Bill Long 6/24/05
A Friendship Renewed
After my journey into Western Kansas, I returned to Denver on Wednesday 6/22 for a luncheon put on by HarperSanFrancisco in honor of the contributors (commentators) to the Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible, of which I was one. Then, immediately after that was over I continued West to stay for a few days with friends Denny and Carole Storer in their cabin in the Collegiate Range of the Rockies near Buena Vista. For 33 years until his retirement in 2001, Denny was a professor of political science at Hastings College in Hastings, NE; Carole ably contributed to the life of the college through her work in the library until 2000. They are both 65, healthy, alert, and free to travel, read, think about and comment on just about anything they want. Denny's mother is a spry 97; thus, he may just be entering into the deep middle of his productive years. In the two brief days I was with them I not only saw two people still deeply in love with each other after 43 years of marriage, but I was graciously received as part of their large family/friendship network.
Meeting Denny Storer
Denny and I first met during a trip we took to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain under the auspices of the National Council on US-Arab Relations in Dec. 1992-Jan. 1993. We were part of a group of about a dozen professors from colleges across the country, and we comprised the first group of "outsiders" into Saudi Arabia since the Gulf War of 1991. I immediately liked Denny because of his inquisitiveness, skepticism, hard-headed realism and willingness equally to hand out both accolades to and criticisms of the political right and left. I knew that our first impressions of each other would mature into friendship when he drove all the way from Hastings, NE to Northwestern College in extreme NW Iowa in mid-February 1994 (without heat in his car) to join me at a Model Arab League--I had trained and was bringing a group of students from Sterling College to participate in this rather unique experience.
It was then that I learned about Denny's love affair with BMW's; there was not one thing that he didn't know about the cars (and motorcycles). But, as life would have it, I left the Midwest in 1996 for law school in Oregon and then my personal life came crashing down from about 1999-2003, and so I let our friendship, along with many other things, lapse during that time. I was more than delighted that he and Carole responded to my email this spring telling them of my Mountain States ventures in June by inviting me to their Coloado retreat.
In the Colorado Mountains
The cabin where I stayed was already 32 years-old when it was bought by Denny's parents in 1962, the year Denny and Carole were married. Though it is far too remote to be "wired" for the Internet, the cabin is comfortable and spacious, with four or five bedrooms and ample room for eating and conversation. My bedroom looked right out to the 10,000 foot high Chalk Cliffs, which were bathed by 6:15 a.m. both days in the golden reflection of the rising sun. Denny's father had converted some small windows in the large living room/dining room into cathedral windows looking out towards Mount Princeton. Thus, as we nimbly tried to analyze in conversation everything from the role of religion in American life to the War in Iraq to the myriad books that Denny has been reading recently, we did so with the constant awareness of being dwarfed by nature's most arrestingly large natural wonders.
It was during these conversations that it dawned on me afresh why I liked Denny so much and why he was one of the most popular professors at Hastings until his retirement. Two points-- Denny's quest to understand "how things work" and his infectious enthusiasm for learning and refining everything he knew--call for my comment.
How Things Work
One of the most important books for Denny in his teaching was Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Time after time his students have come alive to the joy of learning through Pirsig's work and Denny's presentation of it. Why? Probably for two reasons: (1) Pirsig's skillful demonstration of the schizophrenia in Western culture between knowing and doing that can be traced back to a split between Plato and Aristotle; and (2) Pirsig's commitment to teaching people that you have to know something very thoroughly, such as putting together and taking apart a motorcycle nut by nut, before you have any real claim on knowledge. Denny is quintessentially a man who patiently tries to figure out how things "work." When I pulled into his cabin, the first thing he noted was the irregular wear on the driver's side tire of my car. After poking around, studying the tread pattern, and comparing the affected tire with the other tires, Denny tried to explain to me how the casters and bearings and cylinders and axles work in such a car which could lead to this result. He simply would not rest until he had analyzed the problem, refined his analysis by taking me to speak with an acquaintance of his who used to own a tire shop, and took some steps to make sure that I would arrive home safely.
Denny brings this commitment to patient exploration of how things work to the intellectual arena. He was full of unanswered questions about the Iraq War--the role of the "private contractors;" the nature of the RFP process, if there was one, for these contractors to be making loads of money in Iraq; the lack of incentives for the US President to withdraw or cut back the number of troops; etc. On and on went his questions. And then there would be questions and comments about China; about General Motors; about the growing economic vulnerability of the US. Each comment was buttressed with reading done, programs heard, movies analyzed and thinking accomplished.
Denny and the Provisional Nature of Knowledge
One of the realities of Denny's professional career, however, is that he didn't write many articles after Oxford University Press published his dissertation (on the role of teachers' unions in Nigeria on the eve of that country's independence). He could have written much, but he chose to spend his life in wide reading, traveling, and teaching. By so doing, Denny demonstated to students not only the provisional nature of knowledge but the importance of subjecting each day what you think you know to critical scrutiny. And, Denny is actually excited to learn things that make his current knowledge obsolete.
This does not mean that Denny has no beliefs or intellectual commitments. Far from it. For example, he spent his first sabbatical from Hastings College in 1977 at the University of Oregon studying public choice theory with Professor W. Mitchell. Public choice theory was just starting to develop as a counterbalance to what you might call a "moral" or "ideological" view of foreign relations or politics. Proponents of public choice theory argue that individuals in the political process are not driven by great moral dilemmas; they are interested in weighing interests and analyzing who wins and who loses under various scenarios. The apparently lofty notion of the "public good" or "public interest" does not exist as an abstract entity that can be served apart from a politician's own self-interest.
Yet, even though Denny embraces some definite opinions, he was always revising his approach to things, even in the two days I was with him. He seemed especially interested in my explanation of the dual paths by which Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism have emerged to play such significant roles in contemporary American life.
Two days passed too quickly, and I was off to the next leg of my trip. Space doesn't permit narration of our trip to the old mining town of St. Elmo, high in the canyon south of Mt. Princeton, which will gradually be restored over the next few decades, or of Denny's visits to most of the world's continents, and dozens of countries in the last decade. Suffice it to say that I am very glad to have regained my connection with Denny and Carole. They are two of the reasons that I can look back at my Kansas days from a distance and say that it was very good for me to have been in Kansas in the 1990s. I have not always been able to affirm that.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long