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1995: President Hearn

LESSONS OF THE HEART

1995 WFU Commencement
May 15, 1995
Dr. Thomas K. Hearn, Jr.
President, Wake Forest University

In the year 2015, by which time your experiences as parents will have given you profound appreciation for your own, you will receive an invitation to attend your twentieth class reunion. Many of you will come. I hope to be there among the ranks of the emeriti faculty. We will recall these years and this day nostalgically.

About that time, your doctor will tell you that you have reached the age when annual physical examinations are indicated. I hope you take that advice. I was given that word when I came to Wake Forest a dozen years ago in my mid-forties.

So the day came this February for my physical. Having had no significant health problems as an adult, I expected the usual once over lightly followed by some friendly advice about losing weight.

There was, however, a cloud in the eyes of my doctor and friend as he listened with the stethoscope to my heart. He said, “Tom, there is a murmur in your heart.” A few minutes later, an echocardiogram indicated leaking around my mitral valve. Another definitive test would be required, but he was fairly certain that there was a problem that needed surgery.

My first reaction was disbelief. After all I had just a few months earlier had a stress test in our Cardiac Rehab program and had performed better than ever. My tennis wars the previous Sunday afternoon had gone on for two and one-half hours, and four sets. I had none of the symptoms he asked about — no shortness of breath and no fatigue. My wife confirmed that disbelief when I reported what the doctor had said. “There must be a mistake,” she said.

Two days later, I went for the final test, an esophageal echocardiogram. Afterwards, I was a little woozy, having been given a sedative. When I was fully alert, I realized that the creatures in white all around me were doctors, not angels. The diagnosis was definitive. The good news: “It can be fixed.” Bad news: “You need heart surgery.”

My disbelief turned to anger. There is no history of heart problems in my family, and I have lived with a heart healthy lifestyle, good diet, and regular exercise. My son had sent me the full text of Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous “Serenity Prayer.” It had been on my desk for several weeks, and I had read it often. Two lines jumped into my mind: “the courage to accept the things which cannot be changed” and “accepting hardship as the path to peace.” I thought how little hardship, especially physical hardship, had been my portion.

A health problem reorders and verifies priorities. If someone had asked me if I could be out for six weeks, given my schedule, I would have deemed that impossible. But the truth was that Carolyn Dow cleared my calendar in a few hours, and only asked my advice about one or two matters.

Plans were made for my surgery immediately after Founders’ Day. I wanted to be here when our undergraduate business school was given the name of Wayne Calloway, who is a dear friend as well as a great Wake Forest leader.

I was reluctant to confess the anxiety and raw fear that I felt. My first duty was to explain to friends, family, and Wake Forest associates what was about to happen. I learned in that process a vital lesson of my illness. In telling others what was to happen and that the prognosis was for a complete recovery, I strangely persuaded myself.

By the time I had spread the news as required, I was finally able to tell the one person I dreaded telling most—my mother. I was able to calm her fears because I had largely conquered my own. It matters what you say to others about yourself. You may come to believe it.

The dread remained, of course, which precedes any ordeal. There were preparations to be made. I made a visit to my lawyer to discuss my will and to have in good order the necessary arrangements about my life and my job. There was a dreaded conversation with my wife about what would happen if.

A friend then delivered another piece of advice to which my soul attached itself. “Tom,” he said, “you cannot manage or control this surgery. You must find doctors in whom you have faith and then just entrust yourself to their care. Just become a patient.” I had complete faith in the medical staff at Bowman Gray and, trusting in them, I became a patient. Another lesson: faith brings peace of mind—in things human and divine.

I entered the hospital. On the night before my surgery, I was told that I could order anything I wanted for dinner. I looked over the hospital menu in dismay. Because I had friends in high places in the Medical School, I was able to have old-fashioned North Carolina barbecue delivered to my room. It was a memorable meal. I watched Wake Forest play Maryland, so tranquilized that I never doubted that we would be victorious.

As one who has been blessedly healthy — able to rely on my body to obey every command — no experience prepared me for the weakness that follows surgery. They had me up the day after, but I could not move unaided. My body did not work. There was also a lesson in this weakness. Given physical weakness, I look for strength elsewhere. The strength I first experienced was the care and compassion of friends and family. Then that circle grew to include the wishes and prayers of others—at first, they had to be read to me—but I received them and literally felt their force.

My mailbox was full of good wishes and assurance of prayers. I was especially touched by messages from students and student organizations. As Reynolds Price said in his remarkable book about his illness, the hopes and prayers of others are a “firm wind” at your back. We are not alone in the world. We live in family and in community. I have never known that truth so personally. The meaning of the community of Wake Forest was made real.

As winter gave way to spring, I felt a spring of my own. As I walked to recover my strength, I watched the redbud and dogwood swell and burst. A sense of the sublime overwhelmed me. The North Carolina spring had never seemed so wondrous. On my first visit back to campus, the daffodils along Wake Forest Road were in full glory. I was aware of how much we miss as we drive by in our cars. When I was able to walk around the campus, I went to see the Habitat House you built—by then, all but completed—and that, too, was a token of healing and health.

As my mind and body healed, I read, had visits from my family and friends, took long walks with my wife. Seldom had Laura and I visited so much and talked so long about matters trivial and profound. I surfed on the Internet, amazed at the new opportunities for learning now at our fingertips. I became a student of the spiritual disciplines of the East.

I suspect you see where this talk was heading — my recovery, the strength of the Wake Forest community, the care and goodness of our membership — all validation of our motto Pro Humanitate.

Then that bomb went off — the one in Oklahoma City — and with you and the rest of the nation, I was shaken by the explosion. A catastrophe, in the etymological sense, is a turning upside down, and so was I. My remarks for this occasion were cast suddenly against this tragic background. Feeling that tragedy and the grief poured upon the innocent, my reflections about my body and my healing seemed self-centered, even narcissistic. Why should the lessons of my heart matter on this day when families are grieving for their children?

So we dare not celebrate today a healing and this community’s goodwill without reflection on the darkness of the human spirit. We are the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. Oklahoma City is but a recent and graphic reminder. The world has just marked a half-century since the end of Nazi tyranny and the liberation of the death camps. In London, a clock numbering the dead from war in our century will conclude its grim count on December 31, 1999. The toll will be 100 million souls. The horsemen of the Apocalypse ride through history and across our world.

Yet the forces of darkness must not overwhelm the humane and joyful impulses of your spirit which brought you to this day of hope and beckon you forward. With faith in God Almighty, and with your commitment, you can bring healing and help.

Wake Forest’s motto, Pro Humanitate, given to you this day on your diploma, must be manifest in your lives if you are to be instruments of peace in a world of war.

Please stand with me for a moment of silence as we remember prayerfully the suffering of our brothers, sisters, and children in Oklahoma City, and as we commit the class of 1995 to lives in service to humanity.