Every once in a while, I get to break out of my office and do something different. For this issue, that meant I got to become a photographer’s assistant for the day when Matt Wright-Steel came to campus to photograph President and Mrs. Knobel, as well as students, faculty, and staff who submitted memories about the Knobels for our story, “The Historian.”
Poor Matt. I’m no photographer, and I know very little about the ins and outs of a shoot. I had managed to schedule folks in 30-minute intervals for their portraits, and I had managed to get the photo equipment loaded into my minivan and up to campus on time, but other than that, I could be seen checking emails on my iPhone and occasionally looking up at Matt to ask, “You good?” while he was sweating in the sun, building a giant black box that would serve as our set and was designed to control the light.
My big job that day was to use a reflective disc to redirect sunlight into the box to provide some powerful natural lighting. Matt, the professional, was polite but clear about what he wanted. “Blast them,” he’d tell me. And with a meek little apology, I’d turn the disc toward our subjects, catch the sun, and propel sunbeams directly into their eyes. Throughout the day, I “blasted” students, faculty, staff, a mere child, Dale and Tina Knobel, and Tom Hoaglin ’71, chair of the board. And then I promptly sent them away seeing spots, hoping we weren’t sending Dale and Tina into retirement with permanent damage to their corneas.
The day was a whirlwind of shutter clicks and sunshine, and we had pulled it together quickly, because I’ll admit that I had apprehensions when we asked folks to send us their memories of the Knobels’ time at Denison. I was wary that we’d get the “He was a really great leader” submissions and the “Denison is a better place” sentiments. While these statements may be true, I knew there were more personal stories to share. Turns out, there were plenty. Religion Professor David Woodyard ’54 told us about the strength of the Knobels’ marriage. Sarah Torrens in the library told us about Dale’s call to her after her son Joe had died in a car accident. One student shared a funny story about the first time she saw Dale in Granville—he was carrying a giant picture of himself through town. (Those stories and more, by the way, can be found on TheDEN.)
I have a few of my own stories about Dale, but the one that stands out to me most is the faculty meeting that took place after Dale and Tina’s daughter, Allison, had died of breast cancer. He stood before the faculty to thank them for the kindness they had shown throughout Allison’s fight with the disease and her death. As I looked around, I saw faculty members crying. They were crying because they genuinely cared about this guy, and his wife, and his daughter (whom many had never even met).
College presidents have a tough job. They’re not perfect. They make decisions that some applaud and others repudiate. It’s difficult to really get to know a president, because his role is to be the human face of an institution, even when he faces heartache and tragedy in his personal life. Even, as Dale states in his last column on p. 7, when he and his wife head to the grocery store for milk.
But folks got to know Dale and Tina well in their 15 years here, because they made a point of becoming a part of the community in which they worked and lived. So I guess it’s not all that surprising that we received so many personal stories about the Knobels. And I guess it’s not surprising that the folks who wrote those stories showed up to have their pictures taken in a little black box behind Doane while some amateur photographer’s assistant directed sunlight into their eyes.
Everyone was a good sport that day. Tom Hoaglin placed his hat on his head and stepped into our little torture device without complaint. Susan Kosling, production and academic administrative assistant in the dance department, wore her Sunday best and convinced her young son to come along as well. David Woodyard crossed his arms and gave us a great big smile (yes, a smile—he’s not as tough as he looks.)
The point is that they did it because they wanted the Knobels to know that they had made an impact at Denison beyond budget numbers and diversity and new facilities. They did it because this place really is a community, and two of our community members are leaving. They did it because they wanted the Knobels to know they will be missed.