“Seeing An Old Friend” | Blog #33

“Seeing An Old Friend” | Blog #33

It’s been quite a few years since I visited Arlington National Cemetery, but this was the first time I was going to “see” someone I knew. Professor John “Jack” Child, Lt. Col. Ret., was Undergraduate Dean of AU’s School of International Service beginning in January of 1980. When I started in the fall of ’78 we were in-between Deans. Professor Bill Cromwell was acting Dean for the year. I became President of the SIS Undergraduate Cabinet as a sophomore and the fall of that year Bill Olsen became Dean and brought a new energy and direction to the school. Part of that initiative was hiring assistant deans to focus on the undergraduate and graduate programs with an aim of growing both. I had the enviable position of welcoming Dean Olsen and working closely with him. When Jack was hired and started in January I ended up getting a job as his assistant and spent the rest of my undergraduate time working in his office.

Jack was a remarkable individual and was somewhat of an unusual hire. He was a career military officer having joined right out of Yale when he graduated at age 20. At one time he was the youngest First Lieutenant in the Army. His first tour in Vietnam in the early ‘60s as an advisor overlapped with the first US military death. When he went back in the late ‘60’s, everything had changed. Jack was the New England son of a DuPont executive posted to Buenos Aires, Argentina.  He grew up in the highest society and went to a prep school patterned after Eaton where he played rugby and swam and learned the “machismo” culture. Entering Yale at 16 he joined the “Yale Battery” (ROTC) and studied engineering, although his great love was liberal arts, language, and teaching. He became the Army’s chief Latin American Expert, teaching at the Inter-American War College and cycling through many of the embassies in Central, South, and Latin America while also doing combat terms as an officer in the 101st Airborne. He lived out in Northern Virginia and would run into the office in the morning to stay in shape. The School of International Studies building in those days was small and lacked creature comforts. More than once I’d get to school early and stop in the men’s room on the basement level only to be confronted by Jack and another professor who used to ride his bike in, stripped down to their skivvies washing up and dressing for work. Thankfully the new SIS building has showers who follow Jack’s lead of using the commute as their daily PT time.

Jack was a force of nature. His administrative gifts and organizational ability quickly had things humming. Meanwhile a steady stream of students marched through the office and in 15 minute time-slots he counseled and coached, guided and gave advice, dealt quickly with whining and excuses, and helped folks find direction. And he taught. Latin American history, Spanish, and one amazing class on the history of the Americas using his extensive stamp collection; he actually wrote an academic paper on the semiotics of stamps – how they carry in miniature form meaning and messages about what a society values and holds important. 

Being in his office we grew close, despite my unwillingness to make coffee. “Jack, I don’t drink coffee, I’m not going to make it!” Luckily, now in civilian life, he couldn’t charge me with insubordination and send me to the brig or have me court martialed.  Jack also taught courses on Antarctica and the geopolitical implications of the southernmost continent. When the Falkland/Malvinas War between Britain and Argentina broke out in April of ’82 he was out of the office called back in to advise the military and being featured on Nightline. Not only did he know about the issues, but most of the Argentine High Command were old prep school buddies. In later years he would lead trips to Antarctica and give lectures on penguins, often dressed as a penguin. 

When I thought of going off to Seminary, he wrote the most gracious and affirming letter of recommendation. I have tried my best to live up to the gifts he saw in me. One of the great surprises in our relationship came the summer after my first year at PTS. Jack called and asked if I had any plans over the 4th of July weekend and, if I didn’t, would I be willing to come back to DC and march with him in a protest, as he had never done that before. The protest was billed as “Viet Nam Vets Against the War in Latin America” and it had gained a great deal of publicity in the Washington Post. A series of articles for and against had been published and Jack, because of his history in the military and post at AU had a spotlight shining on him. So, I hitch-hiked down and Saturday early we gathered at the newly opened Vietnam Vet Memorial. Jack was dressed in old jungle fatigues, and it was amazing to see him interact with so many vets who automatically responded to him as an officer. He pointed out names on the black walls of soldiers he had known, including several foreign nationals – Mexican and Panamanian – who he had to inform their families while he served in those embassies that their sons had died fighting for the US. I was honored to walk with this man of honor. 

When Jack died his family asked if I would participate in the University memorial Service in his honor at University Methodist Church across from campus. Gratefully I was able to speak words of gratitude to God honoring Jack’s life and legacy. It was good to “see” him again yesterday and have a long talk.

From Arlington Cemetery I went to The National Cathedral to spend some quiet time reading and reflecting. Just down the street from AU I used to go to evensong with Episcopal friends. Sitting up in the choir, reading Peterson, reminded me of the oasis that worship had been during the busy first years, as I was trying to come to a greater understanding of my own faith and sense of growing call. After visiting so many beautiful churches in Europe it is also remarkable to learn the Cathedral is the 6th largest in the world and matches most for beauty and serenity.

Driving through a near empty AU campus afforded me the chance to reflect on how fortunate I was to choose SIS. The campus has matured remarkable over the 40 years since I graduated. There was an intentional movement to turn the campus into an arboretum and to see the beauty of all the trees and flowers makes me want to re-enroll! (Don’t worry, Amy! I remember the promise I made that my DMin was the “terminal degree” – but it would be fun to come up and take a class!). Tomorrow morning I’ll meet with a Development Officer for the School of International Service, so we’ll see what comes of that.1

Long post, but good day, spent giving thanks for Jack Child and the impact of his life on mine. Tomorrow I’ll reflect on Professor Abdul Aziz Said, who died last year at 91, and who was the other major figure whose influence was propound and lasting.