Wittenberg Magazine P.O. Box 720 Springfield, Ohio 45501-0720
Phone: (937) 327-6141 Fax: (937) 327-6112
Baird Tipson: At home in his gardenstory by Karen Saatkamp Gerboth '93
gardening photos by Jeff Smith '96
additional photos by Jim Dexter
In a world where degrees can be awarded across the Internet and where the phrase “ease of use” threatens to supplant “personal touch,” liberal arts colleges have found themselves in challenging straits against a tide of the superficial.
Throughout it all, President Tipson has remained a stalwart in his commitment to providing students with a 21st century learning environment while preserving the traditions Wittenberg holds dear.
Now meet Tipson in a place he most enjoys but too rarely has time to be — at home in his garden.
Clad in suspenders the color of coreopsis, a pale-blue work shirt and dark-green pants, a man stands on a field of freshly cut grass to survey his surroundings.
The afternoon sun shoots a spotlight on his old-fashioned roses, bachelor’s buttons and poppies as he motions a passer-by to join him. Curious, the passer-by heeds the man’s welcoming wave and heads to the walkway.
They exchange hellos, and the man then beckons her to follow him to his second home: his garden, the place that offers him solace in a sea full of unknowns and the place where Baird Tipson, Wittenberg’s 12th president, can enjoy brief personal moments of peace.
“We can start over here,” he says, gesturing toward the south side of the Bayley House, his full-time residence for the last five years.
Having just returned from a conference the day before at Antioch College, Tipson shows enthusiasm and genuine excitement for the brief chance to work in his floral creation.
“It was such a nice day yesterday, but I had to be in Yellow Springs so I couldn’t work in the garden,” Tipson says as he parades past an ancient maple tree encircled by lillies of the valley.
“When Sarah and I married, we had lillies of the valley and lilacs at our wedding,” Tipson says with a smile as he searches the lillies’ expanse for weeds. He finds a few and yanks them out before continuing the conversation.
A New Jersey native, Tipson never had an interest in gardening until he married Sarah in May 1970. They met at Yale University where he was pursuing his Ph.D. in religious studies and she was pursuing her M.A. in religion.
“We didn’t have a lot of money for a honeymoon,” he explains, “so we went to her uncle’s house along a creek near the Rappahannock River in Virginia.”
There, Tipson remembers sitting on the deck and thinking how nice it was to be surrounded by such natural beauty.
Hundreds of books, magazines and other gardening publications later, the Princeton graduate can now discuss gardening like an expert, including reciting with ease the Latin names of almost every flower and tree.
But it is the old-fashioned roses that most intrigue him.
“Antique roses have a wonderful bloom,” he says as he closes in on his Constance Spry rose, named for the late British floral arranger who created displays for such royals as Queen Elizabeth II. Alba, Collette and Polka roses bloom nearby.
Armed with red-handled clippers, a pocketknife and some green-metal stakes, Tipson scans for flowers in need of his assistance. A look of gratitude for this rare opportunity in the garden again crosses his face.
Just days before, Tipson was meeting with Cabinet members, speaking to the Wittenberg Guild, eating breakfast with a member of the United Way and taking a quick trip to Columbus to speak with an alumna about serving on the board of directors.
Earlier, Tipson addressed church leaders convening on campus for the Ohio Synod’s annual meeting, conferred with presidents from other NCAC colleges on the role athletics play in education, attended a farewell party and ran four miles in Clark County’s Relay for Life.
Still, despite the long hours and time spent on the road, Tipson has somehow managed to maintain a delicate balance between his professional and personal life. To him, family comes first. “I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing if Sarah wasn’t here,” he says.
His children, Elizabeth, who will be a junior at Carleton College next year, and David, who graduated from Princeton and is now in law school at the University of Virginia, also take center stage. “We’re proud that they have liberal arts educations.”
However, because he lives in a university-owned home on campus, Tipson understands how his family time at home can turn into Wittenberg time regardless of the hour.
“So much of the work is joined with the personal when you live at Wittenberg,” he says. “I wish I could leave it all at the office.”
