For Don Wilson, teaching has never been simply about imparting knowledge. “I have always tried not to just make my students smarter, but to make them different, and hopefully that means better,” he said. “I wanted them to walk out of my class not just knowing a lot of information but having a little larger perspective on the world.”
To achieve that goal, Wilson felt like he had to have a personal relationship with each student. “I couldn't see somebody in class and know them only as a name or a face; in order to teach, I have to know something about the people sitting in front of me.”
“Everyone gets a card on their birthday.”
The relationship began by Wilson taking a picture of each student on the first day of class and knowing their name by the second.
One-on-one time with students was also a priority for Wilson. In his later years, he accomplished that by taking every student each semester out for lunch at least once. Over his 44 years of teaching at Calvin, this has led to countless friendships between Wilson and former students, many of which continue to this day.
“I'm meeting a former student for lunch today to help her with a decision about an opportunity she has in Cambodia,” said the 76-year-old sociology professor emeritus. “I'm going to tell her, ‘Go, the world is a big, inviting place to learn about.'” As an ordained Presbyterian minister he has also performed more than 300 weddings—and one funeral. “That's a pretty good ratio,” he said.
In fact, Wilson still has lunch about four times a week with students, former students and friends that were made outside of class.
In addition to lunch appointments—and pizza parties (he has hosted about 30 of those a year as well), Wilson corresponds with his friends all over the world through postcards; he sends about 6,000 a year. “About half of those are birthday cards,” he said. “Everyone gets a card on their birthday.”
He also encourages Calvin athletes with a written card. Every athlete on every team hears from him at least once during the season.
“I find Calvin athletes to be highly disciplined and remarkably fine people,” he said. And Wilson should know. He attends almost every home sporting event every year—a total of about 100—as well as the nationals in track in field every year.
“The kids have adopted Hilda [Wilson's wife] and me as their mascots,” he joked.
Some former students have continued on with Wilson's postcard legacy: “ Your kind words of encouragement and support meant far more than you realize, as my family lived over 400 miles away and were not able to make it to any of the basketball games. I experienced the power of your postcard, and I am now experiencing the blessing of sending such notes.”
Others hear from Wilson, too, anyone who needs encouragement—a student, someone who is sick, friends in nursing homes.
“It was wonderful being your student, but even better becoming your friend. Your attempts to get to know your students outside the class spoke volumes to many of us,” wrote a former student in tribute. “Thank you for teaching, for caring, for sharing, for being so integral in who many of us are today.”
Officially retired in 1996, Wilson has continued to teach part time until this past year. He was hired by President William Spoelhof, who “went out on a limb,” Wilson said. “I was not Christian Reformed, and I didn't go to Calvin, but I was known because I was an evangelical Christian in physical anthropology.”
He was the first anthropologist on Calvin's faculty, and early on his teaching was sometimes criticized for being too controversial. “People didn't always agree with what I said, but they could never accuse me of teaching that which was not consistent with the Bible or the Reformed perspective,” he said. “I wanted to make students think about what they believed.”
Over the years, Wilson evolved into more of a cultural anthropologist with an interest in intercultural communication. He reflected on the cultural differences in friendship he has noted: “We live in a culture where we have a Kleenex theory of friendship; a friendship is something we have for a little while and then we discard it. In Africa, there is a silk scarf theory of friendship; it is something to be treasured.”
Wilson prefers the “silk scarf theory”: “When I think of how I want to be remembered, I'm not so concerned that people say he was a good teacher. I also want them to say he was my friend.”
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