Greater Glories; In poetry, human-rights activist Chester Wickwire has found a vehicle for reflecting on the peaks and valleys of his distinguished life.


How Chester Wickwire feels about the first book of poetry he's published would take at least one more poem to reveal. "Longs Peak" contains 39 graceful pieces, hard-worked, heart-felt, truly lived. And its publication has just welcomed the young poet into his 85th year.

The volume is a new twist in a career that has provided little time for reflection. It's an autobiographical record of the rewards and regrets of living life full throttle, from the gun-toting streets of Colorado City in the '20s to the white marble stoops of Baltimore today. The book covers haunting, often disturbing terrain, a voyage that makes most sense in the context of the man who traveled it.

"I went through a lot of my life without stopping to think too much about it," Wickwire says. "A lot of things needed to be done, but there wasn't enough pausing to let them soak in. I think I've got an idea now of what was going on more than I ever did. The poems help complete experiences, help me understand what was happening. They give me at least some understanding of myself."

Wickwire, chaplain emeritus of Johns Hopkins University and the founder of its celebrated tutorial program, is an acclaimed civil-rights activist and elder statesman for good causes. He has spent some 60 years fighting injustices for African-Americans, Korean-Americans, Native Americans, migrant workers, conscientious objectors. Even though he was put on a pacemaker a few months ago, he drove to Washington in December to speak out against the impeachment of President Clinton at the Rev. Jesse Jackson's prayer vigil. Next month, he will receive an award from the Baltimore Urban League.

And though his accomplishments are widely known, Wickwire expects that "Longs Peak" (Brickhouse Books, $10) will take many by surprise.

"When I read a few poems at the Ministerial Alliance meeting some months ago, they shook some people up," he chuckles. "I think they expected I was going to read some very devotional things."

Instead, he read "A Canvas Tent," a poem about a religious dogfight at a camp meeting near the Colorado town where he grew up. In the poem, Brother Bogard, "a Landmark Baptist Bull Dog" debates "Adventist Hot Dog" in a "nasty night of calumnies" in the summer of '38. As they watch the evening unfold, a 25-year-old singing evangelist and his wife begin awakening to the truth of the world outside the narrow assurances of their religious fundamentalism.

The path they were set on eventually leads Chester and Mary Ann, today his wife of 61 years, through lean times and troubled times to Baltimore's Riderwood neighborhood and a life of activism and teaching.

Since 1953, when he became director of the campus student center at Hopkins, Chester Wickwire has served as one of Baltimore's most cogent moral voices. He has delivered invocations at rallies and graduations, written hundreds of letters and essays for newspapers. He considers it his mission to persuade others to become personally involved in the universal quest of human rights.

But his latest work, this book of poems, is more difficult to promote, he says. It's all about what is most personal to him.

A sideline

Chester Wickwire has pursued writing in the margins of his life. He took a weekend writing course at Harvard between the historic desegregation demonstrations at Baltimore's Gwynn Oak Amusement Park. He scribbled notes in jail cells that held other protesters. He recorded Adolf Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem in 1961. He wrote down what it felt like to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak in Washington.

His office is a repository of vivid scraps, a collection of stories almost too overwhelming to assemble. There is the story of the polio he contracted while at Yale Divinity School and his eventual rehabilitation at Warm Springs, Ga., a placement he owed to Eleanor Roosevelt, who was contacted on his behalf by a mutual acquaintance. There's the quest to find a restaurant that would serve Duke Ellington because he was "colored"; the Long Walk with the Native Americans; the prisons in El Salvador.

Wickwire remembers what it felt like to be suspected of communism by conservative faculty members. He remembers the hatred of the cross burning on the campus when he brought in civil-rights leader Bayard Rustin. He still feels the joy of bringing blacks and whites together to hear a jazz concert in the 5th Regiment Armory in 1958. And he remembers friendships with two of the Maryknoll nuns killed in Nicaragua in 1980.

Over the years, as his life filled with such passionate material, the chaplain began delivering invocations that sounded more and more like blank verse. Poetry was a natural fit for him, he says. Already an accomplished musician, he found a home in its rhythms and meters.

But he needed instruction. Several years ago, he began studying at Goucher College with poet Elizabeth Spires and refined the feelings he had been carrying with him, some for 70 years. The poems he formulated in class began appearing in magazines and journals: Maryland Poetry Review, the Baltimore Review, Writers Forum, Maverick Press, the Fox Cry Review, National Hospice Magazine. A dozen of the poems in "Longs Peak" were printed in The Sun.

Spires says Wickwire writes with courage, conviction, humor and "simple grace." She singles out the poem "Longs Peak" as "very brave ... a metaphor for the painfully solitary place where the poet must eventually stand."

Wickwire's skills developed quickly, she says. When he first attended her classes, he was telling stories she describes as yarns. By the end, however, his work revealed a level of imagination and craft that showed knowledge and influence of such poets as Elizabeth Bishop.

"It was really inspiring to think that no matter what age you are, you have things to learn and ways you can change and improve," Spires says.

Poet Eleanor Wilner, a MacArthur Grant winner, says Wickwire's book gives her insight into the activist she knew from the late 1960s, the "mediator of what seemed the irreconcilable." Some of the poems, like "The Ward" and "Warm Springs, Georgia," confront the aftermath of the polio that struck Wickwire when he was 34, leaving him with crutches and the determination to help society's underdogs.

Others have the poignancy of thank-you notes simmered for 60 years, richly embroidered tributes to the grandmother who wove rag carpets to feed her children, the father who shoveled railroad coal, the Seventh-day Adventist mother who prayed unsuccessfully that her son would return to the fundamentalist fold.

The collection sweeps back and forth across continents and decades, to roads lined with bodies in El Salvador, where Wickwire led faculty groups for human rights. Through the paupers' ward of the New Haven hospital where he was first treated for polio. Past boarded-up rowhouses in neighborhoods he's still trying to improve. And there are poems that speak of Wickwire's uneasy peace with his own disabilities, the envy he feels watching squirrels scamper through his yard.

"It seemed to me that Chester wrote the poems for himself, but he wrote them the way other people might write a memoir: as something to leave behind," Spires says.

Wickwire considers this. "When you get old, there are a lot of things you think you want to write about instead of reaching out and searching for things which might be more meaningful," he says. To other people, "maybe your own story isn't so meaningful."

Or maybe it speaks to the trials and serendipities of life in 20th century America. Maybe it speaks to the relentless pursuit of self-discovery and transformation.

The climb

One cold Colorado spring morning, long before Yale, long before polio, Chester Wickwire climbed Longs Peak. When he climbed that mountain, all 14,255 feet of it, he was 20 years old, certain of the coming Apocalypse and filled with religious fervor.

It was after the Adventist camp meeting that he and some of the fellows, maybe four or five, decided to tackle that mountain. The night was cold, but the boys lit a fire and tried to sleep by stealing the blankets off one another. Just before daybreak, they broke camp.

Wickwire can't recall how long the climb took, nor the names of his fellow climbers. He remembers walking up that mountain in tennis shoes, shivering. Through the snow, across the boulder field. He remembers the chill of realizing he might not, probably would not, survive this climb. He remembers being last, and pushing on. He remembers the elation of reaching the mountaintop alive.

The old man chose a photograph of Longs Peak for the cover of his first book. On a recent day, in the warmth of his book-lined study, with computer and fax machine humming, he is studying it. The mountain's summit is bathed in gold, its lower slopes in shadow. He shakes his head, frowning the way people often do when they look at pictures of themselves as children. That Longs Peak was part of being young, used to hard living and doing things that only seemed crazy afterward.

This "Longs Peak" is part of what still connects him to the mountain, part of the forces of desire and determination.

Chester Wickwire still feels the urge to keep climbing. He is chairing human-rights committees and speaking out against injustices. And even as he contemplates his first collection of poetry, he talks about putting together a second. He has more to say about people who are lost to history, but not to him. He is still fueled by outrage, and by things more complicated and tender he has not yet expressed.

He's going to try.

'Longs Peak'

"The good news -- 'no cancer,' the doctor said.

The bad news -- an inoperable 7 cm. thoracic aneurysm. Maybe been there a long time, could blow any time.

You'll have to take medicine, monitor your pressure twice a day, carry a phone around. Don't do anything crazy.

" I had been last to reach the bleak alpine tundra where twisted limber pine stand at ragged attention, and krummholz Englemann spruce hug the ground and signal an abrupt end to the forest's march.

Life is strained and small. A sign at tree line warns of lightning.

I've wanted to write something for our sons, figure out where I came from, where I've been, what I've done, learn who I am.

A fox watched me work my way across the boulder field.

I've wasted too much time, too many causes, too much small talk, haven't stopped to think.

None of us had ice axes, crampons, helmets, harness or ropes fit for the high altitude trial.

Time hasn't waited for me to catch on.

Near the summit, where ice and snow still lay along the trail, ventriloquil bleats of pikas, chirping whistles of marmots, and whir of whitetailed ptarmigan wings cannot mute the pounding of my heart.

Maybe something crazy makes the most sense.

-- Chester Wickwire

Book readings

Chester Wickwire will read from his book "Longs Peak" and sign copies over the next couple months:

4 p.m. Feb. 21, Glass Pavilion of Levering Hall on Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus

7: 30 p.m. Feb. 22, Barnes & Noble bookstore, Towson

4 p.m. March 21, Mina's Gallery, 733 S. Ann St., Fells Point

7: 30 p.m. March 25, Bibelot's, Canton

Pub Date: 1/07/99

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