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Life as a Wheaton Student

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Through a snapshot of his years at Wheaton, Mr. Nathan Hatch '68 (President of Wake Forest University) shows what it's like to live life as a Wheaton student and become prepared for later challenges with a liberal arts education. These remarks were given at a 2017 ceremony that awarded him the Distinguished Service to Society Award from Alumni Relations.

I am deeply grateful to Wheaton College Alumni Association for this award.  And I am deeply grateful for the formative influence that Wheaton College had in my own life and that of my wife Julie whom I met here almost 50 years ago.

I am grateful to Wheaton College for the scholarships that enabled me to attend.  I am grateful to classmates, like Mark Noll and Maggie Packer Noll and John Piper and Noel Piper, Doug and Mary Jane Kittridge and Tom and Jo Kovolic, Steve Evans and John Peteet, Nancy Freid Mering—and many others, for the ways they made college a joy and delight and, more importantly, provided, in the words of John Masefield,

"That close companionship for which youth longs, and that chance of the endless discussion of the themes which are endless, without which youth would seem a waste of time."

Wheaton exposed its students to so many lasting influences.  Outside of formal academic study, I recall the impact of books like Harvey Cox’s The Secular City and the gripping power of Martin Luther’s The Bondage of the Will.  Working with youth in the Green Cabrini homes in the summer of 1967, and living with a dozen Wheaton students in an African American church were formative experiences.  My mind still returns to the hymns learned in Wheaton chapel and the thoughtful speakers who graced its pulpit. I was deeply influenced by the wisdom, dignity, and humility of President Hudson Armerding. 

I am deeply grateful to so many Wheaton graduates who have graced our lives over the years.  My debt to Mark Noll, friend, colleague, and collaborator has been inestimable.  Mark and I have long been collaborators in advocating serious Christian intellectual life and in exploring the history of American evangelicals.  We are both grateful to Wheaton College for sponsoring, for twenty-five years, the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals.  The network of friends and scholars associated with that institute have been a rare gift for those whose scholarly path could also be a lonely one.  Their combined work has done much to reshape the ways in which scholars understand evangelicals in American culture.

My greatest debt is to the faculty of Wheaton College—those who have given their lives to this place and to the mission of shaping young people for Christ and his Kingdom.  In my view, these are the real heroes.  Students pass through, wave after wave every four years, alumni return nostalgically ever so often.  But the Wheaton faculty give their lives, day in and day out, historically on meager salaries, and with heavy loads of teaching and research, mentoring and administrative work.  The faculty, along with dedicated administrators, staff, and coaches, are Wheaton College for the students.

Wheaton faculty provided a wonderful bridge for young people, like myself, who came out of intense religious backgrounds.  They skillfully opened to us the modern intellectual world.  They taught us how to learn so that curiosity and exploration could motivate us long after Wheaton years.  For some of us, they were models of how we might pursue a professional life of learning, scholarship, and teaching.

Most importantly for me, they conveyed by example and instruction a vision of Christian vocation:  how one could live out a faithful calling in the world, of doing worldly work out of religious motivation—to serve Christ and his kingdom.

That is not to say that I knew what the future held when I finished Wheaton in the spring of 1968, a tumultuous year, to be sure, when Martin Luther King was assassinated, Chicago exploded, and on our graduation weekend Bobby Kennedy was killed in Los Angeles.  I had a desire to go on to study history but that spring, Lyndon Johnson canceled draft deferments for graduate school and so my original plans had to be laid aside.

When I eventually ended up in graduate school in history, I still had no great sense of the future.  I assumed I would earn a degree and come to teach at an evangelical college like Wheaton—that’s the world that I knew and the only course I could have safely predicted.

I could not have anticipated or predicted the course of our pilgrimage.  It diverged from expectation in two important main ways.  I began as an historian, a scholar and teacher, and somehow became an administrator—a calling to which I had no formal training.  The other change was that I was called to serve largely beyond the evangelical orbit.

Julie has said that most good things in our lives have come by the way of surprise.  We could never have predicted that, when I went on the academic job market, the only job offered to this evangelical from the South was to teach history at Notre Dame.  Or after working with might and mane as teacher and scholar, I was asked, out of the blue, to take an administrative job at Notre Dame.  Or that, in the end, Father Monk Malloy, the President of Notre Dame, asked me to serve as Provost of the University.  Or that, a dozen years ago, Wake Forest asked me to consider taking on leadership of that institution.

Along the way, there were also paths that I expected to take closed off, sometimes with considerable pain; and other decision points where things were not certain and, as decisions had to be made, one could only ask for light amidst what seemed an encircling gloom.  We could not see the distant seen.  One step had to be enough.

So much of life has come as surprise, the joys of doors opening, the pain of doors closing, and, in the moment, sometimes clouds of confusion, even dread. 

Looking back, one can see that these surprises were not simply by accident or fate.   They were by grace, but unexpected and unpredictable.  This grace was often mysterious, hard to fathom, and moving us—sometimes even extruding us—into experiences and challenges that, in our own wisdom, we would never have undertaken.

The great challenge of being in a place like Wake Forest is learning to live the life of faith in a pluralistic context. Living faithfully and leading in a community which includes people of faith and no faith, progressives and conservatives, Jewish and Muslim students and faculty, straight and gay, students from many nations.  In these efforts, the collaboration of friends like Don Flow has been an enormous encouragement as we work together to build a flourishing community at Wake Forest and the broader community.

I have enjoyed a privileged life.  At Wheaton and in graduate school, I discovered the joy of studying and learning—and that’s a path I never really had to leave.  I loved teaching and writing history and collaborating with other historians.  I loved working to build a university culture in which teachers and scholars could flourish and fulfill their dreams.  Colleges and Universities carry the torch of opportunity, of learning, of character formation—of helping the next generation find what it means to lead lives that matter.

Investing in that enterprise has been a high calling, indeed.