Honoring a tireless advocate

December 28, 2003|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

A couple of weeks ago, a motley crew was sitting around in the Great Hall of Levering Hall on the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University, telling stories. One was about the time a generation ago when Chester Wickwire was among the handful of people in the country authorized by the Pentagon to visit conscientious objectors held in military stockades, generally military personnel resisting the Vietnam War.

Word came of a woman at Fort Meade who was locked up and refused to wear prison clothes because she saw them as another uniform. She sat in her cell wrapped in a sheet.

Wickwire drove down but was denied access to the prisoner. As the narrator told the story, Wickwire refused to leave. He just stood there. For hours. Eventually Fort Meade officials got in touch with the Pentagon and learned that Wickwire was allowed to see such prisoners. He got in.

Wickwire has been refusing to leave for a long time now. The Levering Hall gathering was to celebrate his 90th birthday. The guest of honor was as usual avoiding the spotlight, dressed in a warm woolen coat on a cold, slushy day, sitting in a motorized wheelchair that a broken hip put him in a few years ago.

But when you paid your respects, there was certainly no sense of going up to a frail old man who was only a memory of his previous self. Wickwire remains the same friendly, stubborn, self-deprecating, kind, stern, forceful, thoughtful, active presence he was when I met him when I came to Hopkins in 1968. I did the math. He was two years older then than I am now.

Chester seems to sum up the wonderful contradictions of his upbringing in rural Colorado. You can see the discipline of his fundamentalist mother - she thought most everybody, including her son, was going to hell - and the frontier spirit of his peripatetic father. Grow up and rebel against that, head for Yale Divinity School for a doctorate, contract polio while there, land at Johns Hopkins in 1953 with McCarthyism, civil rights and Vietnam ahead, and you have the makings of a good story.

Through it all, Wickwire kept his hair short - an odd sight on campus in the early 1970s - and his views strong. The polio made metal crutches appendages to his arms. Eleanor Roosevelt helped him get treatment at Warm Springs, Ga. He now wonders how much battling the disease - coming to terms with his mortality earlier than most - affected him.

Wickwire was chaplain at Hopkins for three decades, his office in Levering. He stood up to McCarthyism - defending Hopkins Professor Owen LattiMore, a target of McCarthy's wrath - and to Communism - he was detained on a trip to the Soviet Union for allegedly spreading the wrong kind of propaganda and denounced the Soviet system when he returned.

Wickwire was in the forefront of Baltimore's civil rights struggles. He can tell stories of revered university figures who dragged their feet on that essential issue of their day. Black people were a rare sight on the Homewood campus until well into the 1960s. Only a handful of people, like Wickwire, were pushing for it to be otherwise.

Such was Wickwire's standing in the Baltimore black community that he once headed the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, an almost all-black organization. In 1969, when Baltimore police had warrants for the arrest of Black Panthers who feared the type of police attack that had just killed Fred Hampton in Chicago, the Panthers agreed to surrender to Wickwire, who ensured they were safely turned over to the police.

He tried, with varying degrees of success, to get the cloistered student body to pay attention to the city that was all around it. The tutoring program he set up - it now serves 100 children from city schools - is still going strong over 45 years later. He spoke at my commencement, images from the poem he read to the Class of 1972 still etched in my mind.

There were stories about all those things, about younger people driven to exhaustion trying to keep up with "Chet the Jet," about lives bending their direction after persistent contact with the lodestone of Wickwire's convictions.

And there was longtime Hopkins Professor Richard Macksey, thanking Wickwire because the chaplain's office gave a place for those who cared about film to follow their passion at a time when the printed page was the only text accepted by Hopkins academics. And there was the woman who said she had met Wickwire because they walked their dogs together. "I just knew him as a nice man," she said. "I had no idea about all this other stuff."

When it came Wickwire's turn to respond, he made clear that though he might be seated, he planned to remain standing for some time to come. He read from The Wonder Horse, his second book of poetry, published in 2000. The poem, he said, was dedicated to his eldest son, Lynn, who had come down from Boston for the party.

When I was thirty and our oldest five

He said, "Daddy, you're getting bald," I've

Not forgotten the question he asked next,

"Where do you want to be buried? no jive

Laughter roared through the room. When it died down, Wickwire continued, the prickly pear of the plains coming through.

A joke then, but not so funny today.

I'm not ready to be buried, to pay

The piper; our son got lots of laughs.

I'm not at Shakespeare's seventh stage, Hey!

But that I'm a simple mortal is the thing

That stalks me each day, "frailty identity

Crisis," a motivator, dueling

With rage to stay on the merry-go-round.

Wickwire finished and the applause was sustained. All made plans for December 2013 to gather again for his 100th.

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