President Benjamin Dunlap's Commencement Remarks
Sunday, May 19, 2002
My distinguished predecessor Joe Lesesne used to say at this point in the ceremony that the students had decided they would do without a brilliant commencement address this year. Instead, they had asked him to speak. I can't even claim that much, but I can promise that what I have to say will be the briefest of remarks. They have to do with dead languages and living people.
Latin. . . is a useful language for euphemisms and pseudo-profundities. Many institutions, including most colleges and universities, have a Latin motto which, when translated, turns out to be an unexceptional idea in antique guise. But using an ancient tongue can be a way of saying we respect the great tradition of learning that stretches back to classical Rome and beyond, that we stand for values that were true 2,000 years ago and will be just as true 2,000 years from now. That we are, in short, in for the long haul.
Such mottos tend to be pungent but ambiguous. Semper Fidelis declares the Marine Corps, meaning "always faithful." But faithful, exactly, to what?
In the aftermath of the events of last September 11th, Lyndon Harris, a Wofford alumnus who had played a significant role at Ground Zero, returned to Wofford to talk about those harrowing events. In the course of his remarks, he described the frantic concern of firemen and policemen to recover the remains of their comrades, even at the risk of further loss of life. Afterwards, as we were walking from Old Main to join Lyndon Harris at lunch, my wife turned to Ab Abercrombie, a much admired colleague who, as I was vaguely aware, had seen extensive combat in Vietnam. He'd been regular Army, not Marine Corps, but I had heard he went into the enemy tunnels, compared to which the Halls of Montezuma were like health resorts. Not knowing any of this, my wife observed that she'd always had trouble understanding an obsession with recovering bodies, especially if it meant endangering others.
"Well, you know," Ab answered, cocking his head with a quizzical smile that could have been rueful or simply self-deprecating. "They teach you in officer training that, no matter what, you never leave anyone behind, dead or alive. When they told us that, I was fairly skeptical. Why would an officer put himself and his men in harm's way just to rescue a corpse? I figured if it came to that I probably wouldn't, though I kept that thought to myself." He paused to glance in our direction as we walked down the slope behind Dupre. "But then one time in Vietnam I found myself in a truly awful place, where I was ordered to take my men to retrieve a couple of bodies. I thought enough people had died that day already and I was on the verge of refusing. But I did what I was told, and, when I got there and found a body. . . he was alive." Ab paused again as we neared the Campus Life Building. "He looked up at me and said, 'I knew you'd come."
As we walked past the pool tables and trophy cases, I could feel the hair standing up on the back of my neck. I'd never heard Ab say this much about his time in Vietnam, and I thought I understood it and him a little better. But I also understood that, Marine Corps or not, a motto like Semper Fidelis means what the actions of Ab and others like him have made it mean. Every such act invests the phrase in whose name it is done with a meaning that transcends clichés. "Always faithful." Always.
So I ask you to consider for a moment: Intaminatis fulget honoribus. "It shines with untarnished honor--a phrase from a poem by Horace that not one in a thousand recent students has ever read. And what does it mean? The college, right? Wofford shines with untarnished honor. But what precisely is the college? Its buildings? Its faculty, its staff, its students, its alumni? All of these, and, at this moment, most especially you, those who in this year 2002 are students just minutes away from becoming alumni, who will leave these cherished grounds for battlefields of one sort or another, where you will, through your actions, invest that motto with meaning. The world is full of bodies, many of them alive: leave none of them behind.
That plea might mean many things, especially to many among you who've worked in community service programs during your years at Wofford -- but for all of us, like our Latin motto, it's most certainly a way of saying we respect the great tradition of learning stretching back to classical Rome and beyond, and we embrace the values it expresses that were true 2,000 years ago and will be just as true 2,000 years from now. Shining with untarnished honor might be merely an empty boast, a vapid bit of rhetoric. But not if honor is consistently and explicitly your guide. I think you can let the shining take care of itself, and, if you truly keep the faith, there need be no fear of tarnishing. To Shakespeare's Falstaff, honor was just a word, a puff of air. To Lyndon and Ab and many others with whom you've lived and learned over the past four years, honor is doing what must be done -- because it is right. If there is anything you carry with you after four years of hearing that motto repeated, I trust it is that.
So, then, you sons and daughters of Ben, Wofford's honor is in your hands. There you sit like an Army of the Just, glittering in your ranks, about to march away together through the gates and out into the world. Take that honor with you like a banner into the field, the office, the courtroom, the operating theater. Reaffirm the import with which your predecessors have endowed it. Burnish it with your lives, and shine, shine untarnished.
Intaminatis fulget honoribus. It is your turn to give it meaning.