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Commencement 2001 Remarks
by President Robert Vagt

May 24, 2001
Contact: Bill Giduz 704/894-2244 or bigiduz@davidson.edu

Presidnet Vagt
College President Robert Vagt

I bid you greetings and welcome to Commencement exercises in this, the one hundred and sixty-fourth year of Davidson College--a celebration of passage, as it were, which has few equals in life. A day with clear skies and misty eyes--a glorious admixture of emotions, of beginnings and endings, all twisted together.

We offer special greetings on this day to the families--the parents, the grandparents, and friends of the women and men in this grand Class, and to faculty, students, staff, trustees, alumni, and to you, the Class of 2001. This is your family, your extended family, gathered together to take note of your achievement.

I must observe that this day, and those surrounding it, could not take place absent the heroic efforts of the Physical Plant staff who prepare this sanctuary for our use--we are so grateful for their extraordinary dedication.

This college is a celebration of people and we use this occasion, not only to focus on the accomplishments of those of you who have been with us for four years, but also to recognize those who have spent many more years with us. Ten of our number have served this institution--and served is the proper word--for anywhere from seven to thirty-seven years, and we honor them for their faithfulness and hard work, but as importantly, for the spirit in which they offered both. I would ask you to join me in expressing our thanks once I have called out this "list of the saints." And I would ask them, if they are here, to stand and remain standing: Tony Abbott, Phillip Cashion, John Cherry, Bob Collins, Bill Corriher, Dirk French, Ronald Hager, Charles Palmer, Lenora Roberson, Sarah Sellers.

This group represents a total of one hundred and ninety-two years of loyal service to Davidson College. We laud you and wish you well in retirement.

There is a time-honored tradition that, on this occasion, we do not import a noted speaker, but privilege the president with the opportunity to say a word or two. This custom was paraphrased, as I heard last night, when a young woman assured her father in the following way, "Don't worry, Dad, we don't have a real speaker--the President just talks." This has been a time-honored tradition at least since the commencement some years ago, when a graduate of this institution, and the parent of a graduating student, spoke, acting much in the manner of the long-winded attorney who was arguing a technical case before a judge of the Superior Court of Wyoming ten or twelve years ago. This lawyer had rambled on in such a desultory way that it became very difficult to follow his line of thought and the judge had just yawned very suggestively.

With just a trace of sarcasm in his voice, the tiresome attorney ventured to observe, "I sincerely trust that I am not unduly trespassing on the time of this court."

"My friend," returned His Honor, "there is a considerable difference between trespassing on time and encroaching upon eternity."

And when at last the lawyer had finished, one and all responded, "It's about time."

And perhaps that is the place to begin today. After four years, it's about time. For parents and families who have made noble sacrifice, and have made that last tuition contribution, it's about time. For you who will wend your way to this stage one last time, it has been an incredible journey with mile markers, way stations, along the way. For most--32 courses; 100 short papers; 24 long ones perhaps; perhaps 25 final exams; 4 classes, three times a week, more or less, each year. For 79 percent of you, some kind of an international experience, and untold, incalculable challenges, conversations, new ideas.

On this road where, at scenic overlooks, you stopped and exercised some new points of view, to see if they were clear.

It's about time. Over the course of this quadrennium we have given and you have taken, and you have given and we have taken. Between you and this extraordinary faculty, amazing things have happened. The fruits of your research, from the molecular cloning of the nmd gene, which is required for mitochondrial aggregation during spermatogenesis in the fruit fly, to micro-credit and the empowerment of women in rural India. The birth of ideas. The growth of ideals. You should feel proud. You've accomplished much and such pride is well deserved.

It's about time. On this occasion, at this hour, dressed up or down, the only appropriate message or plea has to follow this paradigm--go forth, slay the dragons that we, your elders, have failed to put down--and they are legion-- and slay them you can, and we know it. It's about time that you got about this business.

However, perhaps we need to take a moment and modify this message with a focus on something not taught or learned here as well as most other things. It's about time to point to something that lies ahead, and ... it's about time. You all arrived on this campus twenty-eight-hour-a-day people. Your lives before you arrived, and ever since, have been programmed, and scheduled full. You arrived ever seeking to learn and to be and to do. You did not master the art of saying "No" or "Later" but, thank goodness, always "Yes." You arrived, and leave this place right now, with transmissions that have no neutral--only 3 forward gears. In concert with this faculty whose labors also know no end, and whose expectations of you were appropriately high, this made for a wonderful combination--witness the wonders you have wrought. This place fed your appetite for go ... another thing to learn, another thing to experience, another way to serve. Our core requirements did not include what they call in the military "standing down" . . . and all this will serve you well. You have learned not to procrastinate; and there is good reason, because your time, our time, is limited. We've taught you to focus your energy and that is good because what you do will require a fiery intensity. You learned to achieve that which others call impossible, and that's the only way that the miracles we need will happen. So this frenetic pace, which was a staple of the Davidson diet, yielded good things. This push was not all bad, as some of you, most of the time, and maybe all of you at one time or another, needed a whole lot more "giddy-up" than "whoa." But perhaps one skill still needs to be honed--and it's that of taking time.

