April 6, 2012

The Hallowed Halls…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:00 pm


It is to have the old unquiet mind, the famished heart,
the restless soul; it is to lose hope, heart, and all joy
utterly, and then to have them wake again…

—Thomas Wolfe

It was an ordinary Tuesday a few weeks back. Mid morning. Busy at the office, the phones were ringing right along. And then Rosita beeped me. A guy on hold asked for me, wanted to talk. Some Dr. Helton from Vincennes University. OK, I said. She transferred the call.

This is Ira. And the pleasant man on the line identified himself with just a smidgen of a Midwestern drawl. Dr. Richard Helton, president of Vincennes University in Indiana. Vincennes University. My alma mater. The place I graduated from in 1991. A place of many good memories for me. Still, I’d pretty much lost touch over the years. Dr. Helton, after a few brief pleasantries, launched into the reason for his call.

Somehow, they had found my book. Someone on the faculty there. And someone with some influence had lobbied hard for me. So I was placed into the running, “taken into consideration,” I guess they call it. And somehow, I had won, all the while blissfully unaware that anything was even going on. And now, after the votes had been tallied, after the Board had reached a decision, Dr. Helton had called to tell me the good news.

On Saturday afternoon, April 28th, 2012, Vincennes University will award me an honorary doctorate.

It didn’t really hit me right at that moment, what that all meant exactly. Although I was pretty floored. Of course, I said, I’ll be there. I’m flattered and honored. I’ll be there. I asked whether any of my old friends, my professors, were still teaching there. Mostly not. Most of them have retired or moved on. After chatting amiably for another ten minutes, Dr. Helton said so long and hung up. I got up, too, and walked around a bit. My head was spinning.

An honorary doctorate. Just what the heck is that, anyway? I thought back over the years. I have graduated from three different institutions of higher learning. Vincennes University. Bob Jones University. And the Dickinson School of Law. At all three of those graduation ceremonies, someone had been awarded some sort of honorary degree. And I remember yawning, along with pretty much every other graduate. Come on. Stop wasting our time. Get on with the program. We’re here to graduate. Please, no long speeches. Give the guy his honorary degree and get him off the stage. That’s how we felt, mostly. And now it was my turn, to be the reason others thought those very thoughts. I guess what goes around comes around. Sometimes, anyway.

From here, from where I now am, it’s a pretty cool feeling, though, whatever one might think. Very cool, to be honored like that.

And I think back to how it was back then, in those days. When I first realized that I had a shot at actually attending a real university. A goal that had never even reached the status of a dream. It was too far out there, too impossible to even be on my radar screen. College? Me? I had an eighth grade education. Never had a day of high school. How would it be possible to enter, let alone graduate, from college?

The winter of 1988-1989 was tough for me in many ways, which isn’t that surprising. I’m a glutton for tough times, seems like. This was just one more in a long string. It’s not like I was alone, exactly. I mean, there was support around me, as I settled into my post-Amish world in Daviess.

But always, it seemed, something hard rose to confront me. That winter, I was reeling from the abrupt loss of a relationship I desperately wanted to work out. It did not. Instead, it collapsed into dust and ashes around me, because I could not speak my heart. The whole scene was pretty brutal. I’ve never written about it before. Not publicly. One day soon I will, maybe. I’m far enough away now, to speak of it without wandering too close to the edge of brooding darkness. At least, I think so.

And over that winter, I hunched down and absorbed the bitter pain of a loss such as I had never known. It was probably more intense in my mind because of how alone I felt. And how alone I was, really. In my new world, my new life in Daviess. It’s not like I could communicate much, not like I could really trust anyone around me, to talk to. Mostly because I didn’t know how. And somewhere, in the spasms of that pain, the shadows of a plan came to my mind. Leave this behind. Strike out into a new world. Get your GED. That’s the equivalent of a high school diploma. Get that, and maybe enroll at Vincennes in the fall.

I wasn’t sure just what all was involved. I couldn’t imagine taking the tests for my GED without some preparation. I made some calls. There were classes one could take, at the local high school in Washington. Tuesday nights, if I remember right. And a week or so later, I walked in and enrolled. Tentatively, a bit scared. I don’t remember the nice lady’s name, but I remember how helpful she was. Oh, yes, she said. Yes, yes. Come on in. We’ll analyze where you are. Take some placement exams. We’ll figure out what you need to learn. And we’ll teach you what you don’t know, so you can get your GED. And go on to college. Vincennes will take you. Don’t be afraid. You can do this.

