1997 WFU Commencement
May 19, 1997
Dr. Thomas K. Hearn, Jr.
President, Wake Forest University
This commencement day brings to a joyous conclusion a year in which — though there have been many successes — we have known little joy. Thus, even this occasion dedicated to our future hope cannot pass without a review of the lessons so brutally forced upon this community this year. The flag in the Perritt Plaza seemed at permanent half mast. This Chapel, so often the scene of our celebrations, was a place of bitter commemoration.
Even before the school year began, Matthew was on flight 800 and Graham was killed in a traffic accident at home. Then in early September, that call came, awakening me from sleep to a living nightmare. Julie and Maia were dead, victims of a drunk driver, and four other students were seriously injured. Like others of you, I slept no more that night. Still we were not done with grieving. Janice and Grace were lost to us, suddenly and unaccountably. Our trustee and friend Albert died just before this dedication. Mark, long time dean of men — a Wake Forest institution — was memorialized last Thursday. Bones McKinney, one of the most colorful personalities in our history, died this weekend. It has been a year of lamentation.
What did we learn that we must recall even on this day when the door of hope is open wide? These truths, often shielded from the young, are at all times for all people.
Life is infinitely precious, and our grasp on it is but frail. Death is ever present and powerful.
Love is strong, and the grief we saw and felt is testimony to the intensity of the love lost.
Life does not mete out justice according to merit. Life’s blessings are not given or gotten according to our just desserts.
There are other teachings I offer on this day of final lessons. One comes from our alumnus poet, A.R. Ammons, here this spring as part of the Year of the Arts.
His “Easter Morning” is among my favorite poems, and tells a story about the many lives we all live.
That poem records an Easter visit to the family cemetery, a place representing life’s “bitter incompletions” and “empty ends.” But this place of sadness is visited at a time of joy, in the morning of the day of hope, in the season of resurrection.
In particular, the graveyard holds a brother, killed in an accident, but the lost brother is present and alive. The poem begins with 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’s brother lives his lost brother’s life.
We here today are not unlike the poet on Easter. We revisit the sadness of this year at this moment when we commence to new, Easter-like beginnings. Like the poet, we too must leave here bearing lives, not just our own, whose promises, aspirations and ambitions must become ours, lives which live on in us and through us.
Our families, our friends, our faculty mentors, and, yes, those lost to this life, all become part of us. This is what it means to live, as your diploma says, “For humanity.” You are not one. You are many.
Graham loved Wake Forest basketball, and served as more than manager to our team, because his influence reached the court on the feet of other players. His zeal for success, his Christian faith, leaves a legacy we now assume.
Matt’s smile was perpetual and so infectious that no one dared stand in the color guard rank next to him lest the serious business of presenting the nation’s flag be overtaken by laughter. A scholarship fund will enable your future colleagues to complete Matt’s mission to France.
Maia said in her Wake Forest application that she hoped “to be remembered as someone who has been an influence on people’s hearts.” So will she be in our hearts and the many others she touched. Just last summer, in a tragic prophecy, she wrote of “two more souls [who] have been added to the eternal dance to swing in time with life and all its experiences.” Henceforth, we all dance her dance with destiny, to influence hearts for good.
Julie’s essay was about her extraordinary experiences as a volunteer. She participated in Students Against Drunk Driving every year in high school. She worked with Brian, injured in an accident, to help him walk. At a camp for underprivileged children, she played with Crystal, who, though she weighed more than a hundred fifteen pounds, was not too heavy a burden for Julie to carry upon her back. Today you and I must seize that load of loving service.
Julie’s essay quoted from the Gospel: You are the light of the world. Henceforth, these lights must be reflected in your lives.
The poet says at his brother’s grave on Easter:
I cannot leave this place, for
for me it is the dearest and the worst,
it is life nearest to life which is
You leave Wake Forest, this place now to become your past, with a future self consisting of the many lives that make of you one. The life nearest to your life also is life lost. You take up today these lost lives.
