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Davidson College, April 26, 2000

W. Ferris
William Ferris (l) accepts honorary degree, presented by President Bobby Vagt (r)

A native of Vicksburg, Mississippi and member of the Davidson class of 1964, "a Rebel with many causes," William Reynolds Ferris, Jr. has shown to the world that Southern Culture is not an oxymoron, and I will quote him liberally herein.

This High Priest of the Homegrown has delivered the South from being the "last acceptable" prejudice and from "the Southern Living disease" of big easy stereotypes and facile divisions. As editor of the monumental Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, "that eight pounds of glorious gumbo," and Director of the Center for the Study of the American South, he has taught us to see the union of the South as being "like Huckleberry Finn and Jim...where two great cultural streams from Africa and Europe converge" by seeing the humanities as "concrete and real to all Americans." The "backward glance" found in his countless books, articles, films, and lectures, rather than alienating and disconnecting us from our roots, has, in fact, always been looking forward, creating "a symphony of humankind"--black with white, word with image, quilts with guilts, backwaters with the mainstream, Cleve Carr with Dan Akroyd, the Union Coffee House with the House of Blues, Elvis with Faulkner, Coke with kudzu, and Ivy Leagues with Cotton fields.

From his microphone on Mississippi public radio, Bill 'The Blues Doctor' Ferris sang not only of himself but of his home of Deltas and Davidson and reminded us that the essence of singin' the blues, for all its sadness and sense of tragedy, is the birth of the expectation of better days ahead....Voted by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the ten best professors in the nation, this "walking catfish" of a scholar, as he has been described (even by friends), teaches us that the roots of things often are found by feeding on what others might call the bottom.

When Bill was selected to guide the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1997, President Clinton declared, "Bill Ferris leads the sort of life I would like to lead if I had another one to live. He lives in the deep South; he writes funny, wonderful books; and he is still trying to find out if Elvis is alive...I want to thank him for bringing the culture and music of my homeland to all Americans...." Since his appointment as Director of the NEH, this "Rebel with many causes" has clearly known when to step on our blue suede shoes and yet when to love us tender!

BECAUSE you were Southern when Southern wasn't cool,

BECAUSE you have not only "told us about the South and why it exists at all," but you have sung the "songs of the South," shown us its many faces and facets, and taught us that the "Everlasting 'If'" can be the "Everlasting 'Is',"

BECAUSE where others saw "the Sahara of the Bozarts" and "the Number One Economic Problem of the United States...," you saw in the South a rich fertility and a more perfect union; where others only saw division and despair, you saw a world of humor and love, diversity and multiplicity,

BECAUSE you helped our minds to understand what our hearts already knew,

NOW, THEREFORE, in this the year 2000, Davidson College is proud to honor you, as you honor the region that you represent, in fulfilling T.S. Eliot's definition of culture as "all the characteristics of a people--their way of life" by naming you, William Reynolds Ferris, Jr. Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

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