In Lipscomb University’s announcement of the death of Professor Ben Hutchinson, L. Randolph Lowry, its president, observed that Ben was “a man who walked out his faith in remarkable ways.”
Fortunately for us, one of the ways he “walked out” that faith was manifested in his faithful membership in our community and his persistent and unwavering devotion to bringing the SENCER Ideals to life at his University and in the larger world.
News of Ben’s death came to us just a few days after we were surprised by a request to substitute Ben’s colleague, Autumn Marshall, for him as PI on Lipscomb’s latest SENCER NSF sub-award. It was in this call that we learned, for the first time, that Ben had been quietly and privately managing a chronic condition for some time and that he had entered hospice care.
SENCER marks its 15th anniversary this year. That’s a long time, long enough for us to experience many joys, like the news of a colleague becoming a parent or grandparent, receiving tenure or a promotion, or retiring with some exciting plans to pursue.
Sadly, however, our longevity has also opened us up to experiencing extremely painful losses. Ben’s death is such a loss.
I feel the loss of Ben personally. I speak for myself and for all of us in the SENCER community who knew Ben in expressing our deepest sympathy to Ben’s family. We join Ben’s students and colleagues at Lipscomb—and all whose good fortune included being touched by Ben’s quiet advocacy or inspired by his acts of humble kindness—in mourning.
“Walking out one’s faith” is a phrase one hears often from those in Ben’s particular faith tradition. So apt a phrase it is as applied to Ben that I venture to think one would have to spend an eternity looking for a better way to describe Ben’s journey.
I first met Ben in 2007, when he was part of the first Lipscomb team to a SENCER Summer Institute. I recall a quiet, thoughtful man, who saw in the SENCER approach a way to make general education work better. (A chemist, Ben was also a dean at the time and Lipscomb was embarking on a major revision of its program.)
I remember more vividly, however, that he sought me out to tell me how much he appreciated something I had said (probably something I may have said about being an Episcopalian). He also wanted to tell me how much he appreciated the spirit in which my colleagues carried out their work. We had made him feel welcome, as a Christian, in a community of science education reform enthusiasts. He hadn’t always experienced this much “grace” and interest in, let alone respect for, what we might call religious “ways of knowing” in other secular gatherings.
In the years that followed, we had several very helpful discussions touching on just what kind of knowledge spiritual knowledge might be and how that knowledge engages with or competes with scientific knowledge.
Ben knew that “science”—as “scientia”—just means knowledge, after all. And knowledge of this species is provisional: it’s what we know as of today. It is to religion, and other places for some of us, that we turn for “wisdom.” Wisdom is what helps tell us what we might consider doing or what we ought to do with the knowledge (science) we have.
Ben was one of those rare folks who seemed to possess both knowledge and wisdom. And he walked these out in what seems, in retrospect, to have been a systematic program to the benefit of his students, his colleagues, and his University.
I mention this because it was almost a joke in our circles that Ben would seek an NSF sub-award each year for Lipscomb after he brought a new team to the Summer Institute. For a while, we thought he was just recycling last year’s application. Closer readings, though, revealed his layered approach. He was quietly building new dimensions, new extensions to other departments, and new connections for service. Ben’s approach was very much what a fine woodworker does: applying and sanding and polishing many very thin layers of varnish to create a durable surface and a soft glow.
Ben’s program for Lipscomb touched many colleagues and students, of course, but it also extended to those for whom Ben’s leadership was a “thing unseen.” I refer here to the inmates of the Tennessee Prison for Women who are part of Lipscomb’s LIFE program. Thanks to Ben and his colleagues, these women have opportunities for education, education that can lead to rehabilitation and even redemption.
Ben and I managed to have at least one brief conversation with one another each year as teams from Lipscomb became perennial participants in the Summer Institutes. We missed that opportunity last year, but in what I now have to sadly regard as a valedictory, I am so grateful that after the closing plenary in which we heard the deeply moving story of the WISER program that Sherryl Broverman and her Duke students have created that is saving girls’ lives in Kenya, I was able to call attention to Lipscomb’s own life saving efforts in Tennessee. Like WISER, LIFE is a team effort, but it is a much better effort thanks to Ben.
Lipscomb says it is “Christian intentionally, courageously, and graciously.” Ben certainly did quietly “walk out” this mission and we in the SENCER community are all the better because he did.
Wm. David Burns
January 19, 2015