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“Who We Are and What We Believe”

Commencement Adress 2012
Dr. Benjamin B. Dunlap
 

The campus itself seems not only alive but sentient on a morning like this—so that I can’t help wondering, as I gaze out over so many familiar faces, whether you graduating seniors have ever asked yourselves. . . what it must be like to be one of these majestic trees under which you’ve passed back and forth over the course of your four years here at Wofford? I realize that’s a very flakey question, like asking whether you’ve ever thought of yourself as floating in a bowl of Captain Crunch or strutting about in crimson robes on a beautiful May morning. But I myself, as I strut about in crimson robes, can easily imagine one of our stately ginkgos shaking its leaves and muttering to itself, “There he goes, and he’s late for class again!” while the Weeping Katsura croons, “Here she comes back from breakfast at Burwell, and just look at what she’s wearing today!” And then one morning—like tomorrow, for example—one of the callow young dogwoods looks around and asks, “Hey, where’d they all go? What happened to all the students?” At which the old magnolia sighs, “Graduated. It happens every year. You’ll get used to it in time.”

But, of course, those of us who’ve been similarly rooted here for twenty or thirty years never do get used to it. We’re feeling all the usual emotions—glad you’re about to get your diplomas, sad to see you moving on. And I have to confess that, as one of those semi-permanent campus fixtures, my own emotions are even more mixed than usual because, as I announced just a couple of days ago, I too will graduate in another year. . . with the Wofford Class of 2013. So I’m sharing some of the excitement and apprehension that you seniors feel about what’s coming next.

You’re heading off to jobs and further study, and so am I in a way. I plan to devote more time to my commitments here and abroad and to sharpening my skills at the game of sepak takraw which I have sadly neglected during my dozen years as president. And, of course, if I’m ever going to get serious about Australian Rules Football, the time is clearly now—or it will be by the end of the next academic year. I should add that, unlike you, I plan to return after a sabbatical leave to resume my role as the Chapman Family Professor in the Humanities, but you too will be coming back again and again as Wofford alumni, and, one day, as I pointed out yesterday, you really will sit here again in robes as fifty-year veterans, come back to lead your grandchildren’s generation out into the world. I can assure you that your honor guard this morning remembers what you’re feeling now as if it were yesterday.

So it’s not too early for you and me to be sure we agree on what it means to count ourselves among those who’ve been so deeply marked by their time at Wofford College. Times will change with incredible swiftness, and, even now, the college is entering upon another long-term planning process that will redefine its character and its mission. There will, of course, be a national search for my successor, and, quite possibly, someone of great ability and distinction but little acquaintance with Wofford will be standing here year after next—with her own ideas to be sure, but dependent on what you users and providers have to say regarding what we’ve been and what we hope to be.

Let me begin an answer that you and many others will be asked to amplify.

First of all, we are what we have been, a superb residential liberal arts college dedicated to “the unfettered pursuit of knowledge and the creative search for truth.” That last phrase is the work of Don Fowler, who graduated, as you are doing today, some 55 years ago, leaving his jersey hung forever in the rafters of Ben Johnson Arena, going on to a distinguished career in politics and communications which included a stint as the National Chairman of the Democratic Party and returning, out of sheer loyalty, to serve during a large part of my presidency as Wofford’s director of Marketing & Communications. In many respects, especially those of loyalty, versatility, and passionate conviction, he is a model for all of us.

But there have been many others, beginning with Ben Wofford himself—a Methodist minister whose mistakes in life included owning other human beings as if they were property and whose virtues were those of a skinflint as well as a shrewd investor. . . but who, on his deathbed, in consultation with a fellow minister H.A.C. Walker, decided to found a college “spreading, working, increasing in power and goodness through the ages” and, in that last-minute act of generosity and vision earned the gratitude of many generations. It’s not my intention to condescend to our great benefactor, but—in my mind, at least, he stands as a constant reminder that it’s never too late to redeem whatever we might regret. . . a thought that, actuarially speaking, is more immediately relevant to me than it is at this moment to you. But I would also call your attention to the role of Hugh Andrew Crawford Walker who, having been born in County Antrim, Ireland, made his way improbably to Spartanburg, he where was ordained as a Methodist minister and was named in Ben Wofford’s will as one of our original trustees. It was in his memory that, at the beginning of my presidency, his descendants restored the bell than rings above our heads today; and its message, if Wofford and Walker could give it one, is surely captured in those words that the latter proposed to the former as he lay on the threshold of eternity and that I should repeat—as we do each time the Wofford Prayer is uttered: “Why not found a college. . . spreading, working, increasing in power and goodness through the ages?” Let that eloquent aspiration too ever be part of our watchword.

And, as we take stock in the coming year and a half, I trust it will be obvious to all that, though we’ve grown in numerous ways since those early beginnings, that noble intent of spreading, working, increasing in power and goodness is directed not merely at the college as an ongoing institution, but to each of us—to students, faculty, staff, alumni, trustees, all who know and love what Wofford is and has been. To be sure, there have been difficult episodes in the years since that deathbed conversation, and, on occasion, exigencies have required some hard decisions. Salaries have gone unpaid in the darkest of days, positions have been eliminated, and over the past few years we have steered adroitly through some turbulent seas. But as was said first by another man-of-the-cloth whose life overlapped with Ben Wofford’s, “Ships are safe in the harbor. . . but that’s not what ships are for.” The creative search for truth does not involve mere platitudes, and one cannot grow and spread without incurring risks. What is crucial is never forgetting our goal of “increasing in power and goodness,” and assuring those like you as you leave these leafy precincts that you are indeed part of a never-ending Army of the Just marching forth into the world to make it a better, fairer, happier place.

Nonetheless, we should pause in the midst of this morning’s celebration to remember those who gave and gave until they could give no more—or who, in some instances, were told that what they had to give was no longer among the things most needed by the college—or who gave without being asked if, in fact, they wanted to give. . . like the builders of Old Main. We must remember to take care of one another—all of us, of every race, creed, gender, and persuasion—and, when hard decisions are required, we must keep that principle alive in the name of all those who’ve gone before us, giving so much to Wofford and to us.

Some of the names are familiar: James Carlyle and Henry Nelson Snyder, leaders who had also taught in the classroom and who, whatever their roles at the college, remained true teachers to the end; Lewis Jones, the patron saint of all who subscribe to the belief that true scholarship and great teaching are in every sense compatible; Joab Lesesne, Dan Maultsby, Mike Ayers, who live the lessons they have preached; Roger Milliken, Mike Brown, Ed Reeves, and Jerry Richardson, whose munificence has matched and even exceeded that of our Founder; Mike James, one of our own whom we honor today, and Sandor Teszler, who came to us from afar and who, by his presence and example, made us better and braver. The roll call of Wofford’s saints and heroes is long and majestic, and their memory casts its shade like these noble trees around us, adding new women and men each year—new students, staff, professors, and trustees who understand explicitly that teaching and learning are the essence of what we do, that a broad-based liberal arts curriculum is the surest preparation for a truly successful career in the world beyond our gates, and that the ultimate meaning of life lies not merely in practical skills, but in knowing who we are and what we believe and having the courage to live accordingly.

These are among the things we stand for today as we have for well over a century and a half. You graduating seniors embody these ideas. They live in you this morning as surely as they tumbled out of the mind of H.A.C. Walker so many years ago—and, if all those who have gathered here to applaud you have done the job they intended, those ideas will be part of you forever and we a part of each other. Now it’s on to wondrous new beginnings, to mornings that churn with business, law, and medicine. . . to evenings with Shakespeare, Bach, and Lady Gaga. . . to long, ferocious weekends of sepak takraw and Australian Rules Football.

And, amidst all that, an assurance of who we are and what we believe and the courage to live accordingly. May the God whose benevolent concerns include each tree and leaf on this planet and every living thing, bless you all for that on this beautiful spring morning.