Companionship Stays With Us

Remarks at Commencement - May 19, 2013

We greet the new day with vivid and powerful memories. And we shall leave this commencement gathering with deeper and larger hopes. We began together, you and I, in your first year, your first day on the St. Lawrence campus as the Class of 2013. It was for me, in the dual identity of alumnus and president, my second “first year.” I may have held a slight advantage for knowing the old paths and great traditions, but for both of us, there were abundant new experiences to face. And even today, you have yet one more new occasion to meet, the swift, nervous passage from a St. Lawrence student’s enchanted life to the happy condition of being a Laurentian for life.

Because we were beginners in the same year, we understand each other in a special way. You will know exactly what I mean when I tell your parents, families, and all kindred that we couldn’t have done it without them. I express the gratitude of the St. Lawrence faculty and all of my co-workers for the trust we have felt all along from the home front. My request of your mothers, fathers, and grandparents when you arrived was practical. I said on that first day, “Our students will need your encouragement and will need to know, without necessarily saying so explicitly or too frequently, that you believe in them, no matter where the new paths may lead. They will stand on their own two feet here, but your whispered reminders and occasional care packages will make a tremendous difference.” Over these four years, from matriculation to commencement, you parents have not let us down. And you have done a beautiful, lasting piece of hard work in giving these young men and women your wisdom and love.

To the graduating class, I will assume the privilege of my office to glance back with you today, but not for long. I believe you also expect me to say a brief word about what you should anticipate as the loaded car makes the turn down the river valley or into the Adirondack hills, “when college days are over,” as we shall sing today and at class reunions. There are important feelings you have known together and therein are the best clues for the years ahead. Your classmate, Kelly Greenwood, wrote a reflection paper this spring, which I was fortunate enough to have come upon and read. Kelly has been on the crew team for four years, practicing with the rowers at a time of day when the campus was still in bed.

She writes, “Of all the early mornings, the ones that stick out the most are the ones where fog dominates the river. It rolls in from the seaway and narrows the world down to ten feet in front of your face. In our crew shells we turn the volume to the max on our mics so we have a chance of locating each other on the river. The fog envelops everything, and when you are in the middle of the river it feels like all there is to the world is shifting grey curtains and smooth glassy water. Shorelines become a memory, and all that exists is pure river. When crew practice is over we leave the boathouse behind to begin our days, but the river stays with us.”

We get her meaning, you and I. It’s not just the river that stays with us; it is the playing of chapel bells; it is the student section of Appleton Arena; it is the Grace Potter concert; it is the cast and stage crew striking the set; it is the daily ultimate frisbee game on the Quad; it is the starlit walk home from the library; it is the moment in the lab when your professor says, “you’ve really got something here.”

Like the rowers on the river, when the shells are put away, practice is over. This is such a moment. Your class will be represented on other rivers, in great cities, inside other countries. Many of you will be new students all over again in your graduate programs at famous research universities and professional schools. Two of you will be in the health sciences at Yale; one of you will be at Columbia in anthropology; another at Tufts in dentistry; Vermont and Vanderbilt claim your classmates in medicine, also SUNY Upstate Medical. Colorado welcomes a future engineer. Some classmates will need passports and visas for graduate study at McGill, Dundee, Keele, and Edinburgh. St. Lawrence tee shirts and ball caps will be seen on the university campuses of Syracuse, Maryland, Southern California, Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois George Mason, Northwestern, Albany, Georgetown, and Denver.

Some of you have accepted positions with the most competitive and coveted businesses in the world: Bloomberg, IBM, Goldman Sachs, NBC, Angelo-Gordon, Disney, and GFI. Americorps and Teach for America will be joined by members of this class. So will the United States Army and Air Force add a Laurentian presence. Others of you have more exploratory plans; one of you has committed an act of public bravery and announced your first job as a ski bum. I personally love the idea, but I’m not your father.

Wherever you are headed in the next few months, actually in the decades ahead, remember, “the river stays with us.” St. Lawrence University has brought you together and it will keep you together. And this may be the most important fact of life you learn today.

When the American author Nathaniel Hawthorne, a graduate of a fine New England liberal arts college in 1825, reflected later in life about his campus living, he gave us an important verbal surface to row upon. About being in a college graduating class, he said “it contributes greatly to a [person’s] moral and intellectual health, to be brought into habits of companionship with individuals unlike [each other].” Even though Hawthorne severely distanced himself from his own Puritan ancestry, it was a very Puritan idea that founded the first American educational enterprises based on “mutual edification,” the idea that students learn from each other more than can ever be measured.

That habit of companionship will stay with you. It’s the St. Lawrence way to have friends who are musicians, scientists, and athletes while you are only good, perhaps better at other things. You will have quiet friends and you will have friends whose genius is a social life. They each will edify, support, and encourage you. As you sit together this morning, I want you to remember that you will need more than one chair for the furniture of your minds. In those rooms, save a place for other voices—the sounds remembered, the words of friends, even the wise cracks, and, of course, the call of a coxswain from a dawn hour on the river.