Students studying outside the library

What Do You Say?

Baccalaureate Address
Wofford College
May 16, 2015
The Rev. Dr. Ron Robinson
Perkins-Prothro Chaplain & Professor of Religion

Class of 2015, when you arrived on this campus, you gathered as a class and were told to look to your left and your right. We told you then that these were the people who would help you through. Today, I am here to remind us that you were told the truth. Congratulations!

As your Chaplain, my role in this moment is to connect us with a sense of the sacred, and encourage you as you transition into a new phase of your life.

When the cornerstone for Main Building was put into place in 1851, Dr. William Wightman said, “The college structure which is to rise in majestic proportions and elegant finish, on this foundation, will combine Temple and Academy: will be sacred at once to religion and letters.” It is that connection, one that has endured and changed across three different centuries, that we acknowledge and celebrate today.

The Baccalaureate service originated in 1432 at Oxford University where each bachelor’s degree candidate to deliver a sermon in Latin as part of his academic exercise. During its earliest years, each Wofford student did a similar thing. Some traditions are worth keeping, but I bet you are glad some have changed. Well, no Latin from me today. But I would like to bring some context to the weekend’s events…

Class of 2015

Class of 2015, the year most of you were born—and that probably seems like a long time ago to you—the year you were born,

  • gas cost $1.16 a gallon, 
  • the Dow Jones Industrial Average was 3654, 
  • the hot films were Jurassic Park, Mrs. Doubtfire, Sleepless in Seattle and Schindler’s List.

This nation was listening to Whitney Houston sing “I Will Always Love You.” It was the first album ever to sell more than 1 million copies in a week.

Prince had just changed his name to a symbol, and became known as “the artist formerly known as Prince.” Billy Joel released his last album

When you came here in the fall of 2011, you arrived on campus listening to Katy Perry and Pitbull, Adele and Bruno Mars, Kendrick Lamar and Lupe Fiasco.

The college hosted a Republican presidential debate in the BenJo and the CBS evening news was broadcast with Old Main providing a stately backdrop.

And during your time here, you won championships, and scholarships and were commissioned as officers and you made friends and you saw relationships fall apart and you failed at some things and you kept getting up… and you are here, today, just hours away from receiving the diploma for which you have worked so diligently.

Class of 1965

We are honored to have some members of the Class of 1965 with us this weekend. Half a century ago you made important connections with the people and the place you remember as Wofford College.

Think back a moment:

  • You came to Wofford in September 1961 with 249 classmates and a newly-reconstructed Main Building and a new Milliken Science Hall.
  • Shipp and DuPre Halls opened, and the student body first grew beyond 1,000 students.
  • You guys—and it was still all guys then—you liked music. For Homecoming, the bands included, The Vibrations, Dr. Feelgood and the Interns, and Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs. 
  • Doris Troy performed the Christmas concert – not long after her hit song “Just One Look”

Top songs your senior year included:

  • The Beatles “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You”
  • Roy Orbison’s “Oh Pretty Woman”
  • The Beach Boys “I Get Around”
  • The Drifters “Under the Boardwalk”
  • The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird”
  • Roger Miller’s “Chug-a-lug”

The business office was still running— listen to this—the Pleasure Fund, and the OG&B—in its 50th year of publication—noted that on afternoons before a fraternity weekend or dance, the business office looked like a loan office!

During your college years:

  • The country had just elected a new president, John F Kennedy. 
  • The Jail-In movement was beginning over in Rock Hill. Freedom Riders were headed to Montgomery and Jackson. 
  • Americans were advised to build fallout shelters, and one was established over the Milliken Science Building
  • By the time you graduated from Wofford you were the first class to graduate from a desegregated Wofford.

Different Worlds

Class of 1965 and Class of 2015, your college experiences occurred in the same place, but the truth is yours are different worlds. And yet, they also live in your world!

I tried to find some connections between the classes:

  • In 1965 Elvis was recording Blue Hawaii, and the year they were born (93) The Post Office issued an Elvis Presly stamp.
  • The Pulitzer Prize went to Harper Lee for, "To Kill a Mockingbird." We thought that was her last book—until this year when we found out that the novel she first submitted will be released this coming July.
  • Then I remembered: Ham, the chimpanzee was the first primate in space the year you left campus (’65), and while you were here JFK announced the goal for landing a man on the moon. This class (’15) met Buzz Aldrin, one of those men who first landed on the moon.

Class of ’15, the Class of ’65 want you to know why they came back this weekend: They are grateful: grateful for the friendships, for their education, for their identity as graduates (alumni) of Wofford College.

Kindergarten

So for just a few minutes, I would like to talk about gratitude.

Some years ago a minister named Robert Fulham wrote a little book entitled Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Perhaps many of you have read it. If he was right, then at this moment you are beginning to question your investment over the past four years. Of course he wasn't completely correct—none of us wants a physician or minister an accountant or teacher with only a kindergarten education. But his point was that some of the important values we learn, we learn very early in life.

