Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Bexley, Ohio. Pulitzer Prize winning author Tracy Kidder speaks at Capital University.

Pulitzer prize-winning author Tracy Kidder discussed his book Mountains Beyond Mountains at Capital University’s Mees Hall auditorium Monday night. The book was this year’s common reader for the Capital University community.

Mountains Beyond Mountains is the story of Dr. Paul Farmer, a physician who works with the poor and sick in Haiti and war-torn nations in Africa. He is also the founder of Partners in Health that builds medical clinics and housing in Haiti and Africa.

Mees Hall held a crowd of about three hundred and fifty at the beginning of the lecture which started a few minutes late. A dozen and a half students arrived after the speech had begun so the total audience size grew to about three hundred and eighty.

Before the lecture began, standing in the entrance foyer and eavesdropping on conversations, the mix seemed about fifty-fifty community and university. Once inside the Mees Hall auditorium, the mix of students, faculty and community guests seemed about two thirds faculty and students and one third guests from the community.

A welcoming statement was presented by Dr. Kay Slocum, Gerhold Chairholder and Professor of History at Capital University. It was a brisk and friendly welcome. In only a few words, she contextualized the event as to time, occasion, finance and current affairs.

She noted the contrast between the remarks Capital University president Denvy Bowman is able to make welcoming Tracy Kidder with the hectoring remarks Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia, offered to his guest Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. the president of Iran.

As ever, good manners and good judgment are more evident in the Midwest when compared to the East Coast.

In his remarks, President Denvy Bowman acknowledged the value of spending the day with Tracy Kidder and the importance of Kidder’s writings. Brief remarks that helped move the event to its feature.

Professor David Summers, Department Chairman and Professor of English gave a helpful conspectus of Kidder’s writings and insight into the significance of Mountains Beyond Mountains in the academic community. Not too much of an introduction. Nor too little.

And then to the featured speaker. Tracy Kidder offered anecdotes about Dr. Paul Farmer that were omitted from Mountains Beyond Mountains. Some were phrases from Kidder about the process of writing the book about Dr. Farmer. But most were memorable lines that captured Dr. Farmer’s character and his background.

“Someday this will all be yours.” Self-awareness and the joy of making progeny cringe.

“Free readers from irritating self-reflection.” Arrogance; perhaps self-deprecation. Ambiguity is always artful.

“Insultingly small bribe to return to an African project.” Corruption and vanity.

“The problem of good.” (Ironic allusion to Leibnitz’s Problem of evil…why would a loving god permit evil in His creation.) Realization that at some point Dr. Farmer might become a pest or a prig.

Reference to profanity in an anecdote. Acceptable to East Coast audience but avoided in the Midwest.

A second geographic demarcation of Midwest culture compared to East Coast stress.

Then to photos.

Photos. Emaciated Avante. Tuberculosis. Before and after. Avante now a worker with Partners in Health.

Photos. Josef. Tuberculosis and AIDS. Emaciated. Now TB cured and AIDS inactive. Last photo. Josef is smiling and holding a child.

Kidder offers the ironic comment that he tries to use photos very sparingly. Photos are too effective as competition for the written word.

A student’s question: “How did meeting and writing about Dr. Paul Farmer change you.”

“It didn’t.”

Kidder goes on: “I thought for a moment that I could give up my comfort and luxury and do what Dr. Farmer was doing. Then I thought I could live with only a third of what I have. And then I just gave up the thought. I don’t want to give up comfort and luxury.”

The book about Dr. Farmer. It is just a story.

Politics. A few brief references. Kidder satisfies the stereotype. One of his comments though surprises: “Pervasive cynicism but politics is how we arrange our lives.” Do people really think that politics arrange lives?

Stereotypes are satisfied. Kidder makes a reference to Rwanda and Kellogg Brown and Root of Texas, owned by Halliburton. A scattering of knowing laughs from one pack of faculty seats.

Kidder talks about a Boston contractor who makes major financial donations to Dr. Farmer’s projects and Partners in Health. The contractor is quoted: “ Sometimes I think about how much money I had before I met Dr. Farmer” and “In heaven I’ll have a credit card.”

Two student questions had the subtext “should I drop out of school and do volunteer work to help the sick in Haiti and Africa?” I wonder if anyone from the Capital University provost office cringed at those questions.

Another question was what is literature and why does your non-fiction feel like it is literature.

Afterwards there were refreshments in the Mees Hall entrance foyer. Punch, cookies and other sweets. The mix of university and community seemed ninety percent students and ten percent faculty and community guests. Students always appear where there is free food. Faculty are always ready to loiter. Nothing changes.

Kidder’s lecture was the premiere Gerhold Lecture at Captial University. Edward L. And Mary Catherine Gerhold established the Mary Catherine Gerhold Annual Lecture in the Humanities at Capital University. The purpose of the lecture is to promote peace and human understanding through higher education.

Donations and requests for additional information about the work of Dr. Farmer can be directed to

Partners in Health
641 Huntington Ave.
Boston, MA 02115

Partners in Health website is www.pih.org.

Mountains Beyond Mountains, It is just a story. And the Gerhold Lecture was just a lecture. But the lecture highlighted the problem of Christian institutions in a secular culture.

The lecture can be understood as a speech about the problem of Christian impulses in a secular world. Christianity without the Scriptures.

Professor Summers’ introduction observed that Capital University is a university following the Lutheran tradition. Was this a hint of a context to understand the lecture.

Was the purpose to offer students an appreciation of Christian service in the life of Dr. Farmer? Nothing in the lecture informed us whether Dr, Farmer is a man of faith, let alone a Christian.

Yet, the story of Dr. Paul Farmer is a story of service to the sick, the needy, the poor. It is a story about helping foreigners, strangers.

Are those themes familiar? Are they the story of countless religious on missions throughout the world.

Are they themes about religious orders, hospitals and clinics supported throughout the world by Christian communities and organizations?

The Good Samaritan was not mentioned. But Kidder and one student questioner talked about the common impulse most of us experience when we see a beggar sitting in a dark doorway. Our impulse is to walk to the other side of the sidewalk to avoid contact, to avoid the request for money. The Good Samaritan did just the opposite of our selfish impulse. Dr. Farmer too did just the opposite.

Kidder’s described some of his work for Partners in Health as proselytizing.

Kidder considered giving up all his worldly goods to help Dr. Farmer. Perhaps not a serious consideration but a thought he had. Did the phrase “and follow me” come to anyone’s mind?

Christianity wasn’t mentioned in the premiere Gerhold Lecture. Perhaps that makes a good deal of sense: the Gerhold Lecture is afterall a lecture in the Humanities. And Capital University follows the Lutheran tradition.

Still at a university that ”follows the Lutheran tradition” you might expect one public reference to faith.

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