Celebrating Walla Walla

By George Bridges
August 10, 2006


Just a year ago.

On its surface, my first year in Walla Walla as president of Whitman College seems to have flashed by. Yet, when I take time to reflect, strong impressions and emotions about this town—our town, I want to call it now—rise to the surface. Walla Walla and its sense of community, I can already say, is positively part of who I am now.

It’s not simply the newness of the place for me. It’s that the big horizon here seems so filled with clarity and possibility, and the community so brimming with goodwill, intelligence and enterprise.

I see almost endless wheat fields, hearty vineyards and colorful produce stands. I see whimsical sculpture on downtown streets, talented chefs in restaurant kitchens, and creatures of every kind on bicycle rides along Mill Creek. The latter adventure points up another benefit of life in Walla Walla: You can ride your bike anywhere here—day or night, city street or country road.

Difficult though it is, I have to confess that a certain trepidation followed my family and me to Walla Walla from Seattle. How would we like a small, relatively isolated town after a lifetime in big, entertaining cities? As president of a prestigious college with a large presence in a small community, would I feel comfortable or conspicuous?

I also wondered if Walla Walla would like me. As much as I felt I was the right person to lead Whitman, was I right for the community as well? The question was crucial to me because Whitman, unlike many private schools in the country, is so connected to its town, from the school’s beginnings with Walla Walla in the 19th century to the community’s ethic of inclusiveness and strong tradition of service.

A year later, I ask myself: “What could I possibly have been thinking?” The pool of talented people here—growers, painters, harvesters, sculptors, scholars, lawyers, doctors, installers, owners—is remarkable, and not simply in the context of a small town in the far corner of a big state. Walla Walla is filled with people who’ve succeeded, here and in major metropolitan environments. Like me, they’ve chosen to be here, or return here, because they can enjoy the best of two worlds: a high standard of goods and services, and a simple but active life in a vibrant community.

In my day-to-day activities, I find friendliness everywhere. Walla Wallans, I’m struck by your conviviality, honesty, ethos of hard work, and commitment to a common good. Your pride in Walla Walla is reflected in the renaissance downtown and in the neighborhoods. How opposite the spirit of this community is to the “been-there-done-that” disengagement that so often typifies larger communities.

Whitman is an integral part of this community, of course, and it is a priority of the school to continue to build on that relationship. We are a private institution with a public presence and mission in Walla Walla. Let me cite one example. As you read this column, the Whitman Institute for Summer Enrichment (WISE) is taking place on our campus. The WISE program is specially designed to prepare low-income and minority middle-school students from the Walla Walla area for a Whitman-like college experience. It is one of several programs that we intend to offer and develop in strengthening our ties to this wonderful community.

Beyond my own happiness here, I can report that my wife, Kari, and our two children, Anna and James, love this place. Kari feels the sense of place that I do on her bike rides and various explorations of Walla Walla. Our kids value the challenging classes they’ve found in their respective schools, and the great variety of sports and recreational activities they enjoy outside the classroom.

In a corridor of Penrose Library at Whitman, there is a series of artworks by retired professor Keiko Hara that speak to the growing attachment I feel to Walla Walla. The shaping theme of the paintings is maru, or “circle.” There are no endpoints in the work. Each image is open-ended yet unified by an inclusive form.

I feel a circle of community in Walla Walla—a bond with no endpoints, only a tremendous sense of possibility. Best of all, my family and I feel that we’re part of this community because of your warm welcome and generous spirits.

For that, we thank you deeply. Thank you for counting us as a part of this special place.