On May 26, 2007, more than 100 people gathered for a memorial service for Ralph Slotten, professor emeritus of religion. It took place in the Holland Union Building (HUB) Social Hall, an appropriate location since I often saw Ralph hanging out in the HUB and engaged in conversation with someone, usually a student.
The room was nearly filled. I knew Ralph had a broad assortment of friends and acquaintances, but I was impressed with the array of people there, some of whom had traveled far. Many offered recollections of him, including an 8-year-old girl, a lawyer, townspeople, faculty colleagues, former students and those who, like myself, had simply fallen into conversation with Ralph one day. I knew Ralph had an uncommon openness, and the turnout at the service confirmed that. He told me once of a fascinating conversation he had with someone he met early one morning in a McDonald’s in Carlisle. It’s not that he was indiscriminate, rather that he was curious and deeply appreciative of human individuality.
I was there to bid Ralph farewell. I corresponded with him for more than three decades. There were also visits and walks around campus perhaps once or twice a year. We didn’t manage to get together every year, but when we did, we picked up where we had left off. The letters, the walks, the visits—they were all one long, unending conversation.
Oddly enough, I never had a class with him while at Dickinson, never submitted a paper to him, never received a grade from him. In fact, I don’t recall exactly how we met. Of course, I had seen him prowling around campus (who could miss him?), and I was a major in his department. Somehow, though, our paths didn’t cross in the classroom.
I do remember peering out my upstairs, off-campus window one fall evening. Someone was calling, and as I looked out, I saw it was Ralph on his way home. He had heard that I lived here. We talked a few minutes, window to street, about who knows what. Once we started, we never stopped.
That was my senior year, and I was in a vocational quandary. We discussed available options, and much of what Ralph had to say struck me as far-fetched. He favored the life of the mind. That certainly seemed a worthy calling to me, but not something that bakes much bread, as folk wisdom has it. I never forgot his advice, though, and I now understand it better than I could at the time.
After I graduated, the letters began. At first they were composed in Ralph’s distinctive scribble, then on his first computer and finally with a fancy printer. They continued arriving as I crossed the thresholds of graduate school, law school, professional employment, marriage, children and, finally, middle age.
There is little we didn’t talk about. All was fair game, including politics, mythology, child rearing, academic fads, the book of Job, health, marriage, books, perennialism, poetry, India, Quakers, the Civil War, mysticism and Islam. Somehow, everything we discussed touched on everything else. If nothing else, Ralph warned me of the misstep of drawing distinctions too sharply.
With Ralph, no conversation ever led to a dead end. Every tangent intersected with some other intriguing tangent. No one, I believe, ever sat down with Ralph expecting to come to a tidy conclusion. There was a free-for-all quality to my exchanges with him; he called it the “primeval slime” of a good conversation, and he delighted in it. Those rambling exchanges left me with a refreshing bit of distance from immediate concerns, usually worrisome ones.
He shared with me much about his own experiences, including his Midwestern upbringing, his military service, his years as a pastor, his graduate-school years and his academic career. I always enjoyed his stream of anecdotes—the graduate-school bull sessions he had with fellow dorm resident (now novelist) Philip Roth; the time at Dickinson when he spilled scalding coffee on poet W.H. Auden’s hand. And we created some anecdotes of our own, such as the time I came close to being dispatched to my Maker as Ralph, behind the wheel and deep in conversation, overlooked a traffic light.
Although his professional interests took him in rather esoteric directions, he confided that his favorite book was Walden. He was drawn by Thoreau’s sense of high spiritual adventure and said that Thoreau’s confession, “My life is the poem I would have writ,” applied to him as well.
In the beginning of our correspondence, he was the professor. In fact, some of his early letters even contained bibliographies. Ralph directed me to thoughts and thinkers I never would have stumbled across on my own. He was never pushy or pedantic about such things. He was judicious in his recommendations and assessment, preferring to let me decide which to pursue and which to pass by.
But, with time, Ralph became less of a professor and more of a friend. According to Dr. Samuel Johnson, it is hard to tell when friendship begins. Just as a vessel is filled drop by drop until one last drop makes it run over, so experiences and exchanges accumulate until those who share them begin to see each other differently.
Fueled by curiosity, Ralph and I hatched plans for collaborative projects and even began one or two, only to run into hurdles of one kind or another. Later, when he began to give me some of his papers and books, I realized he was turning things over to me.
Whenever I think of Dickinson, I will always think of Ralph and the education our friendship was. It was an education that had less to do with books and ideas, though there were plenty of those, and more to do with the passing along of lively, graceful wisdom.
There is much in the press these days about college rankings, such as the one published by U.S. News and World Report. If I ever had to rank colleges, I would begin with one simple question: “Do you have anyone like Ralph Slotten?”