Grateful for her words, I took the placement exams. And amazingly, in pretty much every category, I was already at college entry level. Except one. Math. I had a strong but basic eighth grade education from the Aylmer Amish school. Since then, I had devoured countless books. I had read and read and read. Much trash. And some good stuff, too. But who goes out and learns math on their own? A math brain, I guess. Which was most definitely not me. Still, I was astounded and emboldened. I could do this. And so I began attending classes, there in Washington, Indiana, to learn some basic elements of math. And to polish up my writing.

And after a couple of months of attending those weekly classes, I took the plunge. Went in and sat for my GED tests. I don’t recall many specific details of that day, except I was fairly confident. And when my scores came back, they were good. Actually, in a very high percentile. The nice lady smiled and congratulated me. She knew I could do it. This is the beginning. Now go enroll at Vincennes. Here’s all the information you need, to do that. And so I did. Enrolled at a real university, for the fall of 1989.

That summer was my first full summer here in Lancaster County. And it was a time of sweat and labor. I toiled in the dust and heat from dawn to late afternoon every day, five or six days a week. Working construction, building pole barns. It was one of the most intense and healing summers in my memory. I wanted to work, to save money for college. And I wanted to work to forget. I labored long and hard, to leave behind what was lost and to lay up for the future. And those three months were amazing, looking back. A mixture of so many emotions. I knew what was behind me, I’d just walked from there. There was no way I could possibly envision what lay ahead.

Three days before my 28th birthday. That’s when I walked through the doors of Vincennes University as a student for the first time. Clutching my new bright blue Jansport backpack, sagging with textbooks, I entered the halls of the Humanities Building. That’s the stuff I had signed up for, mostly. English. Literature. History. Speech. And one lone remedial math class, way across the campus.

And it was a magical and frightening time. Magical, because of the new possibilities that suddenly seemed so within my grasp. And frightening, because of where I’d come from. I was a simple ex-Amish man, with not a day of high school under my belt. That’s intimidating, any way you look at it. And yet, here it was before me. All I had to do was walk forward through the open door. College. The real thing. A world that called to a deep place in my heart. And to me, it was pretty much a miracle, this university. Vincennes University. A two-year school. The gateway to my journey through a world I had never dared to imagine.

I lapped it up from the first day. Timidly, I took a seat in my first class. Way in the back of the room, which would forever after be my most comfortable spot. World Lit, with Dr. Rodgers. A frail little wisp of a man, not that well spoken. But very knowledgeable. He hemmed and hawed and welcomed us. This semester, we would be exploring this theme and that theme in our studies. We’ll be writing a paper every month. The syllabus described our course. Syllabus? What was that? I’d never heard that word before. Had no clue what it meant.

I would soon hear a lot of words that I had never heard spoken before. Words I had read, words the meaning of which I knew full well. But there’s a difference between reading a word and hearing it used in actual conversations, properly articulated. I cringed at the way I’d been pronouncing some of them. And I listened and learned.

That first semester, I signed up for what was considered a full load. Fifteen hours. English I. History of some kind. Literature. And a few other classes I can’t recall. But it was the humanities, the reading, the writing, that side of the brain that was my strength. And I walked naturally through those doors, the doors that seemed to call my name. I was new here. Didn’t know who or what I could trust. So I went by instinct.

And to me, it was like a smorgasboard, the university. It was as if I were seated at a table groaning under the weight of a great feast of so many mysteries I longed to touch and taste. And feel. I eagerly read the assigned literature. Completed the writings on time. I was serious, focused and hungry, and that was soon plain to those around me. Within a month, all my professors knew my name, knew who I was. And to their credit, every single one of them recognized and welcomed from their hearts this student who had emerged from the backwoods of the “peaceful people,” the Amish. Every single one. Their doors were always open to me, and I soon felt calm and comfortable enough to just stop by and chat. To talk of things. To pick their brains. I was right at ten years older than the average college freshman. I’d lived ten tough years of life most of my classmates had never seen and probably would never see. And to me, it was a huge privilege just to be there.

After that first semester, fifteen credit hours were not enough to occupy my mind. The second semester, I took eighteen hours. And in my second year at Vincennes, on a full merit scholarship, I enrolled for twenty-one class hours both semesters. Sure, this was a junior college. Not a four-year school. Not as rigorous. But for me, well, I could not have found a more perfect launching place.

To me, Vincennes University was a shining city on a hill.

For what it meant to me, for what it did for me, for what I learned there, Vincennes University will always hold a special place in my heart. Always. And now they want to award me an honorary doctorate. Put me in a robe, and a mortarboard cap. From thenceforth, I can call myself Dr. Ira Wagler if I want to.

Which is strange, actually, and kind of funny. It’s never been my goal, ever, to get a doctorate of any kind. Never. It’s never been even a remote thought in my head, to be able to call myself Dr. Wagler.

