July 2009. I began emptying the boxes in my new office at Elizabethtown College. I had just moved my family to Elizabethtown and the first order of business was to put my office in order before the school year began. I found a pair of small powered speakers that I packed away with a web of Ethernet and audio cables. If this job was going to go any quicker, I would need some tunes.
I plugged the speakers into my iPhone and dialed up a Metallica playlist. With room now full of guitars and drums I turned my attention to sorting my library of books.
Somewhere between “Sad but True” and “Enter Sandman” I let myself escape for a moment. The door to my office was propped open and I could see the nameplate. It said, “Dr. Matt Skillen.” The ink on my dissertation defense ballot was hardly dry and there it was, in white print on a black piece of plastic. I began to think about how far I had come, how much I had accomplished. Six years earlier I was opening my first classroom at Maize South Middle School. Four years after that I moved to a residency PhD program in a new town and new school relatively close t0, but all together quite different from, my hometown and previous experiences. Then, in 2009 I moved 1,300 miles to a new state to continue my career as a college professor. I had made it.
My escape was disrupted by a subtle knock at the door. Surprised that someone else was in the building I fumbled with my iPhone and pushed pause in the middle of a screaming Kirk Hammett solo.
“Hi.” I said.
My visitor was a tall man with gray curly hair and a mythic mustache. He was wearing cotton athletic shorts, a polo and bright walking shoes. Hands in his pockets, he simply said, “You need to know there is an office above yours. Keep it down.”
And that is how I met Professor Tom Winpenny for the very first time.
I felt a little more than embarrassed, and that is when it hit me. I hadn’t made it anywhere, nor had I really accomplished anything yet.
Throughout my first year at the college I bumped into Tom quite often. I started calling him “Prof” to save time in our greeting becuase he was always off somewhere to do something that sounded refined and academic. I never knew how old Prof was, but I knew he had been at the college for a very long time. Many people I knew in Elizabethtown who had graduated from the college knew him. They had attended his classes and befriended him over the years.
Prof was always kind to me following our first meeting over Metallica. He gave me sound advice on how to talk about my own academic work, and he always encouraged me to think beyond what I know–to find new problems that need answers. When I went up for fourth year review Prof cornered me at the college snack bar and talked to me about my dossier. I tried to explain my most recent, and quite modest, publishing accomplishments as efficiently as possible. When I paused to take a breath he said, “Well, it sounds like you have nothing to worry about.” He was right, just as he was most of the time.
I was shocked, speechless to see an announcement that came out on campus email yesterday that said Tom Winpeeny had passed away. He had retired from the college a few years ago, but it hadn’t really been that long.
The last time I saw Prof was at the Lancaster City Central Market on a busy summer Saturday morning. I saw him there often. On this particular morning my hands were full with my two small children, and I couldn’t make it over to talk. Tom looked as though he was having a stimulating conversation with someone he knew, or someone he just met at market. He gave me a look and a nod from afar. I smiled and waved. That was it.
Though I only knew him for a very short period, my upstairs office neighbor, Professor Tom Winpenny, left a remarkable impression on my life, just as he did for hundreds of people he met and worked with throughout his life.
Rest In Peace, Prof. We miss you.