After 37 years at Wheaton as professor of English — including 4 years as vice-chair of the faculty, and 16 years as dean of humanities and theological studies — Jill Baumgaertner is retiring. She has also acted as advisor to Kodon, hosted the Writing and Literature Conference, coordinated the Literary Writing Contest and directed Wheaton in England. In addition to her work on Wheaton’s campus, Baumgaertner is a published scholar and poet, and has served as the president of the Conference on Christianity and Literature.
Throughout her Wheaton career, Baumgaertner has seen Wheaton grow and change in many ways. She was the third female dean hired at Wheaton and has seen the female faculty population grow from 19 to 35 percent: “It is not where it should be, but we have made a bit of progress over the past 20 years,” she said. In addition, Baumgaertner has witnessed the camaraderie between the female faculty grow since the 1980s, when the female faculty “were scattered across campus,” making it difficult to interact. She feels fortunate to have had both professor of English emeritus Beatrice Batson and professor of English Sharon Coolidge to work with in the English department.
Baumgaertner said that she has also watched Wheaton grow in the integration of faith and learning. “My real education came in the Wheaton classroom where I experienced a freedom I had never had before — to connect faith and intellect.” Baumgartner remembered that in her early years at Wheaton, the Bible and theology department was not the center of academics. She attributes the shift within the last 20 years to an emphasis on historical and systematic theology, which connects all disciplines and led to the new “Christ at the Core” curriculum, which bears the name that she invented. This idea is “an enormous contribution that Wheaton is making not just to the evangelical world but to the entire Christian world,” according to Baumgaertner.
Besides her work on the campus as a dean, Baumgaertner has also impacted the lives of individual faculty members and her students. According to former student turned Wheaton professor of Christian thought Timothy Larsen, Baumgaertner, “brings grace and dignity to every occasion and situation. When I was a Wheaton undergrad a student committed suicide and Baumgartner’s open, emotional honesty helped me learn how to grieve.” Larsen praised her as “an outstanding teacher and mentor of students and a beautiful and profound poet and writer.”
While Baumgaertner taught one student to grieve, she taught another former student of hers, Wheaton associate professor of German Clint Shaffer, to laugh. “She has a keen wit and a wonderful — and occasionally irreverent — sense of humor,” he said. Shaffer described dinners at her home in Chicago watching tricks from her dogs, Luther and Katie, and playing “goofy parlor games.”
He said, “Thanks to Dr. Baumgaertner, Wheaton has been a merrier place — and believe me, that’s no small thing.”
After she retires, Baumgaertner plans to travel to Russia, Madrid and Italy where she will teach a class on Ekphrastic Poetry, while also enjoying her home in Greektown, Chicago. There she will continue to write, remain poetry editor of “The Christian Century” and stay involved in the lives of her four grandchildren. However, Baumgartner says, “I will miss this singular community of scholars of faith and earnest, truth-seeking students,” and “my friends — both the newer faculty and those whose friendship stretches back over many years … I feel so privileged to have been a small part of Wheaton’s history.”