And I won’t, except maybe in the odd instance where doing so might open an otherwise closed door. Then I might. Other than that, it would be a bit presumptuous, I think. To call myself that, or expect others to.

But you bet I’ll go to Vincennes University on April 28th. You bet I’ll be honored to attend. To walk the hallowed halls of academia again. To tour the old grounds. And you bet I’ll be grateful to accept the honor they are bestowing upon me. With all its pomp, and all its glory. I’ll revel in every minute. Soak it up. In a robe, and tassled mortarboard cap. Make a short speech. Oh, yes, it will be brief. And then I’ll return to my rather mundane life, back here in Lancaster County. Marveling at the strange way things come down sometimes.

I can’t help but wonder what’s around the next bend on this road.
The book is still roaming around out there, in some pretty elite terrain. I wrote about it, a month ago. How Amazon reduced the Kindle price, and how Growing Up Amish rocketed into the stratosphere. All through March, the eBook hung in there. In the top 25, mostly. Dipped and rose and dipped again. The highest spot I ever saw was #13. In all of Amazon Kindle. I am grateful that since returning to regular pricing on April 1st, the eBook has hung in there in the top one hundred.

And last month I wondered when it would show up in the bestseller lists. It was the top selling nonfiction book on Amazon, that was pretty clear. Would the New York Times recognize it? I didn’t know. And so one day, I cautiously asked Carol. She didn’t know. She didn’t think so. OK. I won’t look for it.

And no one saw it coming, three weeks ago, on the Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list. Number eleven. A week later, number three. No one saw it. No one from Tyndale. And not my agent. I was unaware that such a thing even existed. The Wall Street Journal bestseller list. Who would? Apparently no one in the publishing world knew, either.

It was so haphazard, the way it all came down. Last Saturday morning, an email from a friend. Hey. Your book’s number one on the WSJ’s bestseller list. Congratulations. Sure, I figured. Number one in memoirs.

And that afternoon, I stopped at a friend’s house for coffee. Hey, check out your copy of The Wall Street Journal. I think my book’s listed there. We looked. And we found it. Growing Up Amish was the number one eBook nonfiction bestseller, period, during the week ending March 25th. The New York Times didn’t recognize that fact, because my book was priced at a promotional discount. But the Wall Street Journal counted the raw numbers. I was number one. I stared. Then I took a picture with my iPhone. There aren’t too many higher pinnacles than that.

Today is Good Friday. A holy day. Growing up, we always observed Good Friday. I can’t remember if it was a fasting day in the Midwest, but it sure is here in Lancaster County, for the Amish, which mostly means they don’t eat breakfast and then have a large lunch. Many businesses shut down, including Graber Supply. So we got the day off. It seems strange, because Good Friday is not an official holiday. The banks are open. The mail is delivered. It’s like, why are you open? This is a holy day.

And on this holy weekend, I wish a blessed Easter to all my readers.



  1. It’s hard to leave a comment on a piece so well written, because any comment would pale in comparison. You’ve lived the life God meant you to live. Have a blessed Easter.

    Comment by Carol Ellmore — April 6, 2012 @ 6:39 pm

  2. Awesome! Thanks for reminding me how intimidating that first semester was. I was 30-ish when I started and I did not even know the difference between a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree – or what a syllabus was either.

    Congratulations on the Doctorate. Your book certainly contributed more to society than many PhD dissertations do.

    Comment by Ed — April 6, 2012 @ 6:47 pm

  3. We watched “Seven Days in Utopia” the other week. A tale of young Luke, the burned out golfer, recovering in this out of way place from the domination of his father. One of the scenes featured him and a girl catching fireflies in cans. The girl pointed to the captured insects, “Their lights have gone out. Turn them loose.”

    He did, and they began blinking again. And she said, “Freedom’s a powerful thing, Luke.”

    The highlight of the movie, I thought.

    Comment by Jerry Eicher — April 6, 2012 @ 7:15 pm

  4. Remarkable determination you had. The odds and obstacles you overcame are no small task for anyone, let alone an ex-Amish young man.

    Comment by The pizzalady — April 6, 2012 @ 7:21 pm

  5. I am sure you have one happy Pappy, even if he wouldn’t say so.

    Comment by Katie Troyer — April 6, 2012 @ 9:11 pm

  6. Great blog. I too have the feeling/ passions about learning all there is to learn out there . . . My frustration is that I have to work full time and can only do 6-7 credits at a time. But I want to be content that I can do that much and trust. The good Lord knows I am not so young anymore and He will open the doors for more if it’s in His plans.

