Remembrance of Things Past: She Kept His Sweater

Jane Martin Walters never attended a single Elizabethtown High School Class Reunion, and Dr. Norman P. Will no longer attends college graduations as a president emeritus at Florida State College at Jacksonville. Yet, they both linger in my memory though Jane died in her mid-twenties and Dr. Will in his late-fifties. I have vowed to get rid of memorabilia in anticipation of down-sizing one day, but I can’t – I just CAN’T – part with the pieces of paper that attach their memory to mine.

Jane was smart, very smart, and excelled in college prep track classes in high school. Unlike mine, her learning appeared to be effortless. And her home life quiet and orderly too. After a snow day off from school one winter Jane remarked that she loved snow days because her Mom would pop popcorn, and she and her family would sit by the fireplace and read or play games. In contrast, after the thrill of sledding on traffic-free roads passed, our house was noisy, no hearth for refuge in sight.

Jane and a note from my mother who saw her in Harrisburg at the MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) relief sale.
Jane and a note from my mother who saw her in Harrisburg at the MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) relief sale – 1960s

You might get the impression I felt envious. But I didn’t. Jane was poised on a pedestal in my eyes, and I admired what appeared to be her calm cadence through life. When I heard she married and worked at the Library of Congress in the Congressional Reference Department, I was pleased. Maybe I’d visit her in Washington D. C. some day. But some day never came. She died of cancer shortly after after her marriage and at the beginning of a promising career. Aunt Ruthie told me, “She ate a nice dinner with her family, said her goodbyes and died in her sleep that night.” I was devastated.

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Dr Will_Campus newspaper_FCCJ

I admired Dr. Norm Will too, though in a vastly different way. An English professor had become a college president: All’s right with the world! College operations purred along smoothly with Dr. Will at the helm. He advocated free thought, offering friendly evening colloquia for faculty on diverse topics like current ideas in neuroscience and the health of Florida’s St. Johns River. But on the first day of Convocation in 2005, Dr. Will did not appear. He had died the night before while sipping wine and reading The History of God by Karen Armstrong, a text I later happened to reference in my paper for The Oxford Roundtable.

In her piece “Dealing with the Dead” (The New Yorker, October 11, 2010), Jennifer Egan discusses the deaths of three close family members and observes that she has kept an article of clothing from each: her grandmother’s 3-tiered necklace of fake pearls, her father’s navy-blue wool V-neck sweater, and her stepfather’s gray and burgundy argyle sweater. Though the pearls eventually broke as she rounded a corner in the East Village, Jennifer vows to wear the sweaters “until they unravel into shreds” because she likes their feel against her skin. Author Egan shares wisdom gained from loss as she opines:

  • “Wearing the garments of a person I loved was like being wrapped in a protective force field.”
  • “When the clock stops on a life, all things emanating from it become precious, finite, and cordoned off for preservation.”
  • Keeping items from those who have passed on “is a way of keeping them engaged in life’s daily transactions—in other words, alive.” [Italics mine.]

I will add a quotation of my own from Shakespeare’s King Richard III: So wise so young, they say, do never live long.” And then from Scripture:

  “So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”           Psalm 90:12  KJV

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Have you experienced loss? Is your story like any of the stories I tell or very different? Here’s the place to share it.


Fighting Spirit: Rhetoric, Rotten Rulers, and a Sex Strike

Is a family graduation on your calendar this year?

As a faculty member at Florida State College at Jacksonville (then Florida Community College), I attended graduation every year in full regalia with hundreds of ecstatic grads, joyful families, and proud faculty and administration.

The Tawdry Tale

One year stands out though: 2001. State Representative X rose to the podium to deliver the commencement address and announced that his remarks would be short and to the point. Relieved, the audience sat back to enjoy a brief speech entitled A Short Guide to a Happy Life.  Hmm . . . the title sounded familiar, I thought. Then he went on to tick off the main points: 1. Don’t confuse life with work. 2. Life is what happens when you are making other plans. 3. If you win the rat race, you are still a rat. . . . Then it dawned on me. I have heard this all before. In fact I’ve read it. Recently. In a book. In a book by Anna Quindlen with the same title. This man with an honorable title in high office is plagiarizing his speech, giving no credit to Quindlen or reference to her book. His whole speech. Boldly. Baldly. With no bones about honesty!


