I am a farm kid from Indiana. I spent my first eleven years of life on the family farm and loved every minute of it. I can’t imagine that a childhood spent in the city or in the burbs could be as much fun as on a farm. Yes, there was plenty of work, but there was also plenty of opportunity for mischief. One of my brothers is a year and a half older than I am…he would think up things for “us” to do and then send “me” to do them. Guess who got in trouble?
I would consider my childhood as quite “normal”, but I would guess that most of us do…since our worldview as a kid is the only reality we know. I was a farm kid and that life is what I thought every kid experienced.
There was an expectation, held primarily by my father, that all of us boys (there are 4 of us) would follow in the family business. After all, this Widmer family had been farmers since moving to America from Switzerland in 1851. I can recall attending family reunions and being asked by grandparents, aunts and uncles, “what will you be when you grow up” and I would always answer proudly, “I am going to be a farmer”. But life doesn’t always go as expected. Something happens that changes the trajectory of the expectation placed on us by our family of origin. It could be an education, or a mentor, or a crisis, or a creative idea, but it causes us to become something more than we were ever expected to be.
The normalcy of my life came to an abrupt end when our family was called together in the early 1970s for the announcement that my parents were divorcing. Although divorce is somewhat commonplace today, in our little farm community in the early 1970s there was a connotation of scandal. As a kid, I just couldn’t understand how these two people who loved me and who I loved deeply could not love one another. I was sad, I was angry and I said goodbye to innocence and a carefree childhood.
My Mom had very little money and had no skill to gain employment. The child support totaled about $120 per week and came through a court system that was unreliable. There were many weeks when we had nothing. Mom moved us (there were 3 of us boys still living at home) into a basement apartment in my grandmother’s home. This was nothing like the farm. For the first time in my young life, I was embarrassed about where I lived and who I was.
God has always put the right people in my path during times of need. Chuck Calahan became the pastor of the church we attended. Chuck was a great role model for me and treated me more like a younger brother than a pastor. Jerry Hendress was my 8th grade basketball coach, Jerry was fresh out of Purdue and this was his first teaching and coaching gig. Every boy in my school wanted to be Jerry Hendress. He had a beautiful wife; he was handsome, charming and funny and had a great head of hair. Jerry showed me that there was life beyond my current circumstances. Jerry Cook was the basketball coach of my church league team. Jerry was a tough disciplinarian who expected his players to take him seriously and respect his position. Jerry Cook led that team to great success. Jerry Cook was nothing like Jerry Hendress, his wife (although also beautiful) was more like a mother, Jerry Cook wasn’t necessarily funny or charming and he had no hair! But Jerry Cook taught me that if I worked hard, I could win. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered Jerry Cook and Jerry Hendress both came from the same little town and knew each other.
College was the thing that changed the trajectory of my life. I floundered after high school for 7 years. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or what I wanted to become. I worked a variety of jobs, tried college, but did not thrive.
I decided to apply to a private school in southern California and was accepted. For me, the next 4 years defined the rest of my life. I loved school, I did well academically, but more than anything I felt like I belonged and that I could excel.
I met a girl my senior year who became my wife and thirty years later we are still very much in love. She has taught me much about life and love and living that I never knew. Our family and home is a place of peace and grace largely because of the way she cares for all of us.
After my bachelor’s degree, I went on and completed my master’s degree and eventually my doctorate. I have spent my entire professional life in higher education. My first job out of college was managing the college bookstore. I moved from that position into a director position in student housing and from there to the director of financial aid. I have spent the last 15 years of my career in the president’s chair and am grateful for all of the experiences that it took to get me here.
From farm boy to college president, my life is anything but what my family expected. Taking nothing away from farming, indeed a noble vocation, but I have become something more than I ever thought I would become.