By Eric Balmer
On Friday, February 7, 2014, Dr. Ira “Jack” Vinson Birdwhistell, age 67, was found deceased in his home. “Doc,” as he was often referred to by friends and students, was an Assistant Religion Professor, former campus minister and Georgetown College student from 1964-1968.
Dr. Birdwhistell’s visitation was held from 1-3 p.m., followed by a beautiful memorial service at 3 p.m. that overflowed the John L. Hill Chapel on February 10.
Doc was known for his light spirit of optimism even during times when the dark clouds of doubt and negativity stifled the hopes of many. His absence is already deeply mourned by not only Georgetown’s campus but the community at large.
During his four years as a Tiger, Doc was a columnist and Sports Editor of The Georgetonian. His love for sports was great, but his love for people proved even greater.
Susan Lockwood, a Georgetown alumna from 1968, recalls how Doc had a variety of interests, which helped him connect and teach a multitude of people. She said, “Jack had a tremendous intellect which translated into wide ranging interests and an immense curiosity and willingness to engage people, not just topics. His [Facebook] posts bear witness to his amazing capacity for learning, teaching and stretching one’s viewpoint.”
After his time as a student, Doc studied for seven years at Southern Seminary and later became a Baptist pastor in Drakesboro, Ky. Birdwhistell would later say the position was “one of my greatest blessings ever” (news-graphic.com).
In 1979, the campus minister position at Georgetown College opened and Doc jumped at the opportunity. He started ministry work the following year and he taught two courses a year in addition. He transitioned from campus minister to faculty in 1997, after an influx of students required an additional professor.
His love for students was not abandoned in this new position as he ceaselessly saw the best in them. Doc’s famous phrase “Shine on!” which he often included in his email signature, stems from the story of a mystical experience of Thomas Merton.
Merton was a famous 20th century monk and spiritual writer. One day, in Louisville, at the corner of Fourth at Walnut, he was overwhelmed with love for those around him “that they were mine and I theirs.”
The Abbey of Gethsemani monk described his wish to explain to everyone “that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
Doc Birdwhistell said to his friends and students that although he was no mystic, no famous spiritual writer, he had the same experience. On the steps of John L. Hill chapel many times he observed his beloved students walking around campus shining as the sun. Doc entreated family, friend, and student alike to “Shine on!” and love one another.
Doc’s students also testify to his powerful presence on campus. Betsie Phillips, a 2013 alumna remembers Doc encouraging her to think in ways she never had before. She said, “As a professor, Doc pushed me to think critically about my faith. He did so by asking tough questions and approaching religion from a variety of perspectives. As a friend, Doc pushed me to think deeper about the world.”
Sophomore Tyler Phillips knew Doc’s name before he even stepped foot on campus. He directly impacted Phillips through people that swore by Birdwhistell’s character. “When I decided to come to Georgetown, graduates from my home church would tell me ‘You have to meet Doc Birdwhistell!’ Meeting him, myself, proved every one of their stories true. He lived compassion.”
During his 17 years as a religion professor, his passion for students and his ability to see the potential in each student was inspiring. Alex Caudill, another current Georgetown student, is one of the students in whom Doc saw potential. “He saw the need for a Catholic campus ministry and pushed me to lead it,” Caudill said, “because he believed I was the right one to do it, even when I doubted myself. For his support, friendship and guidance I am eternally grateful.”
No matter how big or small the issue, Doc was able to answer in ways that made sense and were well thought out. Morgan Floyd, a 2013 Georgetown College alumna wrote Dr. Birdwhistell during her time in India. She was wrestling with questions on Christianity and “poverty and suffering in the world.” Part of his response was this:
“Here’s a suggestion—get to the Bottom Line idea—e.g., ‘God is Love,’ ‘God Cares,’ ‘Love God, love your neighbor,’ something like that. In my case, I built on beauty— amidst all ugliness, there are beauty and kindness.”
The impact Doc had on his students is clear, as is his tremendous mark on the lives of his fellow colleagues. Dr. Sheila Klopfer, head of the religion department, believes Birdwhistell lived a standard worth striving for. “Doc embodied in his teaching career and life the best that a Christian Liberal Arts institution offers. He was an academic who reflected thoughtfully on his faith, seeking to find God’s Truth in our world. And he practically lived out his faith by loving the people he encountered,” she said.
Another professor who was touched by the life of Doc was Dr. Joe Lunceford, who began teaching religion at Georgetown in 1981, one year after Birdwhistell became campus minister. Lunceford remembers Doc as a friendly man who always encouraged students. “He was very even tempered. Jack was easy to be friends with, very consistent. He would do anything to help his students. Doc was always interested in his students, saw things in them they didn’t see in themselves.”
If you have been on campus in the last 34 years or had the pleasure of being a student when he was, you would know the character of Doc Birdwhistell. You would know he had a naturally joyful disposition, an uncanny ability to see on the bright side of almost any issue. For these reasons Doc’s light will continue to “Shine on!” in the hearts of those who know and love him at Georgetown College.