Between Home and History

My husband and I bought the house of a former Whitman professor eighteen years ago. The professor’s name was Robert Whitner, and I am grateful that I had the chance to get to know his widow Lola Whitner before she moved to the west side of Washington state in 2000. Lola had been a long-time English teacher at the local high school which my son will begin attending this fall, and she told us countless stories of all the local lives she had touched as she taught Shakespeare and proper grammar. Our first plumber was a former student of hers, and I somehow felt more confident in his plumbing abilities knowing that he could write. Or, more accurately, knowing that Lola recommended him.

Robert Whitner was a professor of history at Whitman College from 1951 until his unexpected death eighteen years before we bought the house. Two things are important to note as I tell this story: first, that Robert Whitner was a historian who studied, taught, wrote, and spoke about the history of the College where I have worked for eighteen years; and second, that I have come across his ghost in my house — a ghost whose voice is particularly helpful as I ponder what’s happening in my home and at the College.

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The ghost first appeared when I tore apart walls and studs and carpets and furniture that wouldn’t fit up the narrow stairwell leading from the basement to our side door. Robert, Lola had noted, was a do-it-yourself home remodeling hobbyist, evidenced by the infrastructural creativity present in light switches just slightly in the wrong place in the wood paneling, paneling only partially nailed into studs, and studs not quite the right distance apart. I fondly recall dozens of conversations with contractors in the early years we remodeled the house that usually included comments such as “Huh, that’s interesting,” and “I’ve never seen it done like that before,” and “I think the person who remodeled this part of the house was probably better at being a college professor.”

Note to self: leave notes in my own do-it-yourself remodeling project crevices for future baffled contractors to find. Robert and I have things in common when it comes to our home.

The ghost appeared later during one of my pre-remodel destruction episodes as I removed some built-in bookshelves in a part of the basement that must have been his office. Tucked behind a shelf was a thin 14-page booklet entitled “Two Essays on the History of Whitman College by Robert L. Whitner.” With a precise and warm foreword written by former Whitman president Robert Skotheim and a nod to the importance of making research available to wide audiences in an introduction written by former Whitman history professor G. Thomas Edwards, this little book packed a punch that’d be especially relevant for Walla Wallans and Whitman folks. Before even getting to Whitner’s words, the book communicated just how important those words had been. It was too bad he had died before it was published, they wrote.

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As I perused the little book and heard what I imagined Whitner’s voice to sound like while lecturing in the same Maxey Hall rooms I lecture in, I took to heart how he kindly and smartly framed how the College had changed, especially salient on the 100th anniversary of its founding. To this day, now more than three decades after its publication, I still peruse passages that might as well be about the College now. For example, upon reflecting how the myth of Marcus Whitman “saving Oregon” was used to garner funds to keep the College alive, Whitner writes “It is not always what is true that makes a difference, but what people believe to be true.” Or this one — the early 1900s “Greater Whitman” project that proposed the college would become “an institute of technology, an engineering school or high quality…Whitman might have become the MIT of the West — WIT…A promotional pamphlet published in 1906 reported that the business, industrial, and professional leaders of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho were united in wanting to establish a private institution to train young people to develop and conserve the resources of the region.” But then, in my favorite historical tidbit, Whitner notes that opponents to the “Greater Whitman” plan included local saloon-keepers who worried about the College taking over valuable real estate, evidenced by one of them who said “that a single saloon here was worth more to the town than Whitman College.” The students, meanwhile, campaigned to have an election to vote Walla Walla dry. (Okay, that is definitely not how things are now…I digress).

Anyway, beyond the topics of the College’s folklore, or its desire to be something different than it is, or town-college relations and economic stability, there are some fantastic quotes that stick with me the most that still capture why I call Whitman College my professional home. Recall that these quotes are from Whitner’s writing in 1982, and they refer to the College’s history in the early 1900s:

“The deliberate choice was made to remain small, confident that being small made some desirable things more easily possible — close student-faculty relations, easy student access to administration, frequent association among members of different departments, interdisciplinary approaches to curriculum development, and faculty participation in the governance of the College.”

And, from President Penrose in 1911: “To have a faculty of men and women whose influence shall be potent for quick intelligence and high moral ideals, to have a student body who shall learn here to work to their highest capacity while gaining breadth of vision and of social sympathy, seems to be the right aim for the College to pursue.”

And, poignantly relevant now: “[I]n a period when academic freedom was more hope than reality in American higher education, Whitman’s Faculty was free to probe, to question, to challenge…No orthodoxy was prescribed in any field.”

And to dispel some myths, perhaps: “It has been said that Whitman’s good teachers of those years [early 1900s] were devoted exclusively to the classroom, that they had no interest in research and writing. The record has little to support this claim.”

I’m grateful I found this 14-page book written by Robert Whitner tucked in the bookshelves that Robert Whitner probably built. Historians are good at uncovering and revealing and building stories from disparate pieces. Home remodelers try to do this too, and they leave their stories and pieces behind.

Note to self: leave notes in hiding places in Maxey Hall for future baffled faculty members to find as they try to figure out whether the College has changed too much, not enough, or circled back to 1906. Robert and I have things in common when it comes to our work.

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