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The Deacon Blog

A blog by Maria Henson (‘82) with news of alumni and the WFU community

Happy Valentine’s Day, Eric G. Wilson

Overseeing a magazine, one picks up all sorts of magazines wherever they are in reach. That happened today at an appointment when I grabbed a stack and started perusing the latest issues. The hot-off-the-press March issue of O, The Oprah Magazine caught my eye, and when I flipped to the books section so did this version of a valentine:

This book got a mention for having a great title. What the magazine failed to mention is that it is the latest book by Eric G. Wilson, the Thomas H. Pritchard Professor of English at Wake Forest. “Everyone Loves A Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away,” published this month by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, examines our culture’s attraction to evil and to darkness. According to advance publicity for the book, Wilson draws on findings of biologists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, philosophers, theologians and artists.

In a precursor to the book’s publication, Wilson discussed his fascination with the moral of the morbid in November in Psychology Today. “Renaissance scholars kept skulls on their desks to remind them how precious this life is. John Keats believed that the real rose, because it is dying, exudes more beauty than porcelain,” he wrote. In describing his trip to the Ground Zero Museum in New York, he encountered what is now “holy ground” born of “horrific terrain.”

“At that moment,” he wrote, “I understood the terrible wisdom of suffering: When we agonize over what has cruelly been bereft from us, we love it more, and know it better, than when we were near it. Affliction can reveal what is most sacred in our lives, essential to our joy. Water, Emily Dickinson writes, is ‘taught by thirst.’

“To stare at macabre occurrences — this can lead to mere insensitivity, gawking for a cheap thrill; or it can result in stunned trauma, muteness before the horror. But in between these two extremes, morbid curiosity can sometimes inspire us to imagine ways to transform life’s necessary darkness into luminous vision.”

My guess is that you will be hearing a lot more about the “train wreck” book and what Wilson as scholar has learned from his research. (He posted this at Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s Work in Progress blog today for those of you not in the mood for chocolates, roses and sweet sentiment. It’s his take on why horror is good for you and lists his favorite horror films. No shock here: “I’m a serious horror film fan,” he writes. Yes, “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Shining” are among them.)

Best wishes to the professor as he launches his book about what it means to be human, in all its shadow, not just its light.

An inside look at new provost’s ‘dorm parents’ digs

A link to the apartment therapy website keeps zipping among Wake Foresters’ emails since the appointment on Jan. 27 of Rogan Kersh (’86) as the new provost. I want to share it because it provides a glimpse into the student-centered lives of Kersh and his wife, Sara Jade Pesek, and offers a spotlight on sustainability, an ethos important to Wake Forest.

Kersh and Pesek's dorm apartment at NYU

The post begins, “In New York University’s Goddard Hall, on Washington Square Park, most doors open on the chaotic lairs of 200 college freshmen. But door #702, dotted with notes and nametags, reveals an unexpected oasis, the tranquil home of ‘dorm parents’ Sara and Rogan.”

Their 1,350-square-foot apartment is considered a model for sustainable campus living. The couple has not one but two compost options, the regular kitchen countertop container and a worm compost bin. Cabinets are bamboo. The paint has low volatile organic compounds.

The couple won’t be strangers to the high value placed on service learning at Wake Forest. The website notes that Kersh and Pesek led 40 freshmen on a spring break trip to New Orleans with Historic Green, a zero carbon rebuilding project in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward.

I hear the couple is shopping for a house. It’s safe to guess Kersh and Pesek won’t be able to discover a Winston-Salem home for sale to top their Manhattan building as a former residence for famed Americans. Edgar Allan Poe, Winslow Homer and Charlie Chaplin had bachelor’s quarters in the building. Whether they had worm compost bins in their bachelor’s quarters is doubtful. In that, they were not ahead of their time. Kersh and Pesek clearly are.

New Provost: ‘You had me at hello’

Wake Foresters cannot help but be thrilled by the appointment of Rogan Kersh (’86) as the new provost. He’s an alumnus who grew up in Brevard, N.C., and understands the spirit of this place, having gained initiatory insights from President James Ralph Scales on a February day in 1982, and on through his campus days as an undergraduate.

Rogan Kersh ('86), Wake Forest's new provost

In the years after Wake Forest, he became a Luce Scholar and studied in Tokyo, earned two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. from Yale and went on to hold academic posts as a political scientist. Since 2006 he has been associate dean at New York University. In the fall issue of Wake Forest Magazine, he told Lisa Kline Mowry (’82) that he remembered Wake Forest as “bucolic, green, communal.”

Goodbye, concrete. Hello again, Reynolda Gardens.

Three decades ago Kersh was an ambitious but nervous high school student  aspiring to obtain one of the top scholarships available in the state. He was interviewing for a Morehead Scholarship at the University of North Carolina. At Wake Forest he joined the first group of high school seniors seeking Reynolds Scholarships. He describes that experience beautifully in an essay “My Own Personal Wake Forest” in Edwin G. Wilson’s (’43) “The History of Wake Forest University Volume V/1967-1983.”

He writes about arriving late to the Autumn Room in Reynolda Hall to join his 14 fellow-finalists. He was late because of a symphonic competition. He clattered in, “trailing my father’s old suitcase,” interrupting President Scales’ opening remarks. Instead of expressing irritation, Scales gave him “a kindly, welcoming smile, just long enough to reassure me but not mark the moment as disruptive.” The president went back to his talk, expressing his hope that the students “would come to embrace ‘your own personal Wake Forest.’” Kersh said the finalists shared with each other later that they had all had the same experience. Scales turned them from “a collection of nerve-wracked high schoolers into young men and women worthy of Wake Forest.”

