My ability to explain this story is so limited that I probably shouldn’t even attempt writing it. But it’s something I want to try to explain, if only to help me better understand it. My guess is that some of my readers have had similar experiences, maybe in a completely different context. Maybe I’m not completely weird. Or, maybe most of us are weird in our own quirky ways.

As a young adult, fresh off the farm, I began finding a new path in life by sitting in college classrooms, taking notes, doing laboratory exercises, writing papers, cramming for exams, and eagerly returning to locked classroom doors to see final grades posted before grade reports could reach me by mail. Sometimes during such academic cycles I noticed a slight and mysterious chill come up the back of my neck, something I had not remembered from any prior school experience. Such diverse things as a professor’s observation, a paragraph in an old book from deep in the library, or simply walking from one campus building to another occasionally triggered that little chill up the back of my neck.

These chills were always a pleasant little surprise, always completely unexpected. They seemed like a neurological response to something that felt like deep inspiration. The first instance of this in my memory was sitting in a sophomore English class listening to a lecture by Professor Charles Waters. He had a way of waxing philosophical while discussing something we had read. Up until this particular day, I had entered college to become a high school teacher. But something in Professor Waters’ voice, or some of his words, or the turns his mind could take, triggered this little chill and a switch flipped in my brain. At that instant, at about age twenty, my career goal shifted from becoming a high school teacher to becoming a university professor.

Foellinger Auditorium on the quad at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. As a student and later as a faculty member, I often got that little chill as I walked among students near this part of campus. Why here? I simply don’t know. (Photo credit.)

Now, after spending my adult life in the presence of one university campus or another, after interacting with countless students and professors, I must report on yet another campus chill from my retirement years. It again came completely unexpectedly. Before our move to Arizona, we were attending an end-of-term dinner for members of a continuing education program at the University of Texas, Learning Activities for Mature People, or LAMP. “Mature” people in this case are mostly individuals who have retired from whatever they did most of their lives and they usually range in age from about fifty into their nineties.

Two students from the College of Education were there as our guests to be recognized as recipients of scholarships LAMP established for future teachers. These students—a couple of years older than I was when I got my first campus chill in Professor Waters’ English class—mingled among us in the University’s alumni center and sat at a special table with members of LAMP’s Scholarship Committee. Dress for the evening was “Texas chic” as many in the group wore cowboy and cowgirl duds while a band played songs that could have come from a Gene Autry movie.

As a crowd line-danced to Western tunes, these two young scholarship winners danced with ease and confidence among LAMPers, obviously enjoying being among over 250 people who were 2-4 generations older than they are. As I thought of how these two college seniors had been transformed in the few short years they had been on campus, my little campus chill came up the back of my neck once again.

I don’t understand why this has happened to me at various times in my fortunate years of academic life. It has something to do with my realization in Professor Waters’ class decades ago that the university changed me to the core, that this is precisely the role of the university, and that for me there is something mystifying and magical about it.

Now you understand what I mean by my limited ability to explain this story. That or a very similar chill has occurred at other times, such as a beautiful nature scene, a special moment with one of my children, an inspiring speech or song, or any number of exceptional experiences.

Yes, it’s hard to explain but I hope you sort of get the idea.

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