Monday, December 19, 2011

Eugene Chamberlain

Tuesdays in the Chapel
December 13, 2011

First Reading

“The 120 miles of I-44 that I needed to travel, before the freeway peters out south of Lawton, are not very interesting, though I was cheered by the sight of the bumpy Wichita Mountains as I came into Lawton, an army town mostly noted for having been the last home of two nineteenth-century Native American leaders, Geronimo and Quanah Parker. Both were remarkable men, but Quanah managed more remarkable transition. He was, in his youth, a formidable war chief, leading many raids; he was almost killed at the second battle of Adobe Walls—yet he survived, surrendered, and led his people, the Comanches, into a fairly stable relationship with the White government and the twentieth century.

Geronimo, by the time he was housed at Fort Sill, really had very few people—many of the eighteen warriors who had surrendered with him in 1886 had died in captivity. Geronimo survived twenty-three years as a prisoner, nineteen of them at Fort Sill. Though he longed for his native desert and petitioned every white leader he could find to send him back, he was never allowed to return to Arizona. Finally one day he got very drunk, spent a cold night outside, and died of pneumonia. In his last years he and Quanah had formed a friendship—two men who had seen their time, and their people’s time, end.”
Roads Larry McMurtry, p. 46.

The readings for the day are eclectic. I wanted on the one hand to speak about what we do not know about historical figures as a way of illustrating what we also do not know about one another. On the other hand I wanted to speak to the difficulties that are connected to knowing God. In the season of Advent and Christmas we approach Bethlehem with both uncertainty and hope.

In real time we also grieve. My friend Eugene Chamberlain died last Thursday. I was scheduled to visit with him on Friday. He had lived 91 mostly good years; I cannot speak to the recent days. His wife of nearly 60 years had gone before him. He once told me that when he got his new contract from MIT each year he would put the unopened envelop on her pillow so she could open it to see how they would do in the year ahead. The gesture was a window into his way of being. He was a gentle and good man.

When I came to MIT he was nearing the end of a long and storied career and was serving as the Director of the Foreign Student Office. He had previously worked in Admissions. Shortly before he retired, in 1985, he was given the Billard Award for service to the Institute. The exact words are: The annual honor is bestowed on an individual working inside or outside MIT who has performed “special service of outstanding merit” for the Institute.

In about 1982 I woke up one morning to discover I was an Associate Dean of Student Life charged with overseeing the organizing of the Counseling Office. And by the way, they said, the International Student Office will report to you. I was stunned, a relative new comer, I was now in charge of Gene’s world.

He was gracious about it all even as I felt like I was drowning. He did not lend himself easily to supervision. He did things as he had done them for over 30 years. He did not type, was not computer literate, who was?, but he did not think he needed to learn. He communicated in the language of care for students, particularly international students and all over the world there were graduates of MIT who loved him for his kindness.

Love is not too big a word in this case. He had guided and cared for them in a time when MIT felt it was enough to have them here. Letting them come was the norm; care was exceptional and Gene cared. It was not enough to Gene to give them a place at the table, often his table, he thought we ought help them be successful and he did all he could to make that happen.

As my new responsibilities evolved I came to understand who Gene was in his world beyond MIT. In the growing world of international offices at American colleges and universities, Gene was larger than life. He had helped bring into being the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors (NAFSA) and served as its president. Gene was iconic and deservedly so. He did not wear his role on his sleeve, but when International Student Advisors came to MIT for their regular meetings or chance visits, they gave him homage.

If I had one thing to change about the MIT I know today, it would be for us to understand better that everyone of us has a life beyond these walls where we also have standing. And sometimes like Eugene Chamberlain we are outstanding. I was embarrassed to have him report to me; I had too much to learn, but it was his grace and patience that taught me and gave me the opportunity to learn from him.

I wish we had been able to talk on Friday. I would have told him what I had learned from him namely that work done well lives forever when done in the service of others. It is something worth remembering in this season and in all seasons.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Second Reading

A Grace

God, I know nothing, my sense is all nonsense,
And fear of You begins intelligence:
Does it end there? For sexual love, for food,
For books and birch trees I claim gratitude,
But when I grieve over the unripe dead
My grief festers, corrupted into dread,
And I know nothing. Give us our daily bread.

By Donald Hall