DWU graduate to students: Balance beliefs
Self-reliance, nonconformity and radicalism.
Dakota Wesleyan University graduate Henry Hughes told students Tuesday that he came to Mitchell from Long Island, N.Y., with those ideas in mind. But he left with a deeper understanding of what he could do in life.
"Think outside the customs handed down to you. But, there's nothing wrong with following tradition, if it works for you," said Hughes, a 1987 graduate of DWU who now teaches American Literature at Western Oregon University and also has published poetry.
Hughes returned to the university to speak as the Opperman lecturer. The lecture series began 18 years ago with an endowment from Dwight Opperman, who attended DWU in 1947-48. He funded the lecture to bring distinguished alumnus back to DWU to share their experiences with students.
Hughes came to DWU at the suggestion of a coach who had also attended the college. He later taught English in Japan and China, got his master's degree in poetry writing and earned his Ph.D. in American Literature at Purdue University.
Hughes compared his experience Tuesday to one Ralph Waldo Emerson -- an American essayist, lecturer and poet -- experienced when Waldo Emerson was asked to speak at his alma mater, Harvard Divinity.
"They didn't ask him back for 30 years after that speech, so I hope I do better," he said to laughter in front of about 350 people in the Sherman Center on DWU's campus.
Hughes is known on campus for his part in the Birch and Henry Show. When he got to DWU in 1983, Hughes teamed up with Birch Hilton, of White Lake, to form a live, student-run talk show, similar to The David Letterman show. They interviewed people several times a semester at the campus center, including the late George McGovern, a former U.S. senator who was born in Avon and raised in Mitchell.
Prior to Hughes' lecture Tuesday, DWU showed an archived clip from a Birch and Henry Show interview with McGovern. There were several moments of laughter from the audience, along with a headshake or two from Hughes.
"I was kind of a goofball," he said.
Hughes spoke of several influences in his life that led him to think beyond the normal, saying that brothers John and Charles Wesley should be added to that list. Hughes said the brothers broke tradition and reached out to the public and encouraged community service. He told students not to do things just because they've been done for generations, rather they should do what works for them.
"Do not accept culture, faith, government simply because it was handed down to you," he said.
When he came to DWU, Hughes said he identified with radicalism, disagreed with President Ronald Reagan's economic policies, thought gay marriage was great and distrusted organized religion.
"I put a poster in the hall outside my room (that read), 'You must not conform,' " he said. "I had a lot to learn."
He admitted, however, he could not speak on his ideas intelligently.
In his journeys, he found the campus minister, Duane Wilterdink, who "exemplified open-minded Christianity."
Hughes interviewed Wilterdink for a campus newspaper article. In particular, Hughes asked his thoughts about gay marriage. Wilterdink said he had a number of gay friends, who had very loving relationships. Wilterdink was quoted as saying, "Their love for their partner is as genuine and deep and lasting as my love for my wife, Mary."
"He helped me understand the depth and richness of religion," Hughes said.
Hughes said Wilterdink embraced other religions and ethnicities on campus, along with wanderers, like himself.
During his time on campus, Hughes fell in love with literature and made a career out of it.
Besides teaching American Literature in Oregon, he has edited two anthologies -- a published collection of poems -- and is currently working on a book called "Backseat with Fish."
It is about his life story told through fishing. He said a chapter about his time at DWU will be included and he will be sure to have a few copies sent to the school.
"Then I really won't be asked back for 30 years," he joked.
Although he said his early nonconformist ideas weren't entirely practical, Hughes added he has found a good mix of conformity and nonconformity.
"I've learned to choose," he said. "I don't accept things I don't believe in, but I'm willing to accept that overall pragmatically, in the end, things are OK."