On Monday evening, a handful of students gathered with me for an honors colloquium. The book assigned was Will Campbell’s moving memoir, Brother to a Dragonfly
. Poignant, self-deprecating, trenchant, and sometimes funny, it assuredly deserves its National Book Award finalist status. It also deserves wide readership now, forty-three years after publication, for the intertwined tragedies of Southern poverty and racism sadly remain with us.
One might be tempted to describe Rev. Campbell, who died in 2013, as sui generis
, except he understood himself as irrevocably bound to a people, a place, a culture, and most of all a God uniting him to others. He was certainly unusual. He attended four universities and held a Yale degree, yet he preferred the company of simple uneducated country folk. He was ordained a Baptist minister in a church whose pulpit Bible was embossed with a triple K, yet he was the only white man present at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He ministered to white supremacists, yet he faced down angry racist mobs and helped escort the Little Rock Nine into Central High School in 1957. He was a close friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., yet he visited MLK’s assassin, James Earl Ray, in prison. His stand on behalf of African Americans prompted violent, hate-spewing letters from the right, yet he received equal vitriol from the left. Will Campbell was special, no doubt about it.
Late in Brother to a Dragonfly
, he relates a grief-filled evening that upended his ministry. A young protégé, Jonathan Daniels, just released from an Alabama county jail for registering black voters, had gone to a roadside store for a coke when he was killed with a shotgun fired by a racist deputy sheriff, Thomas Coleman. On hearing of the killing, Campbell’s atheist friend, P.D. East, voiced ferocious doubts about Christianity. Campbell turned to a verity of the faith, that God loves everyone. He put the conviction in Mississippian vernacular: “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.” Hounded by P.D., he accepts the inescapable conclusion, the force of which he had suppressed, that God loves both the good and gentle Jonathans of the world and
the ugly bigoted Thomases of the world, the murdered and
the murdering bastards. It was, he professed, “the most significant theological training I had received since we sat at our father’s fireside and listened to him read the Bible every night.”
Campbell also wrote that “from that point on I came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.” I worry over that claim, not so much because I doubt it, but because I believe we must resist calling things tragedies when they’re not. Plenty of things aren’t the result of tragedies, but of errors, whether of facts or judgments, and whether caused by carelessness or malice. It’s right to take sides in such cases, to correct mistakes and render judgment. But we live in a world riven by tragedy too—economic, moral, political, social, spiritual. When tragedy truly befalls, we have something important to learn from Rev. Campbell’s vision and vocation.
Monday evening was a good one. Will Campbell was a good one. Brother to a Dragonfly
is a good one. And if we do our work with humility and sobriety of judgment—reading, sifting, interpreting, critiquing, teaching, and modeling—we have the hope of being good ones too.
In additional news and notes related to our work together:
• Congratulations to Autumn Henneke
on her new role as Assistant to the Dean. Autumn has served in the dean’s office on an interim basis since June 1, all the while carrying on duties as Office Manager for the Honors Program. Over the last four months, she has proven herself a capable, dedicated, energetic, and thoughtful colleague. I’m grateful for Autumn’s interim service and I’m pleased to have her continuing contributions on a more permanent basis. Well done, Autumn, and blessings on you!
• Strong first-year student numbers for the HC are in, with a final headcount of 458 in our entering class. Of those students, 71.2% graduated in the top 10% of their HS class, 50% hail from other states, and 35% are minorities. They have an average ACT 31.5 and SAT 1384. For the matchless recruiting efforts of so many over the past year—and especially during the challenging days following spring break—I am grateful beyond words.
• An astonishing success deserves recognition among our continuing students. The 83 students that entered last fall as majors in Great Texts or University Scholars hit a one-year retention mark of 100%. Not to put too fine a point on it, that also means that the minority, Pell recipient, and first-generation college students in that group retained at 100%. In the world of enrollment management, perfection is a theoretical ideal around which no one ever makes plans. To that, I say, let’s do it again!
• As we attract and retain superb students, we benefit from the positive stories and encouragement of former Honors College students like Kat Largent
(BBA ’17), Micheal Munson
(BA ’20), and Rebecca Voth
(BA ’18), each of whom is featured as part of Admissions’ ongoing “Why Baylor?” appeal. You can watch brief video reflections on their answers to that question here
• Before Tuesday evening’s presidential debate, some of our fine colleagues modeled generous-spirited, intelligent civic discourse. Introduced by President Linda Livingstone
and moderated by David Corey
, professor of political science in the Honors Program, Civic Engagement for All
turned to “alumni and staff who have used their Baylor education and affiliation to improve our political world.” Panelists included Victor Boutros
, member of our advisory council; Sparky Matthews
, clinical professor in the Honors Program; Rochonda Farmer-Neal
, director of governmental relations and mentor of our students in Baylor Ambassadors; and Ben Aguiñaga
, guest alumnus at recent HC Invitation to Excellence programs.
• Of interest within our community is an upcoming roundtable conversation on higher education, liberal education, and moral formation. Between Pandemic and Protest: Exploring the Future of the Liberal Arts in Higher Education
will take place on Monday, October 5 at 6:00 p.m. and will feature, among others, former Baylor doctoral students Jessica Hooten Wilson
and Jeffrey Bilbro
, both of whom enjoyed Honors College connections during their student days.
All the best,
Douglas V. Henry | Dean
Honors College | Baylor University
baylor.edu/honorscollege | 254.710.7689