Greater Glories

In poetry, human-rights activist Chester Wickwire has found a vehicle for reflecting on the peaks and valleys of his distinguished life.


How Chester Wickwire feels about the first book of poetry he's published would take at least one more poem to reveal. "Longs Peak" contains 39 graceful pieces, hard-worked, heart-felt, truly lived. And its publication has just welcomed the young poet into his 85th year.

The volume is a new twist in a career that has provided little time for reflection. It's an autobiographical record of the rewards and regrets of living life full throttle, from the gun-toting streets of Colorado City in the '20s to the white marble stoops of Baltimore today. The book covers haunting, often disturbing terrain, a voyage that makes most sense in the context of the man who traveled it.

"I went through a lot of my life without stopping to think too much about it," Wickwire says. "A lot of things needed to be done, but there wasn't enough pausing to let them soak in. I think I've got an idea now of what was going on more than I ever did. The poems help complete experiences, help me understand what was happening. They give me at least some understanding of myself."

Wickwire, chaplain emeritus of Johns Hopkins University and the founder of its celebrated tutorial program, is an acclaimed civil-rights activist and elder statesman for good causes. He has spent some 60 years fighting injustices for African-Americans, Korean-Americans, Native Americans, migrant workers, conscientious objectors. Even though he was put on a pacemaker a few months ago, he drove to Washington in December to speak out against the impeachment of President Clinton at the Rev. Jesse Jackson's prayer vigil. Next month, he will receive an award from the Baltimore Urban League.

And though his accomplishments are widely known, Wickwire expects that "Longs Peak" (Brickhouse Books, $10) will take many by surprise.

"When I read a few poems at the Ministerial Alliance meeting some months ago, they shook some people up," he chuckles. "I think they expected I was going to read some very devotional things."

Instead, he read "A Canvas Tent," a poem about a religious dogfight at a camp meeting near the Colorado town where he grew up. In the poem, Brother Bogard, "a Landmark Baptist Bull Dog" debates "Adventist Hot Dog" in a "nasty night of calumnies" in the summer of '38. As they watch the evening unfold, a 25-year-old singing evangelist and his wife begin awakening to the truth of the world outside the narrow assurances of their religious fundamentalism.

The path they were set on eventually leads Chester and Mary Ann, today his wife of 61 years, through lean times and troubled times to Baltimore's Riderwood neighborhood and a life of activism and teaching.

Since 1953, when he became director of the campus student center at Hopkins, Chester Wickwire has served as one of Baltimore's most cogent moral voices. He has delivered invocations at rallies and graduations, written hundreds of letters and essays for newspapers. He considers it his mission to persuade others to become personally involved in the universal quest of human rights.

But his latest work, this book of poems, is more difficult to promote, he says. It's all about what is most personal to him.

A sideline

Chester Wickwire has pursued writing in the margins of his life. He took a weekend writing course at Harvard between the historic desegregation demonstrations at Baltimore's Gwynn Oak Amusement Park. He scribbled notes in jail cells that held other protesters. He recorded Adolf Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem in 1961. He wrote down what it felt like to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak in Washington.

His office is a repository of vivid scraps, a collection of stories almost too overwhelming to assemble. There is the story of the polio he contracted while at Yale Divinity School and his eventual rehabilitation at Warm Springs, Ga., a placement he owed to Eleanor Roosevelt, who was contacted on his behalf by a mutual acquaintance. There's the quest to find a restaurant that would serve Duke Ellington because he was "colored"; the Long Walk with the Native Americans; the prisons in El Salvador.

Wickwire remembers what it felt like to be suspected of communism by conservative faculty members. He remembers the hatred of the cross burning on the campus when he brought in civil-rights leader Bayard Rustin. He still feels the joy of bringing blacks and whites together to hear a jazz concert in the 5th Regiment Armory in 1958. And he remembers friendships with two of the Maryknoll nuns killed in Nicaragua in 1980.

Over the years, as his life filled with such passionate material, the chaplain began delivering invocations that sounded more and more like blank verse. Poetry was a natural fit for him, he says. Already an accomplished musician, he found a home in its rhythms and meters.

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