Barb and I decided it would be a good thing to raise our family in church although, at that time, neither one of us had had an experience with God. We had been attending church since we had gotten married in April, 1961. Having deep admiration for our local Methodist minister, I thought the ministry might be a desirable profession. I talked with him and took some tests which seemed to suggest that a career in serving people would be well suited for me. These personality and vocational tests indicated that my abilities would also be well suited for the legal profession or psychology or a counseling career. My highest scores were in social work of some kind.
Armed with this knowledge, Barb and I decided that I should go back to college, starting all over, and prepare for the ministry. According to my test scores, this seemed to be the profession that best covered all of my strengths. The Methodist church had a saying on its letterhead from the department for potential ministers that read, “Where the line of your abilities crosses the line of the world’s need, there is Gods call for you.” Little did I realize, then, that I would have real problems with this view. However, after talking to our minister and taking his counsel, we decided that Kendall Jr. College, in the heart of Northwestern University and close to Garrett Seminary, would be an ideal place to resume my education.
I already had about two years of college credit in Physical Educations—some at The University of Illinois, before and after three years in the Army. Both times there, I had treated school as a lark; and, though passing some courses, I had basically blown off school. I later attended a great P.E. school in Lacrosse, Wisconsin; but after one semester, I left school and went to California with a buddy returning home about a year later. (On that trip, I met Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in Las Vegas; but that’s another story.)
After returning home, I was working at an NBC television station in Rockford, Illinois, when I met Barbara at a summer theatre; and life began to settle down. Within less than a year we had married. It’s at this time that a peculiar event took place. Barb and I realized if I were going to go back to school, we would have to move into Evanston, Illinois, and that she might have to work to help me through school. I had hoped to get my G.I. Bill reinstated, but knew I would also have to work to get through school. We decided I should spend a day in Evanston and find out what it would take for me to get back into school.
By this time, we had our first daughter, Rebecca, who was about two months old. One very cold January morning in early 1962, I went into Evanston to try to accomplish three things: to get accepted in school, to find a place to live, and to get a job. That was a pretty big order for one day, but we didn’t know any better at that time. I left around 5 a.m. The outside temperature was zero. My little Ford started, defrosted the windows, and spit our minimal hear with great difficulty. We lived about 90 miles from Evanston. As I crossed the river and drove out East State Street toward the toll way, I wondered if I wasn’t really a bit crazy. Me, a minister! It also hit me that I had bitten off quite a lot to accomplish in one day.
I paid my toll and headed for Evanston that cold, bright, sunny day. Everything seemed so still along the road, like the world was frozen. The rising sun was glorious, but I had to squint to see the road ahead. I had passed the exit to Elgin and had driven perhaps a mile or two further when the strangest thing happened. There was little traffic on the road in either direction, and I had a feeling of isolation. It was a feeling of being closed in and, yet, being watched; it seemed eerie and exciting at the same time. I was clearly awake when I noticed about a mile down the toll way that the end of a beautiful full rainbow had settled down on a large out-building of a farm. At the same time, across the road, I saw the other end of the same rainbow, just as brilliant and full. It filled a small grove of trees with luminous colors. Then, in an instant, the rest of the arching part of the rainbow appeared; as if someone had gently placed the two ends of it down first and then placed the middle part onto the two colorful posts. It stretched over the highway and I could see the whole thing. It was a full, beautiful rainbow with colors I could not even begin to describe. As I drove nearer, I felt as though I was going to pass through a colorful tunnel, as it seemed to come closer to the sides of the toll way, as well as diminish in height. The colors were brilliant and never changed as I approached. Within 30 to 45 seconds the rainbow was on both sides of the car and moving right along with it. It seemed that perhaps another 30-45 seconds passed, with the rainbow and the car just moving along together. Soon, however, the rainbow was only on my side of the toll way. I was about to freak out when the colors swarmed into the car filling it up with a hemorrhage of colors. There were colors of all kinds, filling the interior of the car, cascading back and forth across the dashboard and windshield. I was shaking, wondering what the hell was going on. I recall I couldn’t hear the car engine at all and that I was choking the steering wheel. This lasted for about another 30-45 seconds and then, instantly, it disappeared. I remember wondering how could there be such a rainbow on such a clear day. To say that I was befuddled is an understatement. I had never seen such a clear rainbow in my life, either after or during a rainstorm.
