17th Annual North Country Symposium Welcoming Remarks by Karl Schonberg
Friends and Colleagues, North Country Neighbors,
It is my pleasure to offer you a warm welcome on this somewhat chilly morning to St. Lawrence University. We are delighted to host this year’s North County Symposium, and to join in our shared conversations about the future of this wonderful place in which we live.
I thought it might be appropriate on this occasion to offer a bit of history about St. Lawrence University and the building in which we gather this morning, Eben Holden Hall, as it has something to tell us about the enduring values of the North Country that have defined our past and will help us chart our future.
Eben Holden, for whom this building is named, was not a real person but a fictional character in the novel of the same name by Irving Bacheller. Bacheller was a graduate of St. Lawrence University, class of 1882, and a native of Pierrepont, New York. He became a very successful leader in publishing after his graduation from St. Lawrence, and by pioneering the concept of news syndication, was responsible for introducing many Americans for the first time to the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen Crane, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, and many others. He was also a Trustee of St. Lawrence University and to this day, the bells that ring out the end of each day on our campus are named the Bacheller Chimes. But his real fame came as the author of the novel Eben Holden, which became wildly popular and was one of the top selling novels in the years 1900-1901, making Bacheller and his title character household names throughout the United States.
The novel is a story of a family who come from Vermont to New York’s North Country, and settle in a place called Paradise Valley (which many of you will know is a real place just a few miles south of here, with a roadside historical marker to remember its place in literary history). The novel is a story about the lives and struggles of one family, but an interesting fact about it is that Eben Holden is a major character but not the protagonist of the story. The main character is a young man named Bill, who grows up in Paradise Valley but leaves the North Country to pursue his destiny in the city and then on the battlefields of the Civil War. So we might wonder why Bacheller named the story “Eben Holden” when it’s really about someone else; as one reviewer I read recently said, it’s sort of like making a moving about the Skywalker family and calling it “R2D2.”
Bacheller had a very good reason for this, and I will go further and speculate that he drew this reason from his own experiences growing up in the North Country and as a student at St. Lawrence. The novel tells the story of Bill, but what it is really about is the values and identity of the North Country. The character Eben symbolizes these values, and passes them along to Bill, and they shape him in all that he does later in his life. Hard work, humility, honesty and integrity, ingenuity, good humor, respecting others and expecting respect in turn—these are the values that Bacheller learned in Paradise Valley, and they are the values that still define our ways of living and working here today, and that will help us make an even brighter future for this region.
I’m not from this part of the world originally, but I’m very proud to say that my children are, and when I think about the importance for all of us of that question “where are you from”—what it says to each of us, and to others, about who we are as people—I feel very fortunate indeed that my kids will answer throughout their lives, I’m from New York’s North Country (and please don’t say “upstate”).
Conveying these values and the lessons to be learned from this place is also extremely important to us as educators here at St. Lawrence University. Unlike many colleges, St. Lawrence aims to be more than a place where students reside for a few years on their way to somewhere else; we believe that their learning in, from, and about the North Country is vitally important both to them and to our community. We hope that every student at St. Lawrence can, in ways large and small, provide benefit to the North Country through work, volunteerism, internships, community engagement, and through the diversity of their identities and experiences. And we hope that like Irving Bacheller, each student who graduates from St. Lawrence will take the North Country with them in all they do throughout their lives, that the values they have learned here will make them better, stronger, wiser people.
We have our challenges here as we always have had, but we have amazing opportunities ahead of us as well, as our conversations today will reveal and explore. We have work to do, but also incredible resources in our people, our communities, and the natural environment around us with which to imagine the possibilities of the years to come.
At St. Lawrence, the North Country is vital to who we are and the experiences of our students, and we always want to be much more than a good neighbor—we will always strive to be an energetic and engaged partner in the bright future of this region. From Irving Bacheller’s time and before, until now, our richest resource is each other, and we know that the great things we will do, we will do together. And it is in that spirit that we welcome you here today, to celebrate, to deliberate, to imagine all that we can do, together. Thank you.