when we are old, too. Hermie is the image of gracious aging. He became president when he was only 35. Every day until he died at 98, he got up thinking, “What can I do today to make IU a better place?” Like all old folks, his energy lessened, but his focus and his love did not.

Terry Clepacs was the IU vice-president, in charge of buildings, grounds and statues, for the last 40 years, until he retired in 2009, and oversaw the building of more than 450 buildings on the various IU campuses, which is why the Bloomington campus is considered the prettiest anywhere; it is “beautiful by design.” Terry carried out Hermie’s vision for education enhanced by beauty. He oversaw the creation of the statue to honor Hermie.

VP Clepacs is a member of our church, and his wife was Phyllis Wiseman as an IU student, and that was the name of my high school girlfriend, so we have a lot in common. [Well, only church and girlfriends, but those are both important.] Terry told our XYZ group [old people] at church about overseeing the statue of Hermie.

The sculptor was a U of MN grad, and the statue was being dedicated on a football homecoming Saturday when IU was playing MN. Unknown to anyone else, on the underside brim of Hermie’s hat, which sits beside him on the bench, he had inscribed “Go, Gophers.”

He told Terry about it later and said that since the game was over, he would buff it out. “Oh, no,” said Terry, “Hermie would love it.” So it remains. You have to get down on your knees and look up into Hermie’s hat, but there it is.

Sam Braden was IU academic VP for a long time under Hermie, and became president of IL State U while I was campus minister there. At his inaugural banquet, Dr. Braden told of how he had gone to the U of WI for his doctorate in economics, as Hermie had done before him. They even had the same advisor. And like Hermie before him, Braden came to IU to be a prof in the business school.

“Now don’t be like Herman Wells,” his advisor said, “and go down there to IU and not ever get your dissertation finished.”

After I got to IU, Sam told us, I wrote him and said, “But Herman Wells is president!”

And so he remains, forever, with a secret under his hat.

John Robert McFarland

1] Learning to Swear in America and What Goes Up, both published by Bloomsbury, which also publishes lesser authors, like JK Rowling.

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