THE GREATEST OF THESE
1998 WFU Commencement
May 18, 1998
Dr. Thomas K. Hearn, Jr.
President, Wake Forest University
This ceremony is an important beginning. Commencement marks an end to the preparatory phase of your life and the beginning of all that you are to be and do. What will you become, and how will you measure your achievements?
The central questions of your life are largely yours to answer. More than any other thing, your aspirations will determine what you become. Fickle fate can certainly mark us for good or ill, but people largely live the scripts of their own writing. The ambitions you form and the diligence with which you pursue them will define the substance of your life.
The measures of success, as culturally defined, are so pervasive that we may not even recognize the power they exert. There is a script ready-written for you, for all of us, regarding what you are to be and become.
But we all retain the choice to adopt other life plans. To make this point, I want to tell you the story of a man, William B. Cooper, who was my uncle and my other father. Because my mother worked, the children in our family lived in the summer with my Uncle B and Aunt Sis. By cultural measures, Uncle B’s life would not be considered a success. He quit school to go to work in the teeth of the depression, and never was able to find a decent job. For a while, he managed a family farm, just as mechanization was making family farming impossible, especially if you were a renter, and the profit, if any, had to be shared with the owner.
He ultimately became the owner of a rural general store and operated a peddling truck. A general store sold basic grocery, hardware, and some farm supplies. Before country folks had cars, Uncle B would drive his truck to his rural customers and deliver necessities. For many years, he and my aunt lived in three small rooms in the side of the store, and it was a long time before they enjoyed such conveniences as running water and a telephone. He never made more than a modest living. He never rode in an airplane. Only on one occasion, maybe two, he took a vacation and went to see the ocean. Otherwise, he hardly ever left the area where he lived and worked in middle Tennessee. His only child died at birth, and his latter years were marked by tragedy when my aunt took her own life.
This life story might seem to require a somber memorial. But when I gave the eulogy at Uncle B’s memorial service, I described a radiant and joyful man.
The country store was not a place merely to shop; it was a social center. In the days before television, the entertainment of rural people took place in the store. When the day’s chores were done, the local community gathered at the store for soft drinks and conversation. In the summer the children played outside. The adults discussed the problems of their farms and their lives, and there were games and an occasional square dance. They were practiced storytellers and the conversations on the porch in the summer and around the stove in the winter were lively and wonderful. Deep and abiding friendships were nurtured, and neighbors cared for each other with a devotion which modern communities would not believe possible. If someone was sick and could not milk or harvest, neighbors came and did the work when their own labor was done.
As the owner of the store, the community center, Uncle B was a community leader. He taught Sunday school for years, often serving as the superintendent of the Sunday school. The church was on a circuit. Preaching took place only once or twice each month and, thus, the Sunday school was the central religious exercise. Though uneducated formally, Uncle B knew people and life, and he had an understanding of the practical meanings of religion. He was a good talker and teacher, and the conversations from the store made it to church in his lessons.
Uncle B was dedicated to his work. No enