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  Features
     
    Sharing Will's Wisdom: Let Yourself be Loved

I"I wrote this as a gift to the class of 1954. It was my responsibility to extend to others his observation that 'Fate left me poor, love made me rich. And that truth is worth proclaiming.' "      
-- William J. Kane, M.D., '54

By Allison Chisolm

Let Yourself be LovedWhen William H. P. Jenks '54 left this world on Christmas Day, 1989, a trail of adjectives followed him.

Words like "remarkable," "unique," "extraordinary."

"Words, printed and typed, were the coin of his exchequer," writes Jenks' friend, William J. Kane, M.D., '54, who wove his classmate's own words and many adjectives into a biography, Let Yourself Be Loved: The Life and Letters of Will Jenks.

It is a fitting memorial to a man who knew how to harness the power of words. Despite being stricken with severe polio at 19, which rendered him quadriplegic, Jenks was determined to continue his education and remain connected to the Holy Cross community. He learned to type on an electric typewriter with a clothespin between his teeth. In 1963, he became his class secretary, reporting class news with spirit and humor several times a year. He wrote a weekly newspaper column, freelance articles and thousands of letters. If he knew the subject well, he said, he could type 30-to-35 words per minute.

"I felt all of us would benefit from his story," said Kane in a recent telephone interview. "I wrote this as a gift to the class of 1954. It was my responsibility to extend to others his observation that 'Fate left me poor, love made me rich. And that truth is worth proclaiming.'"

Working with Jenks' older brother, John, Kane identified some of the vast network of friends and relatives with whom his classmate had corresponded. Kane spent nearly five years composing the biography, compiling selections from some 2,000 letters, and collecting photos spanning his lifetime. Published by Syren Book Company in January, the book was dedicated to Jenks' parents, along with Rev. Patrick J. Cummings, S.J., and Rev. Francis J. Hart, S.J.

Jenks had been encouraged to write his memoirs but always dismissed the idea, says Kane. "He said he'd rather explain to 10 people why he hadn't written a book about himself than explain to 10,000 why he did." Jenks' self-deprecating nature was one of the characteristics people found endearing.

Jenks and Kane had much in common, as Kane survived his own bout with polio in 1949. That experience - and Kane's continued relationship with his "hero," his orthopedic surgeon - influenced the career path that Kane eventually followed. He practices orthopedics and remains on the University of Minnesota faculty.

Jenks' story began at Holy Cross in the fall of 1950. Receiving a Navy ROTC scholarship, he spent the summer after his first year as a midshipman crisscrossing the Atlantic. Shortly after his return, his family moved to Dana, Ind., where his father owned a 260-acre farm.

On Aug. 25, 1951, Jenks spent two hours playing basketball with his cousin. He came home hot and tired and suffering from a headache. By the next morning, he couldn't move one of his arms. At the hospital, he was diagnosed with polio. After a year - which included several stints in an iron lung - he came home, paralyzed from the neck down.

That was the end of Jenks' academic association with Holy Cross but only the beginning of a lifelong connection to the school. Throughout his yearlong hospital stay, his former English professor, Fr. Cummings, wrote to him every day. The nurses would clip the letters to a mirror above his head so that he could read them, even while encased in an iron-lung machine. Once Jenks returned home, Fr. Cummings continued his correspondence, writing him every other day for a total of more than 3,300 letters.

While not preserved for posterity, those letters proved to be a lifeline for Jenks as he struggled with despair and the realization that, at age 20, his dreams for the future had to change radically. Jenks, who said the letters "led me out of the woods," often employed their code phrase, "keep the banner flying," to keep his spirits up.

After learning of Fr. Cummings' death in 1969, Jenks shared this reflection with his friend Madelyn Bussing Hendrix:

"… always there was a word of counsel and encouragement to support me in the struggle for acceptance of God's will. … Again and again he repeated, 'All that God asks is that you don't quit; the rest is His job.' And so it comes down to that - a great slice of a lifetime to teach one dunce one simple truth."

While he never completed his baccalaureate requirements at Holy Cross, Jenks was determined to educate himself. He read widely and deeply, asking his former professors and others for book recommendations. His letters then discoursed on topics in philosophy, history, literature and, especially, theology.

"His was a wide world in his head," says Holy Cross president emeritus, Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J., '49, who received notes from Jenks as soon as he took office in 1970. "He was able to relate things, from soybean farming to theology to someone's illness." A skill, Fr. Brooks quickly adds, "that we insist on in teaching liberal arts."

Jenks' breadth of self-study and deep spirituality moved the College (with Kane's and other classmates' support) to award him an honorary degree in 1975. The citation read in part, "Your battle was not to be with books and examinations, but with life itself, and you made the decision then to disregard the handicap and commit yourself to an involvement in human affairs that few able-bodied Holy Cross graduates can match."

Jenks recounted the events of that day in a lighter vein, writing to his cousin Mary Lou Cronin Murphy, "With the purple, white and black hood over my shoulders and the diploma under my hand I became henceforth and forevermore, or for 24,000 miles, which ever comes sooner, Doctor of Humane Letters."

Jenks had more words to share with Holy Cross, and Kane had to persuade him to address the alumni at his 25th reunion in 1979. Kane's stratagem was to say it was his responsibility to share his "wheelchair wisdom." Jenks' speech to some 1,200 gathered alumni is the source of the book's title.

"… What I continue to learn daily is that there is only one way to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again: Let yourself be loved … A crippling disease is just one of fate's ways of undercutting muscular love. The able-bodied can be brought to truth through hurts that never show. I think it's likely I am not the most seriously wounded among us, only the most conspicuously bandaged. Sooner or later every one of us will be made to feel flawed, inadequate, powerless. And there's no defense against it … The alternative is to let yourself be loved. Not pitied, indulged, or pampered, but loved."

Through a contact at Northwestern, Jenks signed on with an organization called LIFT, Inc. Using his typing skills, he trained as a computer programmer for six months through a program to bring the severely disabled into the workplace. He became a full-time employee of Walgreen Company in 1980 and remained a valuable employee for 10 years.

In 1988, an anonymous donor (and classmate) underwrote the creation of the William Henry Peter Jenks Chair in Contemporary English Letters, with the largest single gift in the College's history. Typically humble, Jenks described this honor in his class letter as "the Chairing of the Unworthy by the Unknown."

"I feel obliged to burst the bubble reputation because, to tell the truth, I find nothing remarkable about Will Jenks," he said at his 1989 reunion, only six months before his death from post-polio syndrome. "Over the years so many fictions have sprung up about me that I keep looking over my shoulder to see who people are staring at."

In 1994, the College dedicated a room in the Hogan Campus Center to Jenks' memory. Kane was there on that day and spoke about his friend and classmate.

"I called him the sanest, saintliest and sagest man I ever knew," he said. "He would have sighed at such a string of alliterations." But, almost certainly, Jenks would have accepted gracefully the love those words communicated.

 

Allison Chisolm is a freelance writer from Worcester.

 

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