At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

My Greatest Teachers: Those Who Connect

Going further back into my educational life, we find ourselves walking around the beautiful mountaintop grounds of Covenant College. When I wasn't reporting to false alarms on behalf of the Lookout Mountain Fire Department, when Phil Covington and I weren't making our legendary "cake shakes" (often the only edible things in the Great Hall dining room), and when I wasn't playing the intramural sport of any given season...I was a history major. As I'll share tomorrow, this desire had been ingrained in me well before setting foot on Covenant's campus. Still, I knew that many collegians end up changing their major, but once I met the individual who would be my academic advisor and treasured professor, I knew without a doubt I would never budge from the craft of Herodotus.

If I attempted to inscribe the depth of what Dr. Louis J. Voskuil did for me, the world would run out of ink. To be completely honest, it's hard to know where to begin.

To me, Dr. Voskuil is to the professorial world what Michael Jordan is to basketball. Whenever you saw Jordan play live (and I was privileged to do so once), you knew you were going to see stunning excellence. When Lou Voskuil walked into a classroom--whether it was for Medieval Civilization, Modern Russia, The 1960s in America, Historiography, or anything else--you instinctively knew all present would drink deeply from the well of knowledge and wisdom.

On the surface, one wouldn't imagine there'd be much thunder and lightning. Dr. Voskuil's Dutch blood means there is a surface of dignity and reserve, but that is a thin, veneer-like cover for a giftedness and knack for communicating the flow of history in all its personality and pulsations. Every day in class, I felt I was walking amongst medieval guild members, lurking in the court of Peter the Great, or sitting in on LBJ's strategic decisions to bomb Hanoi. He was never the type to raise his voice; I do remember Voskuil's decibel range was a fairly moderate one. And he was old-school. In these days of Wordles and PowerPoints, Dr. Voskuil's straightforward lectures and provoking questions would fly in the face of slick gadgets. But he showed you didn't need to fast-track to the 21st century to be profoundly effective.

Carefully, Voskuil would move through the chronological flow of time, showing the cause-and-effect relationships that is a must in good historical understanding. Eschewing the idea of treating history in a purely topical, semi-fractured format as is done so often today, Voskuil helped me see history as an overarching, meaningful narrative. In truth, this is the way history should be taught.

More than that, Voskuil opened my eyes in a number of other ways. He and I weren't necessarily on the same area of the political spectrum, but he prodded me to ask why I believed what I did. I admired how someone could respectably and kindly make a case for how his faith and politics intersected, even if we had some minor differences in where we landed. But more than that, Voskuil lived out his faith with vigor. He was a member of the Association for Public Justice, looking for ways to influence public policy, welfare reform, and transformative justice in the life of the nation. More recently, he and his wife Audrey have been involved in reaching out to the poor and homeless in the greater Chattanooga area.

And Dr. Voskuil has not only connected the dots in class; he exemplified how to connect with others. I remember many a meal with other students at his home: the Roman meal in which our Ancient Greece and Rome class dressed up in togas; the amazing stroganoff his wife made for our Modern Russia class; and the graduation dinner for all the senior history majors. But I warmly remember the way Dr. Voskuil intentionally reached out to me. I had a fairly difficult senior year, fraught with headaches and post-concussion issues from a summer head injury during a stupid backyard wrestling event (I'll spare you the details...suffice it to say I should be in a wheelchair). Through all the symptoms I experienced, through every blackout, after every wince of pain, Dr. Voskuil's concern was evident. He never failed to check in on how I was doing and was kind enough to give me an extension on a boatload of work. It was the tender side of the man I will never forget. It is the spirit of kindness and wisdom that he continues to carry into the sunset years of life.

More than anything, Dr. Voskuil instilled in me the fire, the passion, that history mattered, that learning mattered. All has meaning, because the God who breathed life into history acts in history. And our life has meaning, in both the glory and warts of humankind, because God has shaped us in His likeness. All we can do has a measure of significance.

Even the actions of an Ethics teacher in St. Louis, here in large part because of the imprint of Louis J. Voskuil, who connected history to life and connected his life to mine.

No pantheon of my greatest teachers would be complete without you, Dr. Voskuil. You have truly earned your place on Olympus. Not to mention in the hearts of those you have taught and befriended.

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