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
When 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:
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
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
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
"… 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
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
"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
Allison Chisolm is a freelance
writer from Worcester.