1994: President Hearn


1994 WFU Commencement
May 16, 1994
Dr. Thomas K. Hearn, Jr.
President, Wake Forest University

I will remember this year as the time when a new poet entered the circle of my acquaintance. As an undergraduate, I majored in both English and philosophy, and poetry was the literature I loved. The poems of Archie Ammons will be my companion from now on. Ammons is a two-time winner of the National Book Award for poetry and was the first McArthur Fellow. More important for this occasion is that he is a native of Columbus County, North Carolina, and an “old campus” graduate of Wake Forest College. I have intended to read his work for almost as long as I have been at Wake Forest, but you know how such plans get postponed. But for much of this year, his Selected Poems has been on my bedside table and in my brief case on the road.

The first time I read a poem called “Easter Morning,” I knew that I had been given the lesson for this message to the graduates. The poem records a visit to the family cemetery, a place of sadness representing life’s “bitter incompletions” and “empty ends.” But the place of sadness is visited at a time of joy, in the morning of the day of hope, in the season of resurrection.

Commencement in name and in fact, is about beginning, about new life, about an Easter morning of your lives. Yet this day also has that undercurrent of sadness as the poem describes. For every beginning is also an ending. In an essay entitled “Circles,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

The life of man is a self-evolving circle
which, from a ring imperceptibly small,
rushes on all sides outwards to new
and larger circles, and that without end.

Today your life circles are in a moment of change outward, bringing at once sadness and joy. The widening circle will contain, I hope, much of Wake Forest—what you learned here, the people you met, and most of all, the aspirations you formed.

Each present circle contains its origins, and thus the poet visits the cemetery on Easter morning. There is gathered the past: “it’s convenient to visit everybody.” Mother, father, uncles, aunts, teachers, friends — all “collected in one place … all in the graveyard assembled.” As this language of visitation and assembly makes clear, what is in the graveyard has not been lost. In the circle that is the poet’s life, this gathered assembly lives on in the vanishing present.

In particular, the graveyard holds a brother, killed in an accident, but the brother is present and alive. The poem begins with the affirmation:

I have a life that did not become,

I hold it in me like a pregnancy or
as on my lap a child
not to grow or grow old but dwell on …

The poet brother lives his lost brother’s life. The life, though lost, is embraced within another circle.

We visit the past gathered in a place of sadness, but discover that the past is embraced in the circles of our own lives. As the lost brother lives, so does the rest of the gathered assembly. That truth is universal. No person’s circle is self-contained and individual. No one is self-made. We are not, any of us, merely single persons. We live many lives. Our circles are not one. They are many.

I know this truth. There is a graveyard in Albertville, Alabama, located on a last ridge of Appalachia called Sand Mountain. Each time I go home to visit my mother, we walk there to visit our past. These visits are never sad. Our walks there are reflective, grateful reminders of the truth of the poem: the circles of our lives contain what went before.

My grandfather was the son of a sharecropper, and his dreams of education were defeated by ill chance and poverty. His children and grandchildren received and lived his dream. My father is there. Though I do not resemble my father in body or soul, I sometimes see his look in my mirror and hear his voice in my tones and manners. He mandated public speaking and debate to his stage-terrified seventh grade son, and his requirement gave me a life-long love of language and respect for its power in human affairs and its beauty. He gave me the will to embrace Archie Ammons within my circle.

There is in our family a baby who died in infancy, but her name is born in life by my daughter Lindsay. There are uncles and aunts and others we love, reminders that we have many fathers and mothers. To visit them is certainly to know the melancholy sense of lost time and love. But to go there is also to affirm the continuity of time present with times past.

And so, too, do the present circles contain the future. On April 20, my first grandchild was born. He bears my mother’s name, Patton, and a new circle of promise is born with him and in him.

The poem and the poet leave the graveyard. On this “picture-book, letter-perfect Easter morning,” he goes for a walk. On this walk, he is blessed with vision from on high. Two great birds, perhaps eagles, whose essence is not of the earth, draw great circles in the heavens, and in those heavenly circles is the lesson of Easter morning.

… they went
directly over me, high up, and kept on
due North: but then one bird,
the one behind, veered a little to the
left and the other bird kept on seeming
not to notice for a minute: the first
began to circle as if looking for
something, coasting, resting its wings
on the down side of the circles:
the other bird came back and they both
circled, looking perhaps for a draft;
they turned a few more times, possibly
rising—at least, clearly resting—
they flew on falling into distance till
they broke across the local bush and
trees: it was a sight of bountiful
majesty and integrity: the having
patterns and routes, breaking
from them to explore other patterns or
better ways to routes, and then the

Emerson wrote of circles:

Our life is an apprenticeship to the
truth that around every circle another
can be drawn; that there is no end
in nature, but every end is a
beginning; that there is always
another dawn risen on mid-
noon …

The circle of Easter is drawn in the heavens, not in the earth. There is no end, for in the circle, every end is a beginning.

As you leave this day of beginnings and endings, to enter upon new circles, whose lives will you live? Your past, of course, and your families and friends. Your Wake Forest mentors and associates. Each life from today must imitate the “bountiful majesty and integrity” of these great birds in flight.

The having
patterns and routes, breaking
from them to explore other patterns or
better ways to routes, and then the

Whose lives are yours? For whom are you responsible? You live the life and the lives of all humanity. That is the abiding lesson of your alma mater’s motto, Pro Humanitate, given to you today with your diploma. You are involved in all humanity.

The special magic of today is that you begin new circles. My charge this day is to draw your circles in beauty and in truth, and to keep Wake Forest forever in your circle as you become her sons and daughters.

The circles of our lives yield stories told in both tragedy and comedy. Not all our endings are happy, but some are wonderful indeed. Thus you become a partner in the enterprise which is humanity. Live in that spirit, and the circle of your life will be blessed and a blessing.