Books and Bells

Remarks of Welcome to New Students and Parents, Matriculation Ceremony - August 21, 2011

This is the hour when St. Lawrence University extends not only a hand to help the class of 2015 move into its rooms, but also opens its arms to embrace each of you in a declaration that you are now “one of us.” We are sometimes called Saints, we often call ourselves Laurentians, but today the university, in all its natural informality and friendliness, is less about a name than it is about a pronoun, a part of speech bearing one of the most powerful ideas in human history. The transference of identity from you to we has in this instant just occurred and will continue to develop over the next few minutes and few weeks. But it is, I assure you, more than it seems because this is not a routine or familiar experience for any of us, whether we are in this gathering as students or parents.

Let no one downplay or diminish the significance of the moment. This effort to arrive has actually been a long, competitive, and exciting period of years in your life; important years of getting ready intellectually and psychologically for your college experience. We invited you into this community of thinking and exploring because of your vast range and record of accomplishments; but, even more importantly, because of your hunger, ambition, and promise.

I begin by giving immense credit and gratitude to your parents and families. Thank you for the magnificent job you have done to prepare them for a new stage of life. At this juncture, I will give students permission to take a mental rest stop, so I can speak to your families with a personal note. I will get you students back on the matriculation road in a minute.

To the mothers and fathers of St. Lawrence students: let me hastily say, as an inverse of my welcome to your young people by addressing them for the first time in the third person plural, that I am “one of you.” Lynn Fox and I have been in your chairs. We hold a vivid recollection of bringing our only daughter to a college ceremony only a few years ago that we knew then would somehow trace a line in our family that defined before and after. As someone who has been involved in campus life and university ritual for a long time, you might think I would have been a master of my feelings and thoughts when it was my turn to be dad, not professor or president.
I had carefully rehearsed the words I wanted to impart, something to tell my daughter at the starting point of college; I was prepared to give them context, clear recitation, and easy explanation to capture my hopes and reassure both of us that all would be well. I chose a quotation to leave with her, one of the turning points in ancient wisdom literature, where a father tells a child, “Stand upon thy feet.” I was trying to tell her that the next step was hers to take by herself, like the moment my hand let go of the bicycle seat and I ran behind the wobbly, but upright Schwinn. 

Well, my diction or elocution failed me in delivering my lines. Rather, mumbling over the lump in my throat, the perfect aphorism for the occasion, “Stand upon thy feet,” I believe was heard by my daughter as “Hand me my receipt.” She never said a word or asked for clarification; she knew I didn’t have it in me to say it again. We hugged as the great and wonderful adventure of college began for her and her parents.

So, students… I remind you of your parents’ imperfections, especially in expressing themselves clearly and easily today. We both know why they are here with us. They are proud, nervous, and, never forget, always loving.

All of you may be wondering about a question that has gained some attention lately, perhaps owing to the difficult economy or the geo-political uncertainty of our time: will it be worth it, this St. Lawrence education, way of learning and being connected? I am confident it’s a question that may have already been answered or tentatively affirmed. In July this year, one family I know had the opportunity to say “yes” emphatically to the entire world, at least the world that knows American baseball. Christian Lopez ’10, a recent St. Lawrence graduate, caught the homerun ball in Yankee Stadium that was Derek Jeter’s milestone 3,000th career hit. It was one of most valuable souvenirs one could acquire on a summer’s day at the ballpark. Christian, who was known as C-Lo on campus, could have cashed-in by selling the ball; it could have paid for graduate school, a new car, an around-the-world tour, or retired the family’s educational loans. Without giving it a single or second thought, Christian gave the ball back without any expectation of reward.

This young Laurentian walked away from an object worth more than gold and diamonds; the ball could have fetched several hundred thousand dollars. In his interviews with the national media, he kept mentioning St. Lawrence University, like it was a touchstone more precious than a gemstone. I called him the next day to congratulate him on doing the right thing, telling him how proud Laurentians from all over the world were of his unselfconscious decency. We knew, we Laurentians, that his thoughtfulness, some would say heroic kindness, was “so St. Lawrence.” 
Christian told me that the whole experience was both exciting and stressful; he thanked me for calling him, but then said, “I just want you to know how much St. Lawrence gave me, how much it changed my life forever.” In answer to the question about the worth of this journey that you now begin, one of us younger Laurentians, has made a very public response. The ball, the flash of fame it represents, and all the money the moment could have brought, was not worth as much as his St. Lawrence education, that sense of belonging, and his own lifelong treasury of experience. It is not only the value of your St. Lawrence years that we begin to measure today, it is also the values you will test and affirm here.