My sense of justice on high alert, I set out to right the wrong. No, to expose the guilty. I contact the campus president in charge of graduation. Yes, she will check up on my suspicion and she does follow through. There are more emails and phone calls, which in the end boil down to the critical question: Where is the audio recording of that address? Alas, it is never un-earthed. We are told the recording mechanism failed (?) and thus no incriminating evidence is available. Sadly, just my words remain which have now fallen. Flat. On deaf ears.

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My own college graduation is a distant memory. When I graduated from Eastern Mennonite College with a degree in English, I was still a plain girl, but with a B. A. degree in English education. I don’t remember at all who spoke at the commencement address or what the topic was, but I am sure there was an emphasis on service to others, demonstrating peace while upholding justice, still strong tenets of my alma mater, now Eastern Mennonite University.

Senior Photo: Eastern Mennonite College
Senior Photo: Eastern Mennonite College


The Nobel Laureate

Tomorrow another graduation occurs. On Sunday, April 27, 2014 an honorable woman, Leymah Gbowee, co-winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize and a 2007 EMU alumna, will give the 96th annual commencement address at Eastern Mennonite University. Gbowee was the focus of a documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” which demonstrates how women, both Christian and Muslim confronted then-Liberian President Charles Taylor “with a demand for peace and end a bloody 14-year-old civil war.” Her genius: Gbowee rallied women, all dressed in white from various ethnic groups to lock arms, protest, and over time literally pray the ruthless rebels, including the President, into retreat. They even staged a sex strike which her book describes in more detail. In 2007 Leymah Gbowee received a Master of Arts in Conflict Transformation from the Center for Justice and Peace-building at EMU, also her alma mater. No doubt in her graduation speech she will make reference to her book: Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War.


But I can assure you—she has plagiarized neither her book nor her speech!

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When have you become outspoken against an injustice?  What were the results?

Have you heard of Leymah Gbowee? Anyone else you know with her qualities?

Happy Birthday, Will!

News Flash!


To mark Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, “the Royal Shakespeare Company is spearheading a three year Jubilee, between 2014 and 2016, that will involve theatre performances, events and live streaming cinema around the world.”

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Florida State College students: Of course they're discussing Shakespeare!
Florida State College students: Of course they’re discussing Shakespeare!

It’s April 23 in my college class of English Lit students. Each has brought in a can of Coke, Dr. Pepper or bottled water. I bring cupcakes—chocolate and vanilla for the party.

Reputedly, April 23, 1564 is the birthday of William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon. It is also the date of his death in 1616, but we are celebrating his life, especially the writing of his gushy love sonnets (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) and his play, King Lear, which we have just read with all that fussing about a father’s will, sister sniping, revenge and murder. The body count is always high in Shakespeare’s tragedies.

A fixture at every birthday party, Shakespeare wore a bow today.
A fixture at every birthday party, Shakespeare wears a bow today.

Until I was out of high school, I did not realize that my Mennonite Mom was referring to Shakespeare’s line “God has given you one face, and you make yourself another” (Hamlet) when she chided me for wearing makeup. “I’m happy with the face God gave me,” she would retort.

And Grandma Longenecker probably wasn’t aware she was quoting from Midsummer NIght’s Dream either when she tried to comfort me with the words of Lysander: “The course of true love never did run smooth” over my break-up with David, a boyfriend in college. And of various presidents, Truman, Eisenhower, or Kennedy, she would quote from Shakespeare’s Henry IV: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” I can still hear her cracking the “C” in crown.

Other quotes you may know: 

  • Better three hours too soon than a minute too late.
  • If music be the food of love, play on.
  • Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind.
  • No legacy is so rich as honesty.
  • What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
  • O, had I but followed the arts!
  • ‘Tis better to bear the ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.
  • With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.
  • This above all; to thine own self be true.

What special sayings do you remember from your childhood?


What quotes by Shakespeare can you add to the list?

I love it when you comment!

Please check it out: My writer friend, Traci Carver, teacher at Valwood School, a college prep high school in Valdosta, GA, posted on her blog a creative classroom scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet featuring foam pool noodles and Twitter hashtags. Creative and memorable!