INITIATION AND ENDOWMENT OF THE DR. ALLEN J. KOPPENHAVER LITERATURE LECTURE
REMARKS OF LANTY L. SMITH
APRIL 8, 2011
Thank you, Mark, for your kind and generous words.
Friends one and all,
I am delighted to be back on the Wittenberg campus, particularly for the special purpose which brings us together tonight.
Let me begin by introducing members of the Koppenhaver family who are in attendance this evening:
Allen’s beloved wife and best friend, Jerry;
Their daughter Karin Reed;
Their son David; and
Their daughter-in-law Lisa.
Jerry, would you and your family members please stand and let us recognize you.
It was my great good fortune fifty and one-half years ago to matriculate to Wittenberg. The College was then, as it is today, a special place, and the four years I spent on campus had a huge influence on my life. Next month my three closest friends from my days at Wittenberg will join me in the mountains of North Carolina to fly fish, drink good wines, laugh a lot and consider and discuss the human condition – much as we endlessly talked about and debated these matters and grew up together on this campus a half-century ago. Todd, John and Fred will come from Wisconsin, Vermont and Illinois. We have not been together since last year at this time on the same river; but, within twenty minutes after we assemble, our relationships and commitments to each other will mirror those we built on this campus fifty years ago.
No one at Wittenberg was more impactful on my life than was Allen Koppenhaver. Ironically, the student-teacher relationship which formed between us resulted from pure happenstance.
I came to Wittenberg as a seventeen-year-old farm boy, a graduate of a small rural high school in Eastern Ohio. My high school class had thirty-five students, and very few of us had an opportunity to attend college. I was blessed to have parents who aspired for their children to have educational opportunities that had been unavailable to them. When I arrived at Wittenberg, I had never written an essay exam. I was interested in math and science. I had had little exposure to the humanities. Indeed, I do not recall knowing what the humanities were. I was able to attend Wittenberg only because of a scholarship from General Motors; my academic focus was on mathematics and chemistry; and I was miffed that I was required to take liberal arts courses.
In 1961, as I began my sophomore year, I, along with all my classmates, was required to take a humanities literature course. The scheduling for my math course and chemistry labs was inflexible, and there was only one section of humanities literature that fit into my schedule. It was to be taught by a new professor, Allen Koppenhaver. That happenstance began a student-teacher relationship that changed my life – just as Allen’s influence enriched the lives of so many other Wittenberg students.
Some professors bring out the best in their students by being hard taskmasters. I think of Will Hahn in mathematics and Paul Glasoe in chemistry. They set high standards for their students to meet. That was not Allen Koppenhaver’s way. Allen equally challenged his students but in a different manner. He inspired students to set high standards for themselves – to be the best they could be not to satisfy him but rather to allow and teach them the fulfillment that comes from personal intellectual achievement and growth. He taught us to set high standards for ourselves not because others set them for us but because life is short and we all have a responsibility to develop and use our talents to make the world a better place. He inspired students to celebrate acquisition of knowledge and to revel in creation of good writing, whether simply to tell a story or to raise ages-old, unanswerable questions about the meaning of life.
Allen emphasized the importance of questions and the wisdom of understanding that not all questions have answers and that, indeed, life’s most important questions have remained the same since the beginning of civilization.
Allen was a gentle but persistent nudge to assist us to be taskmasters of ourselves as we live in and contribute to a world in which the inhumanity of man towards his fellow man often seems limitless, inexplicable and timeless. Despite teaching about and sensitizing us to that inhumanity, Allen believed in and emphasized the overall goodness of mankind, the promise of a more just society and the prospect of social progress. He had an infectious curiosity and optimism about the human condition that I will always cherish.
Allen and Jerry often welcomed students into their home, even at odd hours of the night; and their immense capacity for caring about us was evident.
There was merriment in Allen’s eyes and his soft, melodic voice; and, above all else, there was an incredibly appealing gentleness, playful and boyish nature in Allen’s demeanor.
After my humanities literature course with Allen, I continued and completed my mathematics major, but I took all of the Koppenhaver courses I could fit into my schedule. Thanks to his influence and the impact of a liberal arts education, I became thoroughly confused about what my future academic pursuits should be. In my senior year on three consecutive weekends I took the graduate record exams in math and the humanities and then the law boards. With Allen as my counselor, I decided to attend law school and change vocational direction. In doing so, I reflected an enhanced interest in the broader world, the humanities and advancement of society.
Much of this development I attribute to the inspiration and encouragement that I received from Allen Koppenhaver. And in that journey and development I was not unique. I am representative of countless Wittenberg students and faculty members who were similarly impacted by Allen. He was a humanist, a superb teacher, an immensely caring, encouraging individual and a Renaissance man – a prototypical professor for a liberal arts college.
It therefore gives me immense pleasure to endow the Koppenhaver Lecture and to share with you at this time a video tribute to Dr. Allen Koppenhaver. It was prepared by Wittenberg with great love for Jerry and her family, and we are pleased to have it as a featured part of this special occasion tonight.