The Final Journal by Valerie Weingart

The Final Journal: Thoughts and Reflections on Dr. Jim Ruebel

 The summer before my freshman year at Ball State, I received an email from the Dean of the Honors College, Dr. Jim Ruebel, inviting me to participate in a specific section of the Humanities Sequence. It was called Civilization and Its Discontents, taught by Dr. Ruebel and Beth Dalton. The class, I learned, would be an integration of Honors 201 and 202, and it would meet for six hours a week. It would challenge my reading skills, and it would open my mind to possibilities and ways of thinking that I didn’t even know existed. But, in addition to all of that, it would require me to write…journals. Weekly journals, at two or more pages a piece.
        For those of you who are not familiar with this course, a journal is not the same as an essay. It shouldn’t figure anything out or solve anything; it should question, explore, dwell, and process ideas from the week’s assigned readings. Journals were to be personal, responsive, specific, reflective, and concrete.
       This October, I received another invitation, this time to speak for Dr. Ruebel’s memorial service on behalf of all Honors students, past and present. I found that the only way that I could express my thoughts on a man that I knew, learned from, and worked with, was through the form of a journal.
        What follows is my final journal, reflecting on, not literary texts, but upon the man who taught so many of them to me, and to a number of you. A man who never taught me “what” to think, but “how” to think.
        When I begin to write this journal, I have the same question in mind that I have for all writing assignments: how long should this be? Is there a word or page limit? As I ponder this, I remember that, at one time, I asked Dr. Ruebel this question, and his answer was: “According to Aristotle, it should be…the right length, not too long, and not too short, but, the right length.” Though this was a frustrating piece of advice for a freshman in college to receive, it occurs to me now that Dr. Ruebel always seemed to know what this was, especially in regards to time. He had the right length of time for everyone, for each interaction. If I were to approach him with a concern, question, or (on occasion) imminent tragedy, he always had the time to deal with it. I don’t know where this time came from, or how he determined what length it should be; some meetings could last a few seconds, others an hour or more. But it always felt right, complete. And I always walked away feeling reassured, and a little more enlightened, even if that hadn’t been the purpose of my visit.
         He enlightened us all, didn’t he? Some of his lessons were personal to each one of us, lessons that only we can know and remember, which were the products of those meetings that he always seemed to have the right amount of time for. But, for all of his students, particularly those who took his humanities sequence, there is one lesson that I know he made a point to teach each year. And no, I’m not talking about the fact that Oreos were his “thematic food” every semester. I’m talking about one of the few times—if, perhaps, the only time—that he would leave his place within the class discussion circle and walk to the front of the room to lecture. He would write one word on the board: the Greek term, “Oikos.”
        The term, he explained, has a somewhat obscure definition, but it can be boiled down to three concepts: in Ancient Greek society, “Oikos” referred to one’s family, the family’s property, and their house.
         No doubt Dr. Ruebel believed that this was an important concept for us to understand. But, in addition to teaching his students about the Greek word in the context of ancient Greek epic poems such as The Illiad and The Odyssey, Dr. Ruebel demonstrated the concept of Oikos though the Honors program that he helped create, maintain, and innovate. For, when I think of the Ball State Honors College, I think of an academic family, in possession and in pursuit of knowledge, residing…in our house. And Dr. Ruebel was there, active in all parts of it, but not just as a Dean and an educator. Every December, we received an email from him with the subject line: “Read a Book?”, which invited us to participate in an informal book club with him. He was a reoccurring guest judge and panelist at Student Honors Council events, offering his opinion on everything from student talent shows to pie baking contests. He even made time to meet me and some of my classmates at Olive Garden to celebrate one of my classmate’s birthdays—and, long after the food had gone cold, dishes had been cleared, and checks had been paid, he was still there, sitting with us, answering our questions, offering his advice, making us laugh, or…just listening. He was the father of our Honors College family, not only because he was in charge, but because he was an active presence in our lives and educational experiences: ready to encourage, ready to challenge, and excited to see what we could become.
         While the Honors College was one of Dr. Ruebel’s homes, he was eager to show his students his home away from home: the Roman Forum. Each spring, Dr. Ruebel took students to Rome and Florence, Italy, for two weeks for a field study—voluntarily, I might add. For myself and many others, the memories from this trip are some of our most cherished from our entire collegiate experience. I think Dr. Ruebel knew that this would be the case, for he required us to write daily journal entries about our time in Italy. I still have mine, and before I began to write this final journal, I thought to take a look at it. This is an entry I wrote on May 9, 2014, the day we visited the Roman Forum:
         On this trip, I have had the chance to see so many of my friends haveexp eriences that make them truly happy. While we were in the Forum, I had the opportunity to see Dr. Ruebel in his element. The Forum was an incredible sight, but its significance increased tenfold due to the fact that I was able to be there with Dr. Ruebel. I hope that, if he so desires, he can retire in Rome and be able to visit the Forum at his leisure. It was almost as if he were visiting a very dear friend, and I was sad to see him leave. For as many times as he’s been to the Forum, he was still so excited to be there and share it with us; it was absolutely wonderful to watch.
         He taught us that we best remember places with which we can associate a memory or an experience. And he is part of so many memories and places for so many of us.
         My first memory of Dr. Ruebel was during my first visit to the Honors College. He interviewed me for a scholarship, and I can still remember him appearing in the Honors House stairway and telling me, “Come on up!” I was prepared for an interview, but I was not prepared for an interview with Dr. Ruebel. For, instead of being asked about my greatest achievement, challenge, or goal, he looked at me from across the small, round table in his office and said, “So. Tell me about your day.” And I did. And it was the first of many days that I would share with him. I wondered, though, as I talked and glanced around his office, filled with more books than I could ever hope to read on topics that I would probably never understand, I wondered: why did he want to know about my day? Or about me?
        This puzzled me for a long time, even as I came to know Dr. Ruebel and watched him interact in a similar way with others. And now, as I write this journal, I realize something: yes, Dr. Ruebel was an intelligent man, a lifelong scholar. But, he was not just interested in books or research: he was interested in people, especially us, his students. We filled his mind and his life like his books filled his office. He knew—he taught me—that memories, people, and experiences are what give places, or places in our lives, meaning.
         And so, here I am. Here we are. At the end of the journal. One that will never be graded by the man on whom it reflects. I think everyone here today would agree that by Aristotle’s standards, Dr. Ruebel’s life was not the “right length” in years—that it was not nearly as many years as we would have liked. And I know, that if I had ended my journal drawing a simple conclusion like that, he would have responded with his famous two-word comment, “so what?”
        After all, why should educators’ lives be measured in number of years? What about the places they take us, the doors they open, and the lives they touch? As an educator, Dr. Ruebel didn’t teach us what to think, he taught us how we think. For those of us in this room and all of those who learned from him, Dr. Ruebel holds a distinction in our hearts and minds that few people will ever attain.
        And that’s because he didn’t just introduce us to Achilles and Aeneas—he didn’t just introduce us to Beowulf and Candide—Dr. Ruebel introduced us to ourselves.
        Thank you, Dr. Ruebel—it has truly been an honor.  ~Valerie Weingart