We have learned this year the power of communal action. Our grief turned to anger, even rage, and that fueled a commitment to not allow this tragedy to be without redemptive consequence. Our community’s resolve was tested, and I am proud of what you tried and accomplished.
You joined with local law enforcement officials and the District Attorney’s office, and this trial sent a resounding message to the nation regarding the horror of habitual drunk driving. The case brought the first murder in the first degree conviction in North Carolina, perhaps in the nation, for driving while impaired, and it made front page news around the nation. Your rage for justice was answered by the court, and will reverberate throughout the nation for many years to come.
More ambitious yet, we had the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the Secretary for Public Safety, and a host of interested parties to a campus forum to discuss the status of our State’s laws about habitual drunk drivers. Those laws were inadequate and we resolved, as a community, to change them. Governor Hunt asked Lieutenant Governor Wicker to lead a task force. You organized Safe Roads, a student led initiative across the campuses of our State. When the legislation was introduced, you were there to lobby and call the public’s attention to this menace.
This legislation has passed the House 113-1, and will, we believe, win overwhelming approval in the Senate. Your influence has been felt. This legislation will become law. Safer roads will be the result of Safe Roads. This remarkable outcome is a tribute to your common resolve, in joint endeavor with many others.
Here, too, is a lesson for your life beyond Wake Forest. An aroused citizen movement can move a state from decades of misguided tolerance of a chronic menace to public safety. I stood with your fellow students in the State legislature offices. I have never been prouder of Wake Forest students.
You made a difference this year, and you can make a difference in the other causes in which your lives shall be engaged. Never accept the slavery of indifference or apathy or the claims of the slothful that we are the impotent pawns of social and political forces which we can only passively accept. A shared and passionate commitment can change an intransigent political system. That is the blessing of democracy. You have seized it this year. Make that blessing yours for life, and you will change this nation and the world.
There were moments of epiphany in my undergraduate years, when I was about your age, moments when I acquired lessons never lost. I want to share one such moment with you that I have never before mentioned in public.
Our Shakespeare class was two semesters long. In the first, we studied the comedies, the tragedies in the second. The professor was a man I knew well, having taken several of his courses. In the first session of the second term, he remarked, in an off hand way, that Shakespeare’s tragedies were generally regarded as superior to the comedies.
“Why is that?” I asked at once. Mr. Ownby started to reply, but then paused. That pause lengthened into one of the most compelling silences, louder than shouts, which seem to last an eternity. The room was utterly still. You know the awkward anxiety that comes from an unexpected and extended silence.
Mr. Ownby paced the floor and looked out the window. Finally, he turned to me with an expression on his face which revealed that these were words from his heart and soul: “Because, Mr. Hearn, life is more tragic than comic.” There was another pause before the class continued. It was a moment I shall never forget.
It is important that you rightly hear what Mr. Ownby told me from his heart. For many years I mistook his message. He did not say that life is tragic rather than comic. He said life is more tragic than otherwise.
Now older and perhaps wiser, I know what he meant. We are the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride across history, and one of those horsemen visited Wake Forest this year in power.
Yet this Commencement day, like Easter, is a symbol of the possibility we have to do battle with our ancient enemies — to bring health, justice, security, and love to those in need. You celebrate today new weapons of the head and heart with which to wage this ancient and ultimate battle — for humanity.
You will encounter the realities of good and evil, achievement and failure, faith and despair. The world’s story is told in both comedy and tragedy, in laughter and tears. Not all our endings are happy, but some are wonderful indeed.
Above all, you must see yourselves as partners in the enterprise of humanity. It is a task embracing all that has been gained — and lost — from your families and from the family of Wake Forest. In your places of service, each of you must strive to create a legacy that offers a fuller destiny for all.
The commitment of Wake Forest to that purpose is upon your seal: Pro Humanitate. May that motto be the guide and guardian of your days, and you will be blessed and a blessing.