Although he admits that he can block out many worries while he gardens outside, his concerns and frustrations sometimes still follow him inside, literally and figuratively. “I tend to keep things inside longer than I should, “ he says. “Sarah can see that.”
Yet, he and Sarah try to make their time at home their own. Whether it be talking in the kitchen, reading books, working on their respective gardens or relaxing near the water garden on the south side of the house, the Tipsons try to find time for each other and their interests.
His pace now picks up slightly as he points toward the red and white roses nestled in the property’s southwest corner along Wittenberg Avenue. “Since this is a Wittenberg garden, I thought I should have red and white first,” he says with pride.
Tipson knows Wittenberg is a special place.
“I’m impressed by the level of commitment that people have to this place, its mission and its students,” he says. “Wittenberg also combines two distinct traditions: the tradition of liberal learning and the Christian tradition.”
But Tipson also acknowledges that these traditions will continue to be challenged by advancing technology, distance learning opportunities, changing values and the common refrain that education is only a consumer commodity.
“How do we remain viable in a culture that values education differently?” he asks.
Such questions plague the president as he fights to preserve the “Wittenberg Way,” increase the level of financial support for Wittenberg and provide students with state-of-the-art technology.
“Another challenge will be finding our niche without losing what we already have,” Tipson says. “I don’t know the future, but I do know that the traditions we hold dear are worth the fight.”
Such strong commitment to Wittenberg’s future fuels his desire to champion the liberal arts across the country, to chair councils and to preside over committees that believe in the value of a Wittenberg education, to lobby the Ohio Legislature for more state support in providing a technological infrastructure for all Ohio private and public schools, to campaign for Wittenberg, and to travel thousands of miles each year to share the Wittenberg story.
“When I travel around the country, I hear similar stories about how a particular professor had an impact on a person’s life,” he says.
Tipson explains that at Wittenberg, students have one-on-one relationships with their professors, and these relationships extend far beyond the classroom.
“Our faculty members help our students develop as people as well as give them the tools to pursue a rewarding career.”
He now casts a shadow near his eastern redbud tree. Given to Sarah and him by some of their friends in West Virginia, the five-year-old tree stands as one reminder of friendships formed in their 30-year marriage.
An enormous poppy, grown from plantings from Monet’s garden in France, serves as another. Then there are the flowers that remind him of the early days when he and Sarah first said “I do.”
“Those bluebells we had at our home in Somerset, Va.,” he says, pointing in their direction as he recalls his first teaching position at the University of Virginia and the couple’s first garden. “It was completely overgrown,” he says.
Tipson tackled that garden during the couple’s six-year stay in Virginia, an experience that aided in the formulation of his gardening philosophy. “There are two philosophies to gardening,” Tipson says.
“Some people want their gardens to look like a painting with colors organized and everything blooming together. The other extreme is the individual who likes great bursts of color. I’m in that group.”
Gardening also offers Tipson the chance to marvel at nature’s majesty. “Gardening suggests something to you about the universe,” he says. “A single bloom opens up part of the world that wasn’t there before.”
Wrestling with this world of the unknown is also one of the pillars of a liberal arts education in Tipson’s mind. “Truths are unseeable, invisible and even inexpressible,” he says.
Plato ponders this, according to Tipson, and concludes that the realities of what people see are actually shadows.
“We need to understand the shadows and what stands behind them,” Tipson explains, and that’s what Wittenberg in its teaching and liberal learning environment aims to do.
Tipson now moves closer to the 4-foot black aluminum fence that divides the front and back of the house.
Physical Plant workers built this replica of cast-iron fence for the family back in 1995 so the family’s golden retriever, Sugar, could run free. Sadly, at age four, Sugar passed away. “She was a great dog,” Tipson says.
Kenny Lake, Wittenberg’s carpenter foreman, helped bury Sugar near the carriage house on the property’s east side. “He built her a wooden coffin and everything,” Tipson says as he continues to glance around his garden.
There, on the other side of the fence, perennial flax, forget-me-nots, fox glove, hollyhocks, viburnum, Abraham Darby, Cecile Brunner and Blanche Double de Coubert grace the landscape.