Over the past year we've had a four-year-old living in our home and I have found myself teaching him one of the things my parents taught me—and no doubt your parents taught you early on. Whenever someone does something nice for me or gives me something or hands me something I'm supposed to say what? Right, “thank you!” I'm sure I heard from my parents many times, "What do you say?" So I would say to little Mark—after someone did something nice for him, "What do you say?" And he would say—often enthusiastically—though occasionally reluctantly, "Thank you!" It important to say” thank you.” And that's a lesson learned early on that will serve each of us very well all the days of our lives.

Where are the other Nine?

In the Gospel lesson that Justice Pleicones read: It is straightforward—look, Jesus healed 10 lepers. Only one returned and said, “Thanks.” And Jesus said where are the others. Were not 10 healed? Why did only one say thank you? It doesn't say he took their healing away from them, but it does say that he was confused as to why only one would take the time to express gratitude. If I'm perfectly honest I'm a lot like the other nine. And I'll hear the voice of mom and dad saying to me: "what do you say?"

Expressions of gratitude. They are important!

Elie Wiesel says, “When a person doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity.”

Studies show that we can deliberately cultivate gratitude, and can increase our well-being and happiness by doing so. In addition, gratefulness—and especially expression of it to others—is associated with increased energy, optimism, and empathy. Gratitude strengthens relationships, improves health, reduces stress, and, in general, makes us happier.

Traditions

Wofford is known for its many traditions. In fact, over the years, while upholding some traditions, we've rightly moved away from others in order to become better—more welcoming, more hospitable, more inclusive, more fair… We change. The society changes.

The challenge is being able to discern how to make good changes—changes that are true and right and just.

One of the very meaningful Wofford traditions is that immediately following commencement faculty lineup along both sides of Campus Drive to N. Church St. and the new graduates walk through the gauntlet as the faculty applaud with appreciation, with respect and with gratitude. It is a meaningful moment that is often a mixture of joy and laughter and celebration and tears.

Well, I'm very pleased to tell you today that the class of 2015 wishes to begin a new tradition today, at the baccalaureate service, they—the class of 2015 want to form a gauntlet along Campus Drive and they want the faculty and their parents and their families to walk through that gauntlet as they offer their respect and appreciation of gratitude.

So in a few moments as we conclude the service, pay attention to the Marshals. This can be a meaningful wonderful time for us. And then we'll all end up at a reception on the lawn. Thank you class of 2015 for your understanding of the importance of gratitude and for wanting to share your gratitude with those who have cared for you and supported you along the way.

Aesop said “Gratitude is the sign of noble souls.”

A Whale says “Thank You!”

At about 8:30 AM on Sunday, December 11, 2005, when a crab fisherman working the open waters east of the Farallon Islands, about 18 miles off the coast of San Francisco, spotted a whale that had become entangled in the nylon ropes that link crab pots.

The whale was a female humpback, about 50 feet in length and weighing an estimated 50 tons. A rescue team was hastily assembled, and divers evaluated and determined that the whale was so badly entangled in the lines that the only way to save her was to dive beneath the surface and cut the nylon ropes.

Rope was wrapped around the tail, the back and the left front flipper, and there was a line in the whale's mouth. The weight was pulling the whale downward, forcing it to struggle mightily to keep its blow-hole out of the water.

Four divers spent about an hour cutting the nylon ropes with a special curved knife, a risky undertaking since a single flip of the gargantuan mammal's tail could easily have taken out any of them.

Eventually they freed the humpback, a feat that was the first successful attempt on the West Coast to free an entangled humpback.

What happened next is important. The divers told a San Francisco Chronicle reporter that when the whale realized she was free, she began swimming around in circles. She swam to each diver, nuzzled him and then swam to the next one.

One of the divers, James Moskito, said "It felt to me like she was thanking us, knowing that she was free and that we had helped. It stopped about a foot away from me, pushed me around a little bit and had some fun. It seemed kind of affectionate, like a dog that's happy to see you…It was an amazing, unbelievable experience."

Another diver, Mick Menigoz said, "I don't know for sure what she was thinking, but it's something that I will always remember. It was just too cool."

We educated folk know that it's easy for us to anthropomorphize animals, and I suppose we can’t really be sure what the whale meant by her gesture. But we know this story—and this is my point—not because the whale told us a story, but because the divers did.

They were moved by what they understood as an act of appreciation on the part of whale.

Acts of gratitude mean something not just to one who says thanks, but to the one who receives the word or act of gratitude. Gratitude does both parties good!

Alice Walker says, “Thank you is the best prayer that anyone could say.”

So this is really all I want to say today: As you go through life, remember what you learned in kindergarten, and remember what you learned here at Wofford College.

And remember that question: “What do you say?”

Thank You!

Amen.