    Comment by Minerva — April 6, 2012 @ 10:01 pm

  7. I started reading…scrolled down…thought “Gracious! this is a long blog entry!” …but it melted away easier than ice cream in August. Good writing. Good blog.
    Great accomplishments.

    Comment by Rhonda — April 6, 2012 @ 10:45 pm

  8. Wow, Ira! That is SO COOL! Congratulations!

    Comment by Bayley — April 6, 2012 @ 10:45 pm

  9. Congratulations! That’s quite an honor!

    Comment by Arlen Yoder — April 6, 2012 @ 11:02 pm

  10. Congratulations, Dr. Wagler! Technically, with a degree in law you already are a “Dr.” but this is great. An honorary doctororate is not only an “honor,” it is for all practical purposes, “earned”. It means you actually have done something, unlike many PhDs. You’re one of the few recipients who could give a long acceptance speech, telling your story, and none of the graduates would look at his watch. Congratulations!

    Comment by John Schmid — April 7, 2012 @ 1:00 am

  11. Happy Easter to you and yours too.

    Comment by Sharmini — April 7, 2012 @ 7:30 am

  12. I second what John said, above!

    It is hard to imagine that a child born into a world where higher education isn’t promoted, nor even explored, would continue the path you did. I believe that God’s higher calling causes us to open closed doors and often travel down lonely roads. He put a hunger in you for learning, and even Amish “boundaries” could not prevent you from breaking loose!

    I am certain the “higher powers” at Vincennes stand amazed at just how high *their* student, Ira, has flown! It is a wonderful honor to be recognized, for sure!

    Congratulations, Ira! And, may the sky continue to be your limit as the Lord leads!!!!

    Comment by Kae Catalano — April 7, 2012 @ 8:33 am

  13. What an amazing journey.

    Comment by cynthia r chase — April 7, 2012 @ 8:55 am

  14. Congratulations on your honor. That is wonderful. Happy Easter.

    Comment by Jane Sherman — April 7, 2012 @ 9:42 am

  15. I enjoyed your book very much! It is one of the very few “Amish” books that actually says it as it is. Thanks for using the talent God has given you. You have blessed thousands, including me. I wish you the “joy that cometh in the morning.” Keep your chin up and enjoy this new good thing the Lord has brought into your life.

    Comment by Rachel Zook — April 7, 2012 @ 10:00 am

  16. Ira

    Thanks for a very interesting blog. Brought back great memories of teaching school with you at Lebanon Valley! I saw your book but have not read it yet. Hoping to get a Kindle soon and your book is definitely on my wish list!

    Congratulations on the doctorate!

    Have a great Easter
    The Day that made all the difference!!
    James Snader

    Comment by James Snader — April 7, 2012 @ 1:26 pm

  17. Congratulations. I especially enjoyed reading of your educational journey. Last year I set foot on campus for the first time as a student. Never had the privilege of high school. Ready for college level in everything but math . . . Culturally I’m different (Amish Mennonite), but the difference is even greater in how I approach learning – considering it a privilege, not a necessary evil to get a better paying job.

    Comment by Rosanna — April 7, 2012 @ 5:32 pm

  18. Great article! I remember not understanding what a syllabus was either… A common theme for Menno kids?

    Comment by Gary — April 7, 2012 @ 10:07 pm

  19. Congratulations to you! What a wonderful honor – sometimes the most unexpected turns in life are the most delicious! Am waiting for your next book, Dr. Wagler.

    Comment by Debra Vida — April 7, 2012 @ 10:12 pm

  20. Congratulations. I quite randomly selected your book and read it with no expectations – but was very moved by it. You took the hero’s journey as Joseph Campbell would have said, one we should all embark on, but really only the truly brave actually do. Thanks for the inspiration.

    Comment by Christina — April 8, 2012 @ 11:49 am

  21. What a wonderful surprise for you! And well deserved. God’s plan for you has taken you to many new places and there are more to come, I suspect. I am happy for you and look forward to hearing where your journey goes from here.

    Comment by Linda Ault — April 8, 2012 @ 5:16 pm

  22. I am in awe of all that God has done in your life! Truly, you never know what is around the next bend in the road. I always like to think if some things don’t go so well that “Well, the book isn’t finished yet.” And so it has been in your life.

    You never would have thought that back in chapter 3 or 4 the joy and unexpected blessings you are experiencing now! Congratulations! And thank you so much for your writing; it has been an inspiration and encouragement. We all look forward to your blogs and definitely your upcoming book! God Bless!