I slowly regained my senses, even though they had been on overload. I looked around to see if anyone else was on the toll road, going in either direction, that might also have seen the rainbow; but I was utterly alone, not a car in sight as far as I could see. My heartbeat slowly returned to normal, but it must have taken about 15 minutes. Only then did I begin to think about what had happened. As I thought about the incident, I became deeply aware of a joy and confidence concerning my trip. It was as though I knew something before any of it had happened, and that everything was going to be fine, so I could just sit back and enjoy the trip.
I settled back and soon found my way to Evanston and Kendall Junior College. Pulling up in front of the school, I noticed it wasn’t open; so I parked right in front and left the motor running, to stay warm, and continued to wonder what was going on.
Barbara later told me after I left she had been awakened and, to use her words, had prayed for God’s help, for the first time in her life, really crying out to God in a way that surprised even her. As I sat in the car, pondering the morning’s events and the emotion that coursed through me, I somehow knew everything was going to be all right. All I had to do was walk through the doors that would be opened for me. It was as if I had intelligence from another source and I needed to heed it. I also knew I was free to disregard it. I was choosing to follow these emotions when a car pulled up behind me and a distinguished man and in his late fifties or early sixties got out. He nodded and proceeded to the front door of the College, opening the door and going in.
Soon afterwards, the inside lights went on, and he returned to unlock the front door. Only then did he acknowledge me and gesture for me to come in. I quickly shut off the car and bounced up the sidewalk as he graciously held the door open for me, put out his hand, and said “It sure is cold this morning, isn’t it?” I responded affirmatively, and he went on to tell me he would have a cup of coffee for both of us in a few minutes. I sat down in the foyer as he went back into his office. About five minutes later he poked his head out of his office door, asking if I needed cream or sugar. I said, “No,” and soon he was walking out with two cups of steaming coffee. Sitting down beside me, he said his name was Wesley Westerberg. I introduced myself and proceeded to tell him why I was there. He seemed very interested and soon I was telling him about my desire to re-enter college, and that this time I wanted to learn something. He said he had met many older men and women coming back to school who had greater motivation for learning, especially those with a family. When I agreed, he invited me to come into his office. It was only then that I noticed on the door, “Dr. Wesley M. Westerberg, President.” He graciously offered me a seat and said he would love to help me out. I had told him all I wished to accomplish in one day: getting accepted in school, getting a job and finding a place for my family to live. He smiled and said he thought that would be no problem at all. He gave me some papers to fill out concerning registration for the next semester, which was due to start in two weeks. He then looked through his file and directed me to go to the Methodist Board of Lay Activities and speak to a man there whom he knew. Afterward, I was to go to a certain address and see a man about a place to live. I filled out the papers and gave them to him, telling him I would return as soon as possible. He gave me directions for both places and bid me goodbye, saying he hoped to see me soon.
By this time it was well after 8 a.m. and I was on my way to the Board of Lay Activities. As I walked in, a small, black man greeted me with a smile and another cup of coffee. I told him who had sent me and soon I was filling out a job application. He looked at it and said I could start as soon as I moved to Evanston. He also said he could work around any class schedule I might have. Then I left, saying to myself that sure was easy.
I then drove to Forest Avenue, which was one block off Lake Michigan and a street of really nice homes. I drove into the driveway of the address Dr. Westerberg had given me and knocked at the front door. An elderly man in his early seventies or so answered and invited me in. I told him my story and how I had gotten his name when he stood up, smiled, and said, “Come on. Let me show you something!” We walked through his lovely home and out the back door where I saw a three-car garage with some upstairs windows. He opened the garage and we passed through an inside door which led to the stairs. These stairs led to a lovely apartment, with a big kitchen, two bedrooms, a full bath and a living room overlooking the driveway and back yard. It was partially furnished but he said that he would remove anything I didn’t need if I wished to use my own furniture. He couldn’t help noticing that I was stunned and standing there, speechless. After a few moments he asked if the apartment would work out for me. I said it was wonderful but I didn’t know if I could afford it. He smiled and said that if I would be a kind of gardener and mow and keep the place looking nice, I could have it rent free. He would even pay the utilities. He went on to say that he thought it might take eight to ten hours a week to keep it up, but that my studies must always come first.
I was still standing there, numb, asking if I had heard him correctly. Unsure I had understood him, I repeated everything as I had heard it–eight to ten hours a week, keeping the lawn mowed and the beds weeded, watered, and cultivated and shoveling the snow in the winter. He assured me that was all, except that from time to time he might ask my wife to type some letters for him; but that wouldn’t be often at all, and she would be able to spend her time taking care of the baby and me. He put out his hand and asked when I could move in. I said I hoped to be able to do so in about ten days, since school started in two weeks. He said, “Great!” and escorted me down the stairs and then down the driveway to my car, telling me to let him know when we would arrive so he could make sure the heat was on. I said I certainly would, and thanked him profusely as he waved and walked back into his house.
I sat momentarily in the driveway, shocked. I was to learn later that he was Harry Wells, the former Bursar of Northwestern University. He had also been head of the Quartermaster Corps in the First World War and was a leading member of a Methodist Church in Evanston. Harry Wells was well-known for his wisdom and generosity.
I drove slowly back to Kendall College, my head swirling at what had happened. I parked and made my way into the Administration Building. I sat down to gather my wits when a tall, middle-aged man with a kind looking face spotted me and asked if I was the Vet who was wanting to get into school the next semester? I told him I was, indeed, a vet and I did want to get into school the next semester. He came over to the bench I was sitting on and, grasping my hand leading me around the corner and into his office. The sign on the door read, “Dean of Admissions and Dean of Men.” He stepped behind his desk while offering me a cup of coffee since it was very cold out. I said, “Yes,” and soon his secretary brought us both a cup of coffee. He looked over my admissions papers and, smiling, said, “Welcome to Kendall College. I look forward to getting to know both you and your wife.” I said, “You mean I’m accepted?” He said, “Yes,” excusing himself for a meeting he had to attend. His parting words were for me to finish my coffee and let myself out.
All alone in his office, I sat back as a deep desire to cry for joy rose within me; and I had to fight back the tears.” What is going on?” I asked myself, looking at my watch and seeing that it wasn’t even 10:00 a.m.
As I finished my coffee and walked out of the office toward the front door, I heard a voice behind me call out, “Thomas, I hope everything has been worked out?” I turned and saw Dr. Westerberg and assured him it certainly had and told him how grateful I was for his help. He smiled and waved goodbye. I walked to my car and, starting the engine, sat, amazed with what had happened in less than two hours. I was accepted in school. I had a job at a great wage. I had a beautiful apartment, rent and utility free. Now, all I had to do was move from Rockford and begin school.
As I drove out of Evanston, I recalled all that had happened from the rainbow, the colors, Dr. Westerberg, the Dean, Mr. Wells, and my new boss at the Methodist Board of Lay Activities. Back home before noon, I tried to explain to Barbara all that had happened in so short a time. She listened excitedly. When I had finished, she told me that a strange thing had happened to her early in the morning after I left. She told me about being awakened and praying with fierce sincerity. After her prayer, she had gone back to sleep and slept soundly for a couple of hours and then awoke with a peace and joy, free from any anxiety about the future, school, or moving.
So began a journey that has gotten, “curiouser and curiouser” and “funnier and funnier” and “joyfuller and joyfuller” over the years. It has been an adventure Barbara and I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy, even in these later years of our lives.
The faithfulness of God, especially during the beginnings of a life of faith, is beyond words to describe. I have recalled the things we believed, only to find out how “off-center” our thinking and understanding were; and, yet, God never “beat up on us” so to speak. He, rather, “smiled” and said, “Come on, children, there is so much more in this great and eternal journey and lamenting is of little, if any, value. Just remember that I am God and you are the children, and I won’t be overly distressed at your learning curve!” Both Barbara and I have found that we were much harder on ourselves than God ever was. In these later years we are far less concerned with our success or failure to hear and respond to God. Instead we have chosen to just be our true selves before him, and let Him work out the details.
A final note about Dr. Westerberg: When I left Kendall College, he called me into his office and gave me a three-volume set of The Life and Times of John Wesley. The books had originally been published in 1872 and were a great gift, for which I continue to be thankful.