President Emeritus William L. Fox '75
"Nevertheless": Remarks to Graduates-May 22, 2022
President Morris, President Cornwell, Mr. Ranger, Mr. Ireland, University Trustees, Professors in the Liberal Arts, Administrative officers, Campus workers, and friends in the Class of 2022:
This is a great hour in my life and yours. I shall always remain grateful for this rare honor in my career. To each of you who are receiving your university degrees, this welcome day arrives with the dual feeling of spent endurance and sudden euphoria. It has required long years of intense work, tremendous determination, and endless measures of support, including the unnamed sacrifices made by your families. You have earned this moment of celebration, but you may also be thinking that I, in receiving my degree with you, did not do much, by comparison, to qualify as your classmate. And you would be right.
For the degree now conferred upon me, I never had to wake up before dawn to register for next semester’s classes, knowing that the price of oversleeping could jeopardize my major. I never walked across campus with you in minus 20 air to get my dinner at Dana. I never had to fake that I was a downhill skier in order to attend Titus. I never took my clothes off to welcome the first year students in the pitch-dark night with their lit candles on the Quad. And I never had to explain my Saturday night dance moves to Rance Davis.
Nevertheless, you are forced to accept me as your honorary classmate, the only class at St. Lawrence that will have my name on its rolls beside my original year of 1975. I am extremely happy about that personal fact of continuity and symmetry in which a half-century of St. Lawrence history has been dissolved into my life.
In my life at home, I never needed, though sometimes wished for, the last word, no matter the subject. Lynn reliably gets it right the first time. And today is no different from what I have known, now more than 40 years. My thoughts, at best, are merely an added word to her summa. Listening to Lynn’s reflections just now had me humming Jackson Browne’s cover song, “Stay, just a little bit longer.” She would hasten to advise me, right now, “Fine, but don’t overstay.”
I want to give you today a single word to live by, to use as you face the issues of life, to preserve your confidence that today’s spirit of joy can never be lost or destroyed. In other words, by all that you have learned from us at St. Lawrence, by living in the beautiful and hard land of the North Country, by your capacity to care for each other as lifelong friends, you bear a light, like an eternal candle, which can never be extinguished. What is it that will keep that Class of ‘22 flame glowing?
It is the word “nevertheless.” As a part of speech, you recognize it as an adverb, one that can begin or end a sentence, one that can bridge two opposing clauses, starting a thought in one direction, but changing the whole idea and mood onto the other side. Take the Motown lyric, “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day/ When it’s cold outside/ I’ve got the month of May.” The English majors among us can parse this quickly. The premise is that it can be a dreary day, cold and cloudy weather, but wait a minute, nevertheless, I’ve got my girl, I’ve got sunshine in my heart. It illustrates the human capacity to swerve, to make an unforeseen deviation from an undesirable impression affecting our view of life.
The idea of “nevertheless” goes back centuries in human rhetoric. In ancient literature you can read about the world in all its miserable warfare, violence, and heartache. And yet, in one eloquent turn of mind and hope, you may encounter the word “nevertheless,” followed by a lyrical sentence like the one that I have frequently said to myself on hard days, “the lines have fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea I have a goodly heritage.” (Psalm 16:6)
Maybe we could agree that St. Lawrence for many of you has already become your “forever home” or your “happy place,” designations I often hear from Laurentian alumni. For them it is a reference mark that they draw into their interior mental worlds wherever work and family bring them. If that habit is true for many of us who are now old enough to see our youth coming up the road, it is because we discovered in our time here an alternative to negative thinking. All that we can know to be wrong and terrible about events, troubled eras, and frustrated endeavors, sometimes horrible to imagine or endure, can also be checked, with an excellent tool for good mental health, by the single word “nevertheless.”
Your own circumstances of the college experience provide a test case for this principle of seeing things differently with a mental change of the tide. Five of your eight semesters have been touched in varying degrees of disruption by pandemic conditions beyond our control. I now hear about students at other universities who are nursing their deepening resentment that the education promised them has been so wrongfully compromised, a mindset that payment of compensatory damages is warranted. St. Lawrence, however, is set apart by the belief that however hard it has been, “nevertheless,” we made the best of it and, further, it may turn out to be better for us than the old norm.
Think about the force of “nevertheless” like the river we are named for. As you travel downstream on the St. Lawrence River toward and beyond Montreal, the river becomes tidal at Quebec City. Notwithstanding the appearance of a constant condition for miles along the river, things are moving beneath the surface. Toward the moment of low tide in Quebec, the surface water is running out under the impetus of the ebb. But when the sea begins to reassert itself, it does so, well beneath the surface, not yet effecting the current on top. It’s a paradox of nature that things may appear one way where the drift in the water level meets the eye, but there is another momentum always acting below, nevertheless.
This is the principle of life I would teach today, this useful paradox and power of saying, nevertheless. A New England poet was asked about his education, and he said, “I entered the world of ideas, but nevertheless, the best thing I got out of college was myself.” I hope that is true for each of you, but I wish to add, that as meaningful as this outcome must be, there are other transforming good effects we should note as vitally imperative.
When you arrived here in August 2018, I spoke to you at our ceremony of Matriculation and I gave you a sentence from Vera Britten’s extraordinary memoir, Testament of Youth. She had been a frontline nurse in the First World War, a defining experience for her, but so too was going to college. Upon reflection about being young she writes, “[In] a college, more than anywhere else, one was likely to make the friendships that supported one through life.”
I am entirely confident you learned this lesson in your four years. You take from St. Lawrence yourself and your friends, yes, but you also take this other word with you, the one I’ve been commending and describing—nevertheless. That is my hope for each of you.
Some days you will know sadness. Nevertheless, take time to be friendly; it is the sure-footed path to happiness.
Some days you will know stress. Nevertheless, take time to play; it is the open secret of perpetual youthfulness.
Some days you will know confusion. Nevertheless, take time to think; it is the steadiest renewable source of power.
Some days you will know boredom. Nevertheless, take time to work hard; it is the non-negotiable price of success and security.
Some days you will know exhaustion. Nevertheless, take time to laugh; it is the up-tempo music in your feet; it is the final harmony of your souls.
So, may the lines fall unto you in pleasant places; yea, you have a goodly heritage.