One Person’s Recipe For a Superb Education at Western
Barry D. Wood, BA ‘65, MA ‘68
When I arrived at Western in 1964 I had no idea just how much five years in Kalamazoo would shape my life.
An indifferent high school student, upon completing community college in Grand Rapids I went west and got a job as a deck hand on a Swedish freighter bound for Australia. After five months of seven-day-a week, $100 per month physical toil, I realized the value of higher education and was ready to learn.
Fortunately one of my first classes at Western was economic development with Lou Junker. Lou was a maverick, a pioneer nutritionist with a passion for learning and making the world a better place. He ruffled feathers and challenged conventional thinking. Rejecting my timid response to his question of how many books I read each week, Junker put me on a study program and monitored my progress.
So here’s my first suggestion to today’s students: find passionate professors who care about what they’re teaching and make you think. When I was at Western you had to rely on word of mouth and reputation. You’ve got the advantage of on-line evaluations.
My second suggestion is that you pursue classes and activities outside of your interest. While I’m glad I chose economics, I learned so much about how governments work from Political Science classes. I enjoy classical symphonies largely because in music appreciation cellist Herbert Butler taught me how to listen. My passion for architecture goes back to historian Peter Schmidt’s lectures and book on Victorian homes in Kalamazoo.
You have stimulating speakers like Gloria Steinem. Go, even if you don’t agree; you might learn something. I remember Jane Fonda and Alan Ginsburg speaking on campus. In economics we had Milton Friedman from the right and others from the left. My head was spinning but it stimulated thought. Bob Dye in communications had a semester-long seminar on the films of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.
Learn what extra-curricular activities are available and take advantage of them. Twice I was fortunate enough to represent Western at collegiate conferences at the United Nations. During the Mississippi summer campaign for voting rights, the Wesley Foundation promoted the cause and courageously advised student participation.
I’ll never forget the graduate seminars at Oxford and in Yugoslavia. K College was also a wonderful resource. It had a magnificent Bach festival each spring. And once, while seated on a bench on the K College quad, composer Aaron Copland wandered by and we talked for ten minutes. Because I was interested in South Africa, when Zack York was casting for his adaptation of Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, I was coaxed into auditioning and had a part in the first play in the Laura Shaw Theatre.
My last bit of advice is this: Get off campus and engage with the Kalamazoo community. Char Steak on West Michigan is long gone, but Michigan News is still there with a great common-folks restaurant next door. Much of what I learned about the arts came from informal late night talks at Verne and Margaret Berry’s wonderful house at 213 Elm Street. They took in students and allowed painters and sculptors to work in what had been the carriage house in the back.
Unlike today, I had the good fortune to be in Kalamazoo during a cultural revolution. Stereophonic sound was new and electrifying. Later, Beatles music pried open listeners’ minds. Food co-ops and organic food were new and compelling. Rock and roll was pervasive; anti-war protests were a constant.
Upon returning to Washington, D.C. from a visit to Western this past December, I stopped at Kent State near Cleveland. It was there in 1970 that four students protesting the Viet Nam war were shot dead by National Guardsmen. That tragedy could have occurred anywhere. A visit to Kent State is a reminder that the 60s and early 70s weren’t just peace and love.
Obviously, times change. But one thing is the same: whether 50 years ago or today, it is great to be a student with an enquiring mind. There’s a world of choices and experiences out there. Don’t let them slip away.
After completing a BA and MA in economics, Barry Wood taught at Northern Michigan University and WMU and then became a foreign correspondent in South Africa and Eastern Europe. He now writes from Washington, D.C. for USA Today, marketwatch.com, Hong Kong radio and the Huffington Post.