Sometimes the most important thing for a trauma survivor is being treated as an equal. Today, after the historic World Series victory for the Chicago Cubs, I’d like to share with you some thoughts about my favorite Cubs fan, a woman who is my friend and mentor and far more accomplished than I may ever be. But Dr. Judy Whitis* also treats me as an equal, and that’s why our late-night text conversation following Game 7 filled me with so much joy.
I first met Dr. Whitis in the fall of 1991 after signing up to take her English comp class at Olivet Nazarene University. A typical, misguided freshman, I had no idea that my plans to study engineering would shortly evolve into the, for me, much wiser plan to study English and psychology.
Unlike most English comp students, I thoroughly enjoyed the class. Fortunately (and this is a “fact” that Judy herself is welcome to rebut in comments later), I quickly surmised that I had become a favorite of Dr. Whitis—which meant that she consistently set the bar higher for me than for other students. In English comp, this mattered little. Most important, I learned. As a student paying her own way through an expensive private college, I valued learning greatly.
By the second semester of my senior year, I was working as a teaching assistant in the ONU English department. When I first took the job, I felt a mixture of delight and terror in being assigned to Dr. Whitis. I had great relationships with the majority of the professors in the department, and I admired them all in various ways. But to 21-year-old me, Dr. Whitis walked on water, and I would rather have disappointed my parents or the dean or even the university president than to disappoint her. Besides, I knew she liked me, and by this point in my college career, our mentor-mentee relationship had developed my character and shaped my intellect more than any other relationship or encounter in my college career. And there exists any number of ways that a busy college senior can let down a department chair.
Fortunately, Dr. Whitis is as kind as she is tough, and all went well. Apparently, I even managed to impress the rest of the department, and in May, I received the first-ever William G. Foote Award for Excellence in Literary Criticism. I graduated happy, full of energy and ready to take on the world.
After receiving my bachelor’s degree, I decided to pursue employment in publishing rather than forge ahead with continuing education. When I landed my first job in a new city, Judy and the rest of the English department sent me a beautiful philodendron as a housewarming gift.
As time went on, I communicated occasionally with Judy. Every interaction boosted my confidence even as I struggled to make ends meet or find a place in the world for my particular skills. Eventually, we fell out of touch. Still, the respect and dignity with which she always treated me remained a bright, guiding light.
At one point, I hoped to attend graduate school, and I requested recommendations from a handful of my former professors. A few took this task as some sort of ego trip on their part. One even contacted me later to say I should be careful not to upset them because they were the only individual willing to open doors for me in academia. Not so with Judy! She provided the requested letters along with firm, gentle words of caution and encouragement.
Life moves ever onward. By 2015, Judy had retired, and I hadn’t visited ONU or the Chicagoland in a decade. Through the miracle of the internet, we had renewed our friendship, and my thoughts and prayers surrounded her as she experienced the sudden and tragic loss of her spouse.
That October, I planned a trip to the Chicagoland, including an extended visit to Olivet for homecoming and my 20-year reunion. Before visiting campus or connecting with any other blasts from the past, I met Judy for a quiet dinner. I nearly shed tears on seeing her face once again. Later, as we spoke of recent losses and precious memories, we both shed tears—a rare evening of tender vulnerability for each of us.
As we spoke that evening, Judy spoke to me as an equal, and it dawned on me that for more than two decades no one in my world had been a greater cheerleader in my corner, seeing me for who I am intellectually and before God, than this no-nonsense woman. The woman I always have wanted to be just like when I “grow up.”
Then I learned about her relationship with Ben Zobrist, who at that time was playing with the Kansas City Royals. During his time at Olivet, Ben had been a student of Judy’s. “A good student. B’s mostly,” she said. “He wrote me a note when he left saying it wasn’t my fault. Well, I knew it wasn’t my fault. He had a better chance of getting drafted elsewhere.” (Who wouldn’t adore a woman who speaks like this?)
We spoke more of baseball and the Cubs and a bit more about Olivet and opportunities for middle-aged writers like myself. Too soon our evening together ended, but our friendship and baseball are forever.
Many miles apart, two longtime Cubs fans, Judy and myself, watched the Chicago Cubs beat the Cleveland ball club in the 10th inning of Game 7. Earlier in the evening, I posted on social media my desire for Ben Zobrist, “the Swiss Army knife of baseball,” to win MVP. When the announcement was made after midnight Central, I immediately sent a text to Judy. “How proud are you of Ben Zobrist right now?” The answer came back promptly: “Really proud.”
Dr. Judy Whitis cares. She cared deeply about me as a student at ONU. She cared deeply about Ben as a student and ball player at ONU. (Seriously, what department chair finds time to attend all the baseball games on campus?) But the thing that mattered most then and will matter most all my life is the way in which Dr. Judy Whitis did her job in educating me and then proceeded to treat me, intelligent hot mess that I so often am, as an equal.
None of us is perfect. I have my flaws, and Judy has hers as well. But when it comes down to what really matters, Judy has always been, for me, an example of true love and respect—an outgrowth of her faith as well as her personality. What greater gift could ever be given to anyone—especially a trauma survivor—than to be treated as an equal? In my opinion, none.
*Due to the sensitive nature of this blog, most names have been changed. However, in this case, I have used Dr. Judy Whitis’ real name.