1988 WFU Commencement
May 16, 1988
Dr. Thomas K. Hearn, Jr.
President, Wake Forest University
Wake Forest has trees for a name. When we left the forest of Wake, the elms that stood here until your final year became a central symbol of our measured development in what will, for a very long time I expect, be called not just the campus, but the new campus. The elms were our environmental and emotional center. Their years have marked our seasons, shielded commencement audiences from the sun, sheltered our games and walks, and celebrated our victories. Only these two in front of the chapel remain. We have scant hope that they will be spared the blight which threatens the species. They were left in hope, and to commemorate a legacy. In our common memory, these elms are, as the poem said, “safe and beautiful forever … majestically swaying, brushing the shadowed doorways of remembrance.”
Only a handful of you came to the solemn ceremony that preceded the Thanksgiving removal, and there was pointed humor about the occasion. It was whispered in Reynolda Hall that the president was promoting Druidism as the new school religion. The Deacon Club wondered whether the Demon Druids might be supported by a vast army of hitherto unutilized supernatural forces. But the loss of these trees marked a passage for Wake Forest, and reaction from the alumni and public made it clear that trees are more than wood, bark and leaf. The removal of the elms underscored the urgency of our commitment to campus and environmental beautification.
An alumnus from Raleigh made a special trip to Winston-Salem to see the new trees. His reaction, voiced by others was, “That’s the way the plaza (as the quad was once called) looked when I was a student. It seemed familiar and right.” What seems familiar and right at one season, is unnatural and wrong at another.
There is a commencement lesson here: we humans are forever in search of a permanent and unchanging reality, some state of “being” to arrest the moving flow of “becoming” in time. But our efforts to seize and hold a permanent order are vain. Change is not merely nature’s first law, it is perhaps nature’s only law. Heraclitus, the first quasi-scientific thinker in the west, stated this truth epigrammatically, “you can never put your foot in the same river twice.”
These elms, like all gifts of beauty and love, were for a season. Our task, the human task, is to accept with gratitude the legacy of beauty, truth and goodness that others have created for us, while we turn to the task of creating new monuments of mind, heart and hand. We plant for those who in future years will sit beneath the shelter of these young trees, as our forbearers gave the elms in promise for us whom they did not know. Thus did they and do we now fulfill our motto: Pro Humanitate.
Commencement season is when Wake Forest gives you to the world for the fulfillment of your tasks on behalf of humanity. That humanity comprises the world that is, but even more importantly, the world that is to be. These new trees are a symbol of that commencing, and it is well therefore that you graduates are placed among these sapling ashes—all of you and the trees portending opportunity.
As alumni, you will return in future years to a campus much changed. Campus beautification will continue. The new University Parkway entrance will be completed this summer. At their last meeting, the trustees approved the most significant expansion of the campus since we called this “new” campus home. Central to that expansion will be the long sought University Center, new facilities for the Babcock Graduate School of Management and the School of Law, expansion of the Z. Smith Reynolds Library, and new space for the sciences including the Olin Physics Building. This will relieve crowding in Tribble Hall, as the Magnolia Quad buildings are renovated for College uses. The extension of the Silas Creek Parkway to carry non-Wake Forest traffic is scheduled to begin next year.
The new coliseum, a partnership between the city and Wake Forest, will open for the season of 1989. Thanks to generous friends, we have new facilities for baseball, tennis and golf. Not of least importance, these trees will grow with the assistance of nature and human nature. One day when you return the quad will have regained its arboreal splendor. It will be again the place now recalled, fondly I hope, in “the shadowed doorways of remembrance.”
But these changes in our institution’s “body,” our campus, facilities and environment will count for naught unless we also grow in our communal “spirit” and “mind.” The concern of education is not the buildings, but what occurs in them. Wake Forest is its people, its faculty and students, and the ultimately serious work we do together in pursuit of a more enlightened world for ourselves and for all mankind. The vital changes for Wake Forest will not be in brick and sand, but in mind and heart and character. Our common university soul is captured in the flux.
This lesson from the elms of the permanence of change has been expressed clearly by students. Lane Wurster issued the challenge to the graduates last year in his senior oration. He urged each of his classmates to “inspect one of these new trees, and allow it to inspect you,” to see if your growth can be measured by each other. You might do that today with a camera. I hope you will. Your classmate Claire Bell enriched that challenge to you that evening when we bid a solemn farewell to the elms. This is what Claire said:
In May we will stand with dozens of new trees that will be growing daily to fulfill their identity. In the morning sun, the delicate beauty of the young saplings will hint at future majesty. Drawing strength from the roots we have put down at Wake Forest, let us strive to fulfill our human potential with the same steadfastness of spirit that can be seen in the growth of a young tree. The disappointment that follows a loss is overcome by the joy of new life and thrill of creation. It is our duty to those who came before us and who created the beauty we see today, to maintain the traditions of our university, including the quadrangle. Wake Forest is the garden of our sapling years: each of us is then transplanted to a life where our potential is actualized, where we can reflect the glory of our creation as purely, strongly and beautifully as a mature tree.
The chestnut is another magnificent species fallen to a blight. I read recently of the efforts of arborists to develop a blight resistant strain. In tree research, it takes a long time to measure success. One of the researchers said something which we should all capture and hold from this day of many memories: “In just a few hundred years,” he said, “we hope to restore the chestnut to the forests.”
Balancing a cloud of silver,
What magic in your dreamy dip-and-toss?
What meaning in your mystic to-and-fro?
A fragrance from the hills of youth
Sweeps through these swinging boughs…
Some distant music
That has lived long upon the edge of silence.
Some door is opened out of long ago,
Faces look forth from long-forgotten windows.
Faint calls I hear,
And fainter answers,
Across the fields of childhood.
Ah! They were very fair, those fields, those faces,
All changeless now,
All safe and beautiful forever,
Shining like clouds above the hills of sunrise
With early light upon them.
Ye bring me back the golden afternoons
Of some slow-smouldering October,
Brushing the shadowed doorways of remembrance.