    Comment by Mary S — April 8, 2012 @ 10:22 pm

  23. WOW. Congratulations, Ira.

    Hey, do not forget to let them all know how to get a copy of your book. If you react that this seems crass, remember they are tailgating on your success to splash some honor on them. And, like you say so well, they deserve some credit. But make sure you promote the book, and let them know to look for your next one.

    From spirit to the mechanics of writing, reading what you put out is helpful to me. Promotion of what truly is from and to God’s glory does not have to be self-serving.

    Comment by LeRoy — April 9, 2012 @ 10:51 am

  24. Doctor Wagler. Sounds right!!!

    Comment by Rod Gerig — April 10, 2012 @ 12:40 am

  25. Wow! What an amazing honor! Congratulations to you! That really is quite something. Soak it all in when out there as it’s an honor not many will ever experience!

    Comment by P.J. — April 10, 2012 @ 4:04 pm

  26. Ira, congratulations on your honor! What an accomplishment! Be proud. I bought and read “Growing up Amish,” and really enjoyed it, though I still can’t understand why anyone would leave the Amish. I don’t think this “English” world with all its trappings, stressors, and fast-paced lifestyle is so great. But, I have never been Amish, so I can’t really say. You have been through, conquered, and accomplished much. You are a very strong person.

    Comment by Bev Berger — April 11, 2012 @ 11:26 pm

  27. Congratulations Dr. Wagler!
    What a cool honor… both the honorary doctorate and being #1 on the Wall Street Journal list.
    It’s fun to watch the surprising twists to your story. I wish you all the best and more fun surprises in the future.

    Comment by Janet Oberholtzer — April 18, 2012 @ 6:42 am

  28. Dear Ira,

    I’m laughing out loud right now, because I was one of those who purchased the e-version of your book for my Kindle!!! In fact (though I don’t know); it makes me smile to think that I may very well have been one of the final buyers who put your book on the best seller’s list! Hahaha! And if that’s not the case, that’s okay too. I can say I definitely contributed to your campaign.

    Now then – what I’ve really come here to tell you is this: after reading your book I googled you almost immediately and found your blog…just like that! So I feel compelled to tell you that you really are a gifted writer, indeed! I enjoyed your book immensely, simply because your voice could be heard; a real voice on every page! I mean that! Throughout the entire reading of your book, I felt that you were writing the story and speaking specifically to those who were (and are) an identifiable part of your past…maybe wondering (or perhaps hoping) that they’d read your book one day and finally come to terms with where you were at that time in your life and why you were there -during those ten or so years of searching for THE truth in and out of the Amish faith and life…

    Anyway, thank you for telling your story! I genuinely hope you’ll write another book about your post-Amish existence; your NEW LIFE of freedom and victory found in Christ, and the many blessings He has bestowed upon you since your conversion.

    Take Care and Many Blessings.

    Comment by Naphtali Quisenberry — April 18, 2012 @ 4:45 pm

  29. I too just finished your book, found it at the local library under best sellers. My mom is now reading it. She reads fiction books about Amish people all the time. I suggested she read a “true” story.

    I absolutely loved it…..but I’m interested in your grammar. I want to write my story…..but I get bogged down in grammar….you have many sentences that really aren’t sentences. You know, subject and verb….

    Therefore, I feel there is hope for me and a unique style of writing as well…blessings, Pam in Henan Province, China.

    Comment by Pam Williams — April 18, 2012 @ 8:25 pm

  30. Great to hear from you again! Congratulations on your “Doctorate”. Your experiences in life and how you worked thru them need to be told. GOD’s purpose for you, Ira, is sharing your experiences thru your writing to help others. Thank you, Ira.

    Comment by Warren — April 19, 2012 @ 10:22 am

  31. I just read your blog about going to VU. I remember those days when you would come home and I would not see you until the next day. I was amazed at how you immersed yourself in your classes. Thanks for the phone call tonight and congratulations on the honor you are about to receive. I’m proud to call you my friend.

    Comment by Lyndon — April 25, 2012 @ 10:06 pm

  32. Ira, I read your book and have taken it to church to share with fellow parishoners. Thank you for sharing your life with us! I admire that you are true to the spirit God has given you, and am happy you are reaping the rewards of your work!

    Comment by Vicki Wagenaar — April 30, 2012 @ 1:07 am

  33. I identified strongly with the limitations and the losses of growing up in the culture/family that emphasizes rules and performance at the cost of true relationship and understanding. The acceptance, healing, and freedom in Jesus are amazing truths to be pursued and lived. Thank you for the work required to put so much into words for others to read.

    Comment by GC — May 8, 2012 @ 7:53 am

  34. My God, you’re amazing!

    Comment by Francine — October 30, 2012 @ 10:45 pm

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