“The hollyhocks grew from a seed a woman next door to Good Shepherd Lutheran Church gave me,” Tipson says.
Such exchanges of seeds and plantings have become commonplace for Tipson throughout the years as has his canvassing of nurseries in search of old-fashioned roses and strolling through cemeteries in his quest for sudden bursts of color.
“The neat thing about gardening is that if you don’t like it, you can pull it up,” he explains. Wittenberg is not so simple. Here, he carries the weight of Wittenberg on his shoulders.
Here, he is “The Boss” as the leather patch on the back of his gold ruler-inspired suspenders reads. Here, he is not only the visionary leader, but also a psychologist, counselor, motivator, cheerleader, athlete and even professor.
This fall, Tipson and Tom Taylor, professor of history, will be co-teaching a history class on Tudor-Stuart England. As part of the course, Tipson and Taylor will discuss the powerful differences in class, gender and religion that divided English culture.
“I’m learning as much as I can about early England and the type of preaching going on at the time,” he says.
Tipson previously taught courses in American Religion, Christianity, Religious Autobiography, Religion and Science, and World Religions at the University of Virginia, Gettysburg College and Central Michigan University.
“Teaching interests me because it helps me make a case for what we do differently at Wittenberg,” he explains. “When I talk about what we do, I can talk from experience.
Teaching also provides me with professional satisfaction apart from my Wittenberg administration. It’s important for me to remind myself what we’re all about here. Without that, I may as well be a bank president or a business owner.”
Wearing his official gardening pants with two slots for kneepads sewed into the fabric, Tipson now crosses the driveway to the east and heads to the Benjamin Prince House lawn.
“Look out for the poison ivy,” he says, pointing to the three-leaf plant parked nearby. “It is just everywhere this year.” Although an expert gardener now, Tipson never even wanted to cut the grass let alone garden as a child.
“I think my father is amused by my gardening now,” he says with a slight laugh. Tipson tries to visit his parents regularly at their home in Massachusetts.
Just last month, Tipson managed to take a quick trip to see them in between a Presidential Retreat, meetings with staff members and Alumni Weekend 2000.
He now heads behind the carriage house along Faculty Court. He hopes to conquer this shady portion of the property next. “I have to get back here more,” he says, extending his arm in the general vicinity of the area in question.
Tipson recalls how students on their way to class once stopped in amazement while he was working in this section. “They started joshing me about my gardening attire; one even took a picture,” he says as he begins to laugh.
While another person may view this area of the garden as an overwhelming burden, Tipson sees it as a pleasant challenge. “Part of the fun of gardening is that you’re not in control.
Weather, bugs, flowers and soil — they can all have an impact at any time,” he explains.
The same holds true for stress; it can happen at any time, and Tipson seems to understand this, which is one of the reasons he enjoys weight-training, long-distance running and spending time in his garden.
He admits that gardening helps him alleviate stress at times, but working out in the university’s athletic facilities and long-distance running help him more these days.
“I used to play racquetball, and when you hit the ball in racquetball, you can picture your worst enemy. Gardening isn’t as violent,” he says with a chuckle. He likes to laugh.
He wants people to feel comfortable, and here, at home in his garden, he can be comfortable, too. Here, he can wear comfortable clothes. Here, he can relax, if only for a few short hours.
Now, as if wanting to savor every minute of the sun’s fleeting rays, he starts to turn back toward the Bayley House where a white hammock welcomes him. “Sarah just bought me this one. It’s my third one,” he says.
A table with chairs, a water pond and Sarah’s herb garden sit nearby.“I like to relax in the hammock after I finish gardening,” he explains. He demonstrates the delicate balancing act briefly for visitors to see.
The sun continues to shine, but the sky hints of rain. He needs to take advantage of the time he has left, so he heads back to the garden. There in a sun-lit corner of the yard, he again lifts his arm and waves goodbye.
Confident and content, the president, the gardener, the man returns to work.
Wittenberg Magazine P.O. Box 720 Springfield, Ohio 45501-0720
Phone: (937) 327-6141 Fax: (937) 327-6112