This periodic, more measured pace is an issue on which we have focused as we've talked about community hour, and the opportunities afforded by a new Campus Center. Jeanne O'Neill, in fact, had suggested that one way to impart that message to incoming first year students would be to hand out a yoga mat during Orientation ... but for you, who have spent four years burning tanks of high octane fuel, as you leave, it might be good to understand that the only alternatives to being swept along with the current of what seems important at this moment, or what everyone sees as right, is the capacity, the ability, to step out of that flow or to take a totally different road.

Jean Cocteau, the French poet and playwright, wrote, in Beaux Artes, that "mirrors should reflect a little before throwing back images." Perhaps not a bad thought as you depart this place ... and there are at least a pair of reasons to remember that, it's about time.

The first is your own sanity and health. Henry David Thoreau perhaps took this to an extreme that you won't have occasion to, but he did know the extraordinary value of a quiet walk. In Walden he wrote, "One says to me, 'I wonder that you do not lay up money; you love to travel; you might take the cars and go to Fitchburg today and see the country.' But I am wiser than that. I have learned that the swiftest traveler is he that goes afoot. I say to my friend, Suppose we try who will get there first."

This all has been paraphrased in a new book, Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, by D. B. Johnson ... with full and appropriate attribution. It starts one summer day. Henry and his friend decide to go to Fitchburg to see the country.

"I'll walk," said Henry. "It's the fastest way to travel."
"I'll work," Henry's friend said, "until I have the money to buy a ticket to ride the train to Fitchburg. We'll see who gets there first!"
His friend waved. "Enjoy your walk," he said.
Henry walked down the road to Fitchburg. "Enjoy your work," he called back.
Henry's friend filled the wood box in Mrs. Alcott's kitchen and earned ten cents. Henry hopped from rock to rock across the Sudbury River.
His friend swept out the post office. Five cents.
Henry carved a walking stick. Twenty-five miles to Fitchburg.
Henry's friend pulled all the weeds in Mr. Hawthorne's garden. Fifteen cents. Henry put ferns and flowers in a book and pressed them.
His friend painted the fence in front of the courthouse. Ten cents.
Henry walked on stone walls.
Henry's friend moved the bookcases in Mr. Emerson's study. Fifteen cents. Henry climbed a tree. Eighteen miles to Fitchburg.
His friend carried water to the cows grazing on the grass in town. Five cents. Henry made a raft and paddled up the Nashua River.
Henry's friend cleaned out Mrs. Thoreau's chicken house. Ten cents.
Henry crossed a swamp and found a bird's nest in the grass. Twelve miles to Fitchburg.
His friend carried flour from the mill to the village baker. Twenty cents.
Henry found a honey tree.
Henry's friend ran to the train station to buy his ticket to Fitchburg. Ninety cents. Henry jumped into a pond. Seven miles to Fitchburg.
His friend sat on the train in a tangle of people.
Henry ate his way through a blackberry patch.
Henry's friend got off the train at Fitchburg Station just as the sun was setting. Henry took a shortcut. One mile to Fitchburg.
His friend was sitting in the moonlight when Henry arrived.
"The train was faster," he said.
Henry took a small pail from his pack.
"I know," he smiled. "I stopped for blackberries."

These days one refers to decisions made on such a basis as Quality of Life decisions. But be clear--a quality of life decision does not mean taking it easy. It doesn't mean that you work less hard, but that you preserve your own peace, by taking the time, time to think about what you're doing, and where you're going.

A second reason for a periodic pause is, just as Cocteau's mirror, to reflect a little before throwing back images, because you have invested considerable time and energy over these past four years, learning to discern beauty, arrive at truth, stand for what is right. As you go forward and consider matters immediate, and matters ultimate, you'll find that truth is sometimes self-evident, but more often, not right away so clear. Beauty is often perceived immediately but just as often not. The right course, that high road you know you must take, is sometimes located only after careful scrutiny of the landscape. If King Lear had taken but a bit more time to consider the circumstances, he might well not have made that horribly unfair judgment about the only one of his daughters who was loyal and true. Napoleon, on the other hand, when the obvious, more popular, and more immediately accessible path would have taken him in one direction, embarked, instead, on a well-considered, carefully thought-out course to restore the Catholic Church in France on his terms, by means of a Concordat with Pius VII. Seen by radicals as a betrayal of the Revolution, this two-year effort ultimately served Napoleon, the Pope and France quite well ... because he took the time.

So while it's almost counter-cultural in this sound-bite world, it really is about time, a huge portion of which we put in your sack as you leave this place and set out to find your heart's desire ... and as Yeats described it--

Land of Heart's Desire.
Where Beauty has no ebb, decay no flood
But joy is wisdom, and time an endless song.

We wish you Godspeed, you the members of the grand Class of 2001, Godspeed, but at a moderate pace.

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