Wading through literature

There are two leather armchairs in Dr. David and Dr. Crystal Downing’s office. They are positioned in front of a window which overlooks the front yard of the Marion E. Wade Center. On an overcast day last week, with the sky spitting raindrops, I sat in one of them next to Crystal while David pulled over a chair from behind the large desk to join our conversation. In this green-carpeted office, surrounded by bookcases holding various volumes written by or about the Wade’s seven authors, the Downings were clearly in their element.

“The other day I was having a geeky conversation … about [whether] Tolkien visualized elves as having pointy ears,” David said, laughing. “Those are the [kinds] of discussions we get into over here on this side of the street.”

“This side of the street” is an unfamiliar place to most Wheaton students, who have perhaps heard that the Wade Center houses “the Narnia wardrobe” but know little else about the English-style manor at the corner of Washington and Lincoln streets.

As the Wade Center’s new co-directors, the Downings seek to change that. “We’ve only been on the job a little over two months, and [already] we’ve met a couple who flew in from Ireland [to visit the Wade Center] because they had just recently discovered C.S. Lewis, and a woman who flew from Romania and is wanting to start a C.S. Lewis center [there],” Crystal said.

“These people all over the world are recognizing what this place has to offer, and it’s kind of ironic because a lot of students right across the street have no idea that it’s here.”

The Downings are transplants from Calif. by way of Pa. Crystal, whose PhD is from the University of California at Santa Barbara, taught English and film studies at Messiah College for over two decades, while David worked as a professor of English at neighboring Elizabethtown College.

The Downings met as undergraduates at Westmont College and are noted scholars on two Wade Center authors: Dorothy Sayers (Crystal) and Lewis (David). The Wade’s unique and expansive collection of resources — a wealth of unpublished letters by the seven authors, original manuscripts, books from their personal libraries and scholarly literature written about them — drew the Downings to visit the Wade Center for research in 1994.

The Wade Center was started by Wheaton English professor Clyde S. Kilby in 1965 as a “C.S. Lewis Collection.” The other six authors — J.R.R. Tolkien, Sayers, Owen Barfield, G.K. Chesterton, Charles Williams and George MacDonald — are all writers that Lewis either knew or read extensively.

Today, the Wade Center serves 12,000 visitors each year through lectures, an open reading room, community events and support for research surrounding the seven authors.

Walking into the Wade feels a bit like entering an English cottage, perhaps one in which Lewis or Tolkien would have smoked a pipe and scrawled out manuscripts. The rich colors of the Downings’ office — green carpet, dark wood — are present in every room, and the glass-doored bookcases make recurring appearances throughout the building.

When the Downings first visited, David had already written one book on Lewis. “Planets in Peril: A Critical Study of C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy” was published in 1992 and born out of a fascination with Lewis which started during David’s undergraduate years at Westmont College.

“[At Westmont] I had the classic faith crisis where I felt like my conservative upbringing was not intellectually satisfying,” he said. “I realized that my church wasn’t giving broad enough or thoughtful enough answers to my questions. So when I read ‘Perelandra’ by C.S. Lewis in college, I thought, ‘Oh, here’s a much more expansive way to express my faith, a more intellectually satisfying way.’”

“Lewis kept David from losing his faith in college,” Crystal nodded as we sat in our armchairs. “I wouldn’t say Lewis kept me from losing my faith,” David interjected.

“I’d say the Lord kept me from losing my faith, but Lewis was the instrument.” Both Downings laughed. “Better theology that way,” David added. While David’s interest in Lewis initiated the Downings’ first visit to the Wade Center, Crystal was curious about the collection of Sayers, the only female author archived at the Wade Center.

Crystal eventually received the Clyde S. Kilby grant from the Wade Center to further her research on Sayers and published her first book,“Writing Performances: The Stages of Dorothy L. Sayers,” in 2004. In the decades that followed, both David and Crystal continued to publish about their respective authors of interest and come back to the Wade.

“I like to say [that] you’ll come for the books and you’ll stay for the people,” David said. He began listing off the names of the librarians and administrators who make the Wade tick. “Marge Meade, Laura Schmidt—” “Everyone on the staff is fantastic,” Crystal concurred. “Smart, hard-working. I’ve never been surrounded by a group of people that work so hard, and it’s because they all believe in what this center offers and what it can do.”

With their enthusiasm for the work of the Wade, the Downings fit in well with that group. After the retirement of former director Christopher Mitchell in 2013, the Wade staff began to suggest to the Downings the possibility of making Wheaton their home. In this scenario, one of the two would become the director of the center.

At the time, the Downings were still teaching in Pa. “Her college was always knocking my college out of the national playoffs, so I stopped telling people where my wife worked,” joked David. “When they talked to me about [being director] I said, ‘Yeah, but Crystal’s so happy at Messiah.’ And when the Wade staff talked to Crystal she said, ‘Yeah, but David is so happy at Elizabethtown.’”

If one professor took the position, it would mean uprooting the other from fulfilling work in order to move to Wheaton. A similar conflict had caused the Downings to move from Calif. to Pa. upon completion of their doctorates: finding career tracks for two PhDs in the same place — especially when many higher education institutions do not hire spouses in the same department — is a challenge.

Then, a little over a year ago, the idea of being co-directors came under discussion. “And we both said, ‘Huh, that’s something,’” David recalls. “I think that was what clinched the deal. We liked working with people at the Wade, but we needed that two-career strategy.”

As co-directors, Crystal and David will share scholarly and administrative responsibilities. They envision the Wade remaining a prominent scholarly destination with international reach, as well as attracting a growing number of local Wheaton College students by revealing the continued relevance of its seven authors.

“One of our principles is to talk about ‘The Seven Plus,’” Crystal said. “We have seven authors here, but how have these authors generated other forms of creativity? … It’s important to assess where our culture is going and show how these authors are still relevant to contemporary culture, and not just in the arts, but in terms of political issues, about the questions that people are grappling with today, about vicious attacks against Christianity.

How would those attacks today be handled by these brilliant authors in the past? They can help us think through these issues.” The Downings hope to host more workshop events in which students can meet with contemporary authors and artists to learn more about their creativeand professional processes.

They will also speak in classes across disciplines and hope to engage the campus in regular conversation about the Wade authors and their influence. “We want to stress that it’s a living legacy,” David said. “This is not a mausoleum where you come visit the manuscripts of dead authors, but their ongoing inspiration.”

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