I’ll let him take it from there:

“That at once powerful and gentle touch was sustained throughout the Reynolds interview weekend. Tom Phillips’s constant encouraging good cheer, Ed and Emily Wilson generously opening their home to the lot of us for dinner, Peggy Smith guiding us patiently through Reynolda House’s stunning American art collection, Jim Barefield pointing out the high notes of  WFU semester in Venice — on an immense map, displayed upside down (he blamed the map-holders — who, as a pair of hearty Wake juniors, seemed to us impossibly suave and sophisticated): all these encounters felt more like a family gathering than a scholarly inquisition.

“Driving home to the Western North Carolina mountains, fond visions of Deacon-hood danced in my head. I had a Morehead Scholarship interview a week later in Chapel Hill; Wake Forest’s Dean Tom Mullen, another warmly welcoming familiar figure during the Reynolds interviews, suggested I stop by and say hello on the trip back from UNC. He and Bill Starling, the much-beloved admissions director, were standing on the Reynolda Hall steps as I pulled up. From somewhere Dean Mullen produced a clutch of farm-fresh eggs, further cementing my impression of Wake Forest as the most wonderfully intimate, personable institution of higher learning imaginable. We talked a half-hour, in that painterly late-afternoon Winston-Salem sunlight. ‘We hope you’ll join us in the fall,’ Mullen said by way of parting; it seemed more a benediction than a recruitment pitch.’

“And so I did, to my lifelong benefit. For me the deal was sealed with Mr. Scales’s smile — my version of ‘you had me at hello.’ The rest of the weekend, and indeed the four incomparably memorable years that followed, were an extended confirmation of that essential warmth, understanding, and instillation of confidence. Thus began my own, yes, ‘personal Wake Forest.’”

Welcome back, Rogan Kersh. Take it from me, your ‘personal Wake Forest’ remains as bucolic and charming as ever. It’s ready for your next chapter.

Carol Barbee (’81) ready to launch “Touch” on Fox TV

When I ran into Carol Barbee (’81) at Simply Yummy during Homecoming weekend, she mentioned a new project she had cooking with Kiefer Sutherland and Fox TV.

Kiefer Sutherland in "Touch"

Sutherland’s name causes several Demon Deacons I know to lean in closer for the scoop because of their shameless addiction to “24.” Mea culpa. But as The New York Times noted Sunday, Sutherland’s new character is “a long way from Jack Bauer, the tough terrorism fighter” in the post-9/11 series that ended in 2010.

His new show is “Touch,” airing at 9 p.m. ET on Jan. 25, and Barbee as executive producer is one of the creatives behind it.
She majored in theatre at Wake Forest and has long been a highly regarded writer and executive producer in Los Angeles.

Carol Barbee ('81) is executive producer of "Touch"

Sutherland plays Martin Bohm, father of a son who has a disability and is mute but eventually begins communicating with his father in numbers patterns that can be deciphered to show connections across the past, present and future. Tim Kring, Barbee’s former boss when they worked together on the television show “Providence,” is the show’s creator. He based the drama on a combination of scientific theory and spiritual concepts, Barbee told me in a telephone conversation this week.

“It’s about how everyone and everything is connected,” she said. “I think it’s very zeitgeisty. I really do. It’s a smart show, but it’s also a sweet show. It’s a heart-on-your-sleeve show.”  She says the story with Martin and his son will be the constant, but throughout there will be “little short stories”  that take place around the world that demonstrate how the small things in life have great stakes. “It lifts up everyday, ordinary people, and says, ‘You matter.’” It’s also about the butterfly effect, she said. “You have no idea the number of lives” someone affects.

Barbee’s career followed naturally from her time as a theatre major from Concord, N.C., influenced by professors Harold C. Tedford, Donald H. Wolfe and Caroline Fullerton. “They were such a huge part of my life,” Barbee said, “and they’ve stayed in my life since, too.” She credits Fullerton with pointing her toward graduate school, a future she had never considered before Fullerton asked her point blank where she planned to apply and suggested options. Barbee received her MFA in acting at UCLA, a school that ranked among Fullerton’s recommendations.

“I think a liberal arts education and a true university experience expands your mind, expands your horizons. It’s where you find yourself. That’s how it was for me,” she said. “There’s an old Neil Young song that says, ‘All my changes were there.’ And that’s how I feel about Wake Forest. I went from being a kid to a thinking person who sort of figured out who she was a little bit and who had the opportunity to study with amazing minds.”

She said she honors others in her industry who choose to find their path into acting and film outside of college. “For me college was the way. And for me Wake Forest was just a perfect experience.”

In timely piece of advice for young people, this mother of two boys says, “I’m a big fan of whatever it is you’re interested in and whatever it is you love — go do that and don’t worry about how you’re going to get a job out of it, because from my experience — and what I’ve seen of a lot of my friends —  when you really love something and really pursue it, it will lead you to a life you love.” Her father still jokes with her, she said, about his not having liked the idea of her being a theatre major. Her brother and sister were more practical. “My dad always laughed and said, ‘I don’t get it! It’s my theatre major who’s making money.’”

Look for Barbee in March during Words Awake! — a writers’ conference celebrating Wake Forest writers and writing. She will be on a panel discussing screenwriting. Read more here about the conference.