1987 WFU Commencement
May 18, 1987
Dr. Thomas K. Hearn, Jr.
President, Wake Forest University

This quadrangle was green with new spring, and I was here for an early and almost solitary Sunday walk. As I entered, I was aware of the pitched chirping of birds. Looking up, I saw that the quad had been invaded by a flock of goldfinches. By the scores — or the hundreds — they flew like golden bullets through the trees or hung like nugget ornaments on every branch. The quad was magical. I was captivated and captured. The goldfinches stayed and I stayed.

There was a morning engagement. I was giving a talk on Robert Frost. One poem to be read had these famous lines that now ran through my head and heart:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

The watch on my arm warned me. I knew this poetic conflict between duty and desire. I stayed until duty could no longer be deferred, and rushed off. I went some miles to keep my promise.

When my remarks came to this winter tale of a ride in the woods, I shared my spring moment with goldfinches — still under its spell. I wanted my smallish audience to know that poets — and philosophers — know what they are talking about occasionally.

That was not, as I had thought, the end of the matter. Nancy Easley Uhl — wife of our faculty member and daughter of Wake Forest institution Allen Easley — told me of another visit of the goldfinches to Wake Forest — at another place and another time. Another Wake Forest president, Dr. William Louis Poteat, had seen a tree of goldfinches and called Mrs. Easley to bring the children. She related this to me in a letter:

When the Easley family moved to “Little Wake Forest” in 1928 Dr. W. L. Poteat (known affectionately as Dr. Billy) had retired as president and taught one biology class. He also taught in an easy informal way I now realize. He shared his stuffed bird collections and his finds like yours last Sunday morning. He showed a Venus Flytrap in the Garden Club show! As a child, I enjoyed all of this.

Young Nancy Easley told her goldfinch story in a childhood poem.


Hurry to the Campus
Bring the children
There is a tree filled
With migrating goldfinches

Mother hung the phone up
Calling out to us
Dr. Billy found a tree
That’s full of goldfinches

We circled around
From every angle
Sun on flitting birds
Made the tree glitter

Finding shining moments
I think of the goldfinch tree

She wrote, “It pleases me that the goldfinches still migrate through North Carolina finding the Wake Forest campus wherever it is and its President.”

Because I lack the poet’s muse, my art is but to tell the story. Like the poem, my message to the graduates is in the telling. Each must appropriate a meaning.

May this tale speak to you of your life here and hereafter. May it provoke in you the deepest symbols of the phrase alma mater that Wake Forest now becomes to you and for you.