Paths Trod by Sheldon Vanauken
It was a curious awareness that I felt, slightly wondrous, upon learning that the paths I walk each day were trod once by Sheldon Vanauken. The college where I study is the one he described, obliquely, in his bestseller, A Severe Mercy, as a “small, academically excellent men’s college.” Wabash College is very different now, though it is still small, and still a men’s college. It is strange to me still, three years after finding out he was an alumnus, that the window of my office at The Wabash Commentary looks out on the fraternity house where he spent four years of his young life. I look at it now, and wonder how many students here today will do what he did — love deeply, serve God, die well.
In 1935 when he arrived on campus, he was not Sheldon Vanauken. In his life he had many names, each expressing a different aspect of himself — a different identity almost. Van was the name used by his friends. Sheldon was the name on his books. He used a pseudonym for his 1960s-era feminist tracts. When at Wabash, he was Frank S. Van Auken, the name his parents gave him (the “S” stood for Sheldon). In his three autobiographies he said little about his years here. When preparing his obituary for The Wabash Commentary, the student journal at which I work, I found several details that might interest his admirers, and offer them here.
Frank Van Auken bore little resemblance to Sheldon Vanauken. As he wrote in Encounter with Light, he began his long conversion “the moment that I abandoned my childhood [Protestant] Christianity and became a small, fierce atheist — in the name of truth.” That was the first stage, Abandonment. In rebellion he left Christianity, but it was something he did not understand. He arrived at Wabash in this plight.
The son of a successful Indianapolis lawyer, Frank attended high school at Culver Military Academy in Indiana. For years afterward he would be described as “stiff” and sometimes “prissy.” He came to Wabash, located in Crawfordsville, Indiana, an hour away from Indianapolis, intending to stay for just one year. In his freshman picture he sits alone amidst a group of other boys, distinguished by his better clothes and solemn expression. He joined the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, identified in A Severe Mercy only as “the House.” His fraternity brothers remember him as set apart, in bearing and intellect, though always friendly.
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