Opinion: Alumnus Weighs in on Garthwait Resignation

(Photo courtesy of Miranda Harple)

(Photo courtesy of Miranda Harple)

By Chris Roemer ’82

It is impossible to know how many lives Bob Garthwait has impacted for the good because of his generosity and leadership in the forty years since graduating from Gettysburg College.  There are probably very few alumni who have benefitted students to the degree achieved by Mr. Garthwait.  Yet now, because someone recently discovered a picture in his sophomore yearbook, Mr. Garthwait is likely to be remembered not for his altruism, but for a costume he donned for a fraternity party when still a teenager.

I attended Gettysburg College during the same years Mr. Garthwait was there as a student.  As a History Major, I was taught the dangers of judging historical figures through the prism of current standards and mores.  Societal norms change over time, and what was accepted in years past is often considered wrong to subsequent generations.  The rate at which norms are changing today should give all of us pause.  What do we believe today that will be condemned ten years from now?  Twenty years?  Forty years?

By today’s standards, Mr. Garthwait’s choice of costume was clearly offensive.  The fact that it was in the school’s yearbook at all in 1980 suggests it wasn’t considered terribly offensive then.  Should the school be judged today for the choices its students made in 1980?  Should the years of service and financial support provided by Mr. Garthwait be erased by a decision he made four decades ago?  Judging by the attention this matter has raised in recent days it appears many believe the answer to those questions is, yes.

Mr. Garthwait has apologized for a juvenile decision he made a long time ago.  The fact that he has resigned from the college’s Board of Trustees is evidence of his continued concern for the school.  But that’s not enough for some.  It is my understanding there are faculty members pressuring the school to return the donations Mr. Garthwait has made over the years.  For some it seems the kind of person Mr. Garthwait is today is irrelevant.  All that matters is who he was while a student forty years ago.  Even then, Mr. Garthwait was not racist or anti-Semitic, but simply ignorant of why some might find his choice of costume offensive, if not then, forty years after the fact.

This is a teachable moment.  It’s a time for courageous discussion, not retribution.  If Mr. Garthwait is still in the habit of attending costume parties wearing a Nazi uniform, then by all means his name should be dragged through the mud.  If not, we should accept his apology and use his past mistake to educate today’s students.  It seems to me, losing his proven leadership skills by accepting his resignation from Board of Trustees, and draining college resources by returning the significant donations made by Mr. Garthwait over the years will have the opposite effect.  It will feel good to some, though.  Revenge often does.

What are the lessons we want the current generation of students to derive from all of this?

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Author: Gettysburgian Staff

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  1. President Riggs (2009-2018, Out Going President) You are NO Nicki Haley, you seem to get confused from time to time. For example, your (2009/2010) judgement to not take a position (In Favor or Against) the proposed building of a gambling casino in Gettysburg contradicts our institutional values. You heard from alumni, students, and the broader Gettysburg community against building a casino. Yet you did nothing and let the citizenry fight the battle alone. As I expressed to Joe Lynch 10 years ago, you can’t have it both ways. Being a leader and social scientist (Psychology) I can’t fathom your lack of understanding as gambling is an epidemic on college campuses across the county. Maybe you missed the dopamine lecture while at Gettysburg and Princeton due to a theme party!

    Close to the eve of your retirement, an impetuous decision was made against Mr. Garthwait, under your leadership. By now, you have read many responses to the handling of Mr. Garthwait. It took Lincoln less than 24 hours to write the Gettysburg Address and it took you less than 24 hours to write your message. I am much more inspired by Lincoln’s words!

    Many years ago, Professor Charles Glatfelter brought an article to class. His purpose was to show the students the grammatical error a writer had made. The error referred to the “infamous Lincoln.”

    Given the two bookends representing the beginning and end of your tenue, What legacy are you going to leave?

    David Brennan (Current-Chair of the Board of Trustees) I sincerely hope you will bring your well-known sensibilities to the table. As you have expounded may times in the past, you like to be deliberate, move fast and admit that mistakes will happen along the way. The important issue is owning the mistakes and moving forward. Mr. Brennan, please correct a wrong with a right or at the very least have all opinions represented. It seems to me that its much easier to have people on the inside pontificating than having one person tell the truth.

    Peter Wahlers

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  2. The liberal Leviathan eats itself. So be it.

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  3. Mr. Garthwait was dressed as a Nazi character in the sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes”. A show in which the Nazi’s were the butt of the jokes. A show in which several of the actors playing the Nazi’s where themselves Jewish, and had fled Europe in the aftermath of Hitler’s rise to power, including Wener Klemperer (Colonel Klink) and John Barry (Sgt. Shultz). One of the Jewish members of the cast – John Clary (who played Frenchman Cpl. LaBeau) – even survived 3 years in concentration camps (Ottmuth and Buchenwald). They all understood that comedy and the mockery of Nazis and Nazism was a form of resistance, or a way of coping, or celebrating the victory over Nazism. You could have the last laugh. The Nazis were the schmucks in the show.

    I’m going to assume that Mr. Garthwait knew the show, and knew full well that it wasn’t a show celebrating Nazism. Considering his age, he may have watched it when it aired. Certainly he’d have seen it in reruns, because it ran for years in reruns. And Mr. Garthwait would have known that donning the dress of one of the Nazi characters in the show was to assume the role of the dupe, the schmuck, the butt of the jokes, the loser on the losing side. And if he and his frat brothers wanted to dress up as Hogam’s Hero’s, the shtick hardly works without having a few guys dressed as Nazis.

    You know who gets hugely offended by Nazis being made fun of? Actual Nazis and neo-Nazis. They’d be happy, I’d guess, to see someone punished for a mocking portrayal of them, their myths, and their symbols. Way to go, Gettysburg, for siding with that crowd.

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  4. Thank you, Chris Roemer, for breaking this down so perfectly. You couldn’t be more accurate!

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