Many of you passed through Franklin County, New York to get here. Benjamin Franklin is the namesake of many places in the United States, hundreds of towns and nearly half of all the states have a Franklin County. Of all the Americans of the revolutionary generation, no one is more deserving of this veneration. If he were alive today, he would be qualified as a Nobel laureate in two or three categories and he would probably be eligible for three or four Pulitzer Prizes for his writing. In his own lifetime, he received honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, St. Andrews (Scotland), and Oxford. The parable of the “catch and release” ball would be supported by one of Franklin’s well-known thirteen virtues. Of moral resolution, he said, “Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve." Franklin was also an educational pioneer whose ideas about a college curriculum—particularly his role in founding the University of Pennsylvania—are arguably the first roots of how St. Lawrence practices the liberal arts by mixing disciplines often and in interesting combinations.

In 1785, a town in Massachusetts named itself Franklin. Knowing Dr. Franklin’s charitable nature, the town leaders wrote him with a request that he donate a church bell. He advised them to defer the need for a steeple and build a library instead. He sent the community 116 books instead of a bell, as he characteristically said, “sense being preferable to sound.” (Walter Isaacson, 467.)

After you ask yourself, will it be worth it, to be at St. Lawrence, the only other question to ponder now as you matriculate into its courses and traditions, is how do I make it so? Put differently, how do I truly understand someone whose mind and character, deeply influenced by St. Lawrence professors, coaches, deans, and students, would instinctively return a baseball that could have purchased luxury or reduced debt?

Benjamin Franklin gives us a clue to our answer by making books a priority over bells. In fact, on the green ground reserved on this campus for such ceremonies as Matriculation, Moving-Up Day, and Commencement, we shall often stand or pass between the library and chapel. Both places hold great meaning for how you get to be a Laurentian. When St. Lawrence was founded and chartered just before the American Civil War, it was with modest assets, a small grant, a dream, and a debt that launched our university. Like Franklin, Massachusetts, it was in no position to be buying bells while it could barely afford bricks. And yet, by the end of the Civil War, St. Lawrence had acquired a library of nearly 6,000 books, which was actually 40% larger than Benjamin Franklin’s own personal library at the time of his death.

Some twenty-five years after the first library was built, the Gunnison Memorial Chapel was added to the campus. Beneath its soaring spire and within its tower are bells that are played every day St. Lawrence is in session. The same foundry that cast our bells also installed carillons or chimes at Middlebury, Union, Bowdoin, Cornell, and the University of Washington. This grouping of distinguished institutions, likely unbeknownst to them all, shares an affinity for a particular kind of campus music. Much of your life at St. Lawrence will occur between the cross spaces of books and bells, a back-and-forth of background and foreground giving your day a particular form.

We will expect you to work hard against rigorous standards of intellectual development, spending considerable time with books and their digital equivalents. Here and today you enter a world of ideas you have never before encountered. And yet, you will hear the bells, if you pay attention at the end of the work day, before dinner, before an evening of study, organizational life, and the late-night conversation with a roommate or friend. These are the bells that will give your hard work pause, your minds some relief, your day a moment of inspiration. The books and bells go together, even if one came before the other. It’s subtle, but it’s our open secret about enjoying a balanced, multi-dimensional life as a St. Lawrence student.

Among the bells in the chapel tower is one with the deepest pitch, the note of F. It is four-feet in diameter and weighs a ton. Because it is the main bass line, its sound will not carry far. As with Wynton Marsalis’s explanation of jazz, you have to go to it, because it may not be able to reach you otherwise. On that particular grand bell is in inscription left by its donor. The words speak for many of us, “let the singing of these bells be the voice of my gratitude.”

Because we live between books and bells on this campus, which is the very place you begin and end your college career, you shall have regular occasion to see and hear, know and comprehend, reflect and resolve. Because we—the pronoun making this day different from all others leading up to this hour—walk the paths in conversation about books as the bells play, sometimes as the maples ripen to scarlet or as the winter moon rises, you will know better what to do when important questions come your way. Because of books and bells, if you ever catch a significant homerun ball, you will not hesitate to toss it back to the hitter.

I hope you hear in my greeting the voice of my gratitude that you are with us, one of us.