With a backbone of Kenyon alumni, a unique book club thrives in Canton

With a backbone of Kenyon alumni, a unique book club thrives in Canton

For cardiologist David J. Utlak '74, the days are packed with consultations with patients, business details that come with being the president and managing physician of a large heart-care center, and duties as an active member of the Ohio State Medical Association's Board of Trustees. Add in his responsibilities as a husband and father, and it seems as if there is little if any time to pursue his scholarly interests in political science, philosophy, and history, whetted during his years at Kenyon.

Yet Utlak and seven other busy professionals in Canton, Ohio, are able to make time to focus on the larger issues in life. In their case, the tie that binds is a book club that brings together the men one evening a month at a Canton restaurant. There, in discussions described as heated yet civil, the members debate the merits of the ideas expressed in books that have ranged from Plato's Republic to Mark Twain's Letters from the Earth.

"What we do in the book club is practice the liberal arts," says Utlak, who helped found the club in 1984. "It's been one of the pleasures of my life."

His sentiments are echoed by James S. Gwin '76 and Gene E. Little '65, the other two Kenyon alumni who are part of the eight-member club. A Stark County Common Pleas judge, Gwin says he likes to think he would make time to read serious books if the club didn't exist, but "it's a great incentive to push through on the material. You know there is a deadline, and you have to have the discipline to finish the book." Adds Little, vice president of finance for the Timken Company, a large manufacturing firm based in Canton, "For me the book club was a welcome reintroduction to a lot of great works. It does force upon me a discipline to read."

Little joined the club about five years ago after a friend invited him to one of the discussions. At the time, he only knew Gwin because of his service as a judge; Little didn't know Utlak at all. That changed quickly, and Little, like others members of the club, began picking up on the political differences between Gwin and Utlak, former teammates on Kenyon's lacrosse team in the early 1970s.

"David is pretty conservative," says Gwin, a Democrat recently nominated by President Clinton for a federal judgeship in northeast Ohio. "I'm a moderate, but I'm a liberal compared to David. Our differences can be viewed as a libertarian belief as opposed to the belief that government has a bigger role in society." Utlak agrees with that assessment, although he chooses the term "free market" to sum up his political philosophy.

That's the sort of intellectual give-and-take Gwin and Utlak envisioned when they formed the book club more than a dozen years ago. The two met for lunch shorty after Utlak arrived in Canton in 1983 to open his cardiology prac-tice. Their discussion eventually touched on their post-Kenyon interests in politics and philosophy and how to stay informed on those subjects. The idea of a book club, modeled after one that once counted Benjamin Franklin as a member, started to take shape.

Today, three of the club's original six members--Gwin, Utlak, and James Bower, a charitable foundation executive--debate books of the day with fellow members Little, attorneys William Sparks and Terry Kessler, neurologist James Reinglass, and business executive Ron Brown. "The attendance has been just unbelievable over the years," says Utlak. "We've missed two months in thirteen years."

Club members tackle serious works of nonfiction, with the titles ranging from classics such as Machiavelli's The Prince and Voltaire's Candide to contemporary books such as James Q. Wilson's The Moral Sense and Zbigniew Brzezinski's The Grand Failure. The Bible and books about the U.S. constitution have also come up for review. "It's great to get into very scholarly interpretations of those texts," notes Little.

The discussions, according to club members, are polite but pointed. "I enjoy the fact that there can be a heated discussion over ideas as opposed to one involving personalities," says Gwin. "It's enjoyable to discuss different beliefs and opinions and to poke holes in each position without getting into personalities." Adds Utlak, "The discussions make you see other people's views. It's a liberal experience in the true sense of the liberal-arts tradition."

The book club's discussions remind Utlak of his days at the College. "The liberal-arts education I had at Kenyon opened my mind to all kinds of new ideas," he says. "It was the start of my life's learning, not the end of it."

In that regard, Utlak, Gwin, and Little say the book club serves as an essential forum from which they can extend their views beyond the sometimes narrow scope of their professions. Utlak believes that reading works by great writers helps him better understand the "human side" of his medical practice. Little relates the readings to his experiences in the world of business and economics. Gwin says that such reading helps him sharpen his perspective on some of the societal problems he sees from his seat on the judicial bench.

Club members sometimes invite authors and scholars to discuss books in their area of expertise. Gwin, Little, and Utlak especially appreciated a visit earlier this year by Professor of Political Science Harry Clor. "That was one of our most enjoyable times," recalls Gwin. "Professor Clor corrected me just like he had in class when I was student at Kenyon--and what he told me made me rethink my previous supposition."

Little says he hopes to convince Kenyon classmate John Gable '65, executive director of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, to join in a discussion of a book about the former president. Little also thinks that forming book clubs is something fellow Kenyon alumni should consider. "I'd encourage people who are active in alumni associations to consider making their association a vehicle to create something like our club," he says. "It's very useful and particularly pertinent to the liberal-arts experience."

--Jeff Bell

Jeff Bell, a freelance writer, is a member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group and a former news director for the College.

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