Friday, December 08, 2006

A great teacher

Today I learned of the death of a a man who made a difference, not only in my life, but in hundreds of others.

The phrase "bigger than life" is such a cliche that it's insulting to use it about Walt Reiner, but I can't think of anything better. The obituary below just hints at it.

I can't even begin to describe how he influenced my life. I met him at Valparaiso University shortly before I went on the Urban Studies semester that he founded and was on the staff of. Upon returning to campus, I worked some with the organization that he helped to found that had helped the first black families move to Valparaiso, and gradually learned from him about how a committed Christian (though I was neither) engaged in the world. He was very political -- at least he talked a lot about politics -- but unconventionally, and radically. He never talked about elections or candidates or policies. He talked about "principalities" and "powers" and "technology" how they had lives of their own, independent of the people who worked for them, and that it was foolish to think they could be brought under control. They were to be contested and resisted even though resistance is futile. He said it was OK to be vegetarian, as long as we didn't think we were changing the world.

He was a friend and disciple of Jacques Ellul and I participated in several groups he led that read and discussed Ellul. To be honest, at the time I couldn't understand hardly anything that either Walt or Ellul said, except that I knew it was true and powerful and important and pointed to the way I wanted to go. I have only recently, through my growing acquaintance with the life and writings of William Stringfellow begun to be able to articulate what it was that Walt (and Jacques) were trying to say and understand why I always found it so powerful, even if it was mysterious.

But it wasn't just what he said, it was how he lived. He was a man of action. He was a builder, of a new house so a neighbor could move there from Chicago, or an addition to his own house so his mother-in-law could live there. I don't think he was very scrupulous about getting permits or anything like that; he didn't need Nike to tell him to just do it.

I remember when, on Urban Studies, there was a Very Important Discussion one morning about how unfair it was that everyone got the same number of CTA bus tokens when those of us who lived in Lincoln Park could walk to most of the class meetings but the folks from Uptown had to take the el and a bus each way. Someone stood up and proposed that everyone in the Lincoln Park group give X% of their tokens to the Uptown contingent, except for the ones who had a car who would get half the number etc. Walt stood up and said, don't make a program out of it, don't make a rule about it, just do it. Give up some of your tokens to your fellow students, but as friends helping each other, not as penance for some imagined injustice.

There was another telling thing about Walt: In the 1970 Valpo yearbook in the faculty section, many professors were shown lecturing in their classrooms, or maybe a couple riding their bicycles to class. But in the middle of that section there was a photo of a mass of people -- almost all of them black -- at some sort of a demonstration in a park in Chicago. I must have looked at that picture a hundred times before I noticed that, in the middle of it all, and looking in the opposite direction as most of the people, was Walt. There he was, in the midst of where it was happening, like he always was.

There was one very personal thing that I will never forget and for which I am eternally grateful. When I was 23, my girlfriend got pregnant. We didn't know what to do, so we did what was natural for any of us who had studied with Walt, we walked down to see him and Lois. We told them the news, and Walt's and Lois's response confirmed for us that this was in fact good news, the evidence not withstanding. We left saying, "The machine is not going to get this baby." It is not very much of an exaggeration to say that a beautiful 29-year old woman owes her life in large part to him.

Oh, this is so inadequate, but I like to think that I have continued however hesitently or indirectly down the path he steered me towards, and for that I am grateful for his life. Here's what the newspaper had to say:

Walt Reiner Valparaiso, IN. On December 5, 2006, Walt Reiner, who described himself as a "community resource redistributor" died surrounded by family and friends. Walt, 82, was born on December 29, 1923, in Tampa, Flordia, the youngest of three sons, to Otto and Frances (Mugge) Reiner.

Growing up during the days of the Great Depression, Walter helped support his family from a very young age, eventually enlisting in the U.S. Navy during World War II where he participated in the first wave of attacks on Omaha and Normandy beaches, and subsequently served tours in North Africa and East Asia.

Following the War, Walter attended Springfield College in Springfield, MA, and, upon graduation, accepted a football coaching position at Valparaiso University. During his tenure as "Coach" Walter led the Crusaders to its only bowl game in VU's history, coaching such legends as Fred "Fuzzy" Thurston (Green Bay Packers) and earning hall-of-fame status in 2001. Walter was given leave from his coaching duties to serve his country during the Korean War.

In 1952, he returned to VU and married the love of his life, his partner, his "Schatz" (treasure), and wife of 54 years, Lois (Bertram Dau) Reiner.

In the early 1960's, Walt was asked by former VU President, O.P. Kretzmann, to begin the Youth Leadership Training Program, which sought to connect young people to programs serving the broader community and world. In 1965, Walt moved his family to Chicago where he served as Director of Prince of Peace Volunteers, guiding 34 teams of volunteers in U.S. inner cities and overseas, whose work was captured in the documentary film "I Believe" which aired on NBC in 1966.

During the 1960's, Walt supported Vietnam War Conscientious Objectors and became a civil rights activist in his own right. His leadership activities and commitment to human rights sustained him through a heresy trial before the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in 1967. From 1960 through 1968, Walt served as Director of Camp Concordia, a Lutheran camp in Gowen, Michigan. During the late sixties, Walt was a founder of the Association of the Colleges of the Midwest's Urban Studies Program in Chicago, offering students at Valparaiso University as well as a consortium of liberal arts colleges, the opportunity to truly experience the diversity of the city and to connect with those who were creatively addressing issues of racism, poverty, violence and other issues faced by thousands of people on a daily basis.


rreiner said...

Dear Paul L,
I was curious to see what might appear on line if I googled my dad's name and came across your beautiful reflection. Thanks. I am passing it on to my mother... I just need to ask... who are you? Maybe mom will put the pieces together.
The letters, cards, and calls from hundred of people have helped greatly this past week. As we mourn dad's death, we also find it so easy to celebrate such a remarkable life. Rebecca Reiner

Anonymous said...

Dear Paul,
I am also a relative of Walt Reiner - his great-niece - who googled his name and came up with your post. It was lovely to read your thoughts about Uncle Walt. Thank you for sharing them!
Caitlin Reiner

john said...

I have often wondered about Walt Reiner and what happened to him and the Prince of Peace Volunteers. I was a graduate of his 1968 summer program and staid in Chicago that year until after the convention.

I had the pleasure of attending several functions where we were the only white people with him.

I have him to thank for my whole focus on life and Christianity.

Stephen C. Rose said...

I was twice a "faculty member" working for Walt and with Jody Kretzmann in Chicago. It was a real pleasure. It was interesting to come in two successive years and watch the gradual withdrawal of students into the miasmal mists of the early 1970s.
Walt is among the reasons I have always felt as an Easterner that the salt of the earth lies West of me.

I've reached the point in my online fictional memoir Panflick of dealing with this time.