At the Top There Will be Silence | St. Lawrence University President's Office

At the Top There Will be Silence

Remarks to Graduates - May 17, 2015

This is not the end of the journey, but it is a happy interlude. I am obligated to assure you that after the triumph of senior week and commencement, loftier expectations and the hunger for even harder work will stand before you in the categorical decade ahead. Until then, the distances and the sacrifices to get here, to mark this proud day’s milestone for the class of 2015, now quickens the realization that no St. Lawrence student ever makes this trek alone.

I share your deep appreciation for your teachers, mentors, and friends — yes, your friends, because they have also been teaching, sometimes with brilliant intellectual substance, sometimes with insights about yourself and what must matter the most. But, I also express my highest admiration for your parents, grandparents, and other family friends today.

To our commencement guests, I know St. Lawrence is important to you, perhaps because you are long familiar with our traditions or you just now discovered something notably sublime in our habits of belonging. I know many of you are seeing this campus today for the first time. You have invested wisely and bravely by long distance; you and this place have built together a lengthy bridge connecting two homes in the lives of your children. Thank you for trusting us and believing in what we do.

The class of 2015 has witnessed and created something special in St. Lawrence history. A year ago at commencement, Kirk Douglas Hall was a shell, completely uninhabitable. The Quad was a construction zone plowed under like the farm field it once was 150 years ago. Herring-Cole was closed for historic landmark renovation. The Saddlemire-Kip Trail Loop was only a drawing under review by the Army Corps of Engineers. And our chapel was a wreck, owing to a fire in the bell tower; the smell of charred timbers stayed in the air for months, regardless of how fresh or cold the North Country breezes vacillated.

***

A great day in your senior year was, of course, a recent one, one packed with the high anticipation of many months. The reconstruction and installation of the chapel spire happened exactly at the same time you were sitting with your professors for your final class at St. Lawrence. Playwrights and filmmakers couldn’t improve on the script of your remarkable senior year, including the last day of the last semester. By watching the spire rise again, you took a lingering, intimate glimpse of what resilience means and what it will always achieve in a strong community.

Earlier this morning in the baccalaureate service, I spoke about the design and craftsmanship that is evident at the base of the spire. For this occasion, I’m taking a brief moment to mention the spire’s pinnacle. As with many great cathedrals in Europe — including Rouen in Normandy, where our students have been studying for 50 years — the absolute highest point the architects and builders ascended was often punctuated by a rooster. And this figure, technically a weathercock, again adorns our chapel. And it has vital meaning for you today and for the rest of your lives.

A lesser known university classmate of the German philosopher Georg Hegel was the poet Friederich Holderlin; and it’s a line of poetry, not the dialectic, I need for organizing my thoughts about the spire.

Like the stamen inside a flower

The steeple stands in lovely blue

And the day unfolds around its needle;

***

Up there in the wind, where the wind is not

Turning the vane of the weathercock,

The weathercock silently crows in the wind.1

***

Today there is ample reason for crowing in the wind as “the steeple stands in lovely blue.” The class of 2015 has developed the habit of making positive things happen. More of you have had internships and studied abroad than any class in St. Lawrence’s history. More of you have been St. Lawrence research fellows or completed a senior thesis than any graduating class in recent memory. More of you are earning honors and graduating at a higher rate than ever before.

More than a few athletic teams of your senior year have left superb records. The women’s cross-country team was third in the nation; the men’s squash team was second in the nation; the equestrian team just finished fourth in the nation and has been a national champion twice in the last four years; the men’s soccer team was ranked number one throughout last fall; and our men’s hockey team was undefeated against all Ivy League opponents this season. The women’s basketball team contended for the league championship, won 20 games, and never lost two in a row.

St. Lawrence’s employment and graduate school placement rate is one of the highest in America among all colleges and universities. Members of the class are taking aim at Master’s, Ph.D., medical, and law degrees at Tufts, Syracuse, UC-Davis, Dartmouth, William & Mary, Albany, Rutgers, NYU, Arizona State, Columbia, Georgetown, Penn State, Universities of Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Georgia, Vermont, Washington, and the Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto.

An impressive number of your friends are going to work at some of the best-known businesses in the world. It’s nothing new for St. Lawrence graduates to work at Barclay’s, General Electric, Altenex, Merrill Lynch, Harbridge Consulting, Goldman Sachs, Angelo-Gordon, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, and Morgan Stanley. Other classmates will be wearing the uniforms of officers in the United States Navy and Air Force. And once again, St. Lawrence will be represented in the Peace Corps, Americorps, Teach-for-America, and at many distinguished private academies, such as Greenwich Country Day, Westminster, SOAR, Teton Science Schools, and Lawrenceville. One of you plans to be a violin maker, another an underwriter, and one of you will be a river guide on western whitewater for the next year. The class of 2015 deserves to hear a little crowing about itself.

***

And yet, if we come back to the poem for one last look at the weathercock high atop the “lovely blue,” there is a key word unlocking the best wisdom about the St. Lawrence rooster at the pinnacle of Gunnison Chapel. The final line says “the weathercock crows silently in the wind.” The adverb modifier matters. You cannot leave St. Lawrence without appreciating the power of doing your best work and most creative thinking silently. We teach that here, we teach the importance of quiet moments, and it’s a lesson we shouldn’t forget even in an hour of loud cheering, applauding, and singing together.

Your classmate Abagael Giles wrote a column for The Hill News a few months ago that described the beauty of silence in the wintertime of a North Country dusk. She had skied across a frozen pond one afternoon, stopped to ice fish briefly, and then as snow fell harder, she made her way to a cabin. There St. Lawrence friends had gathered to fry up an easy dinner. “Music played,” she writes. “Socked feet slid and skid across wooden floors. It was as if the underlying hum…of campus…energy had traveled with us. And though sanity may require occasional encounters of true silence…” friends are always there, “also beautiful and entirely natural.” This is what we mean by the quiet crowing of St. Lawrence.

***

A hundred years ago, the St. Lawrence class of 1915 graduated with 56 men and women in its ranks. A short while later, 27 members of the class, also a mix of men and women, had three words printed beside their names in the class directory, “War against Germany.” It meant that they were serving, that is, nearly half the class, in what was later called the Great War or the First World War.

I tie this far away history to your new day as graduates because a member of that class of 1915, an army lieutenant, once wrote home from France with a wise reflection about quiet moments when campus friends, while dispersed across the earth, were still somehow present, just as your own classmate observed on a winter’s day. His letter reads, “Hours and hours of silent thought before I took any step convinced me that the honor of our (class) name called for prompt action [to be involved in the world].”2 Proctor Gilson, belonged to the class of 1915, born in DeKalb Junction, lived in the Phi Sig House, but never came home.

The rooster on the chapel spire, just at the moment of your departure, is home again, never far from your sight or mind’s eye. It steadies and orients your purpose without voice; that copper rooster is simply a presence reminding you of all the unnecessary speed and clamor you will have to ignore while finding out what’s important ultimately. It seems to watch over us, silently crowing, encouraging our readiness for anything that the sky, the world, or a fire may bring.

There the weathercock shall remain for the class of 2015 as a symbol and tribute, as an example, that no matter how difficult the storm, something quiet still says to you “keep your back to the wind.” You leave confidently knowing that subtle hint of wise living. At the top there will be silence, but you carry inside an unmistakable St. Lawrence image standing bravely against the “lovely blue,” no matter where you go or where you live.

 

1.       “In Lovely Blue,” by Friederich Holderlin, translated by George Kalogeris in Poetry (April 2009).

St. Lawrence University in the World War, 1917-1918: A Memorial (Canton, NY: 1931), 91.