Monday, December 1, 2008

In Memoriam, William C. Placher

About a month ago I was working my way through my UNCW colleague James Megivern’s book on theological issues concerning the death penalty. I wondered about the details of a medieval religious penance for killing or wounding during war, and so I did what countless other Wabash students and former students have done: I asked Dr. Placher. I had asked questions via email before and received thoughtful replies in about ten minutes or so. This particular question stumped even him, but he promised to poke around and see what he could find. We exchanged a few more emails and he said that he was working on a book on the Gospel according to St. Mark. I would have liked to hear more about this book…and so many other things.

Today I heard the news that Bill passed away this weekend ( Few of us are genuinely irreplaceable, but Bill was one such individual. Bill was always the epitome of a teacher-scholar to me. I wish I had one-tenth of his gentle demeanor toward students, his breadth and depth of knowledge, or even his superhuman ability to return a large stack of term papers with valuable comments the very next class after they had been turned in. I know that I cannot match the eloquent and heartfelt comments his former students have already left at this site, let alone do justice to the man himself. It takes nothing away from my other teachers to say that Bill was the best teacher I have ever had. For that reason, I would like to offer my own remembrances.

I took two classes with Bill: an introduction to early modern philosophy my freshman year and an introduction to Greek philosophy as a junior. As a freshman, I wrote a paper in which I commented about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to the effect that despite the fact that we cannot determine a particle’s position and momentum simultaneously, the particle did not have a definite position and momentum. Bill’s response (despite a rumor that he had not taken even a single science classes at Wabash) was that physicists interpreted the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to mean that the particle did not even have definite position and momentum. A year later when I took second semester physics, I learned that Bill was right.

In the fall semester of my junior year I had loaded up with difficult classes, I had already written one paper for Bill’s class and had just finished one on Adam Smith for my class in the history of economic thought near Thanksgiving break. I had no idea how I could conjure up a second paper and was just about ready to resign myself to writing something mediocre. Yet I realized that I would be letting Bill down, and I just couldn’t do that. I changed topics from Aristotle to Plato and started my research. As was my custom, I wrote it in the guest bedroom of the Kappa Sigma house, so that the noise of my late night typing would not disturb my fraternity brothers. Bill was pleased with the final result, and that was all that I could have hoped for.

This past June I returned to Wabash for the Big Bash Weekend. For the second time in a row, I managed to pick a time when Bill was not going to be on campus. I bought several books of his at the bookstore, and I had hoped that he would sign them for me the next time I came to campus, so that I could give them to a friend of mine. I’ll still do so, but it will be a bittersweet occasion. I know of a coach who tells his players that there are only a finite number of practices in their lifetimes. I guess the same is true of trips up the stairwell in Center Hall to Bill’s office, but my heart wishes for just one more.

1 comment:

Chris Halkides said...

When I was trying to decide whether to go into teaching or industry, Bill suggested I read P.F. Kluge's book "Alma Mater." He thought that it captured the essence of small college teaching, and I think he was right. I am grateful for his counsel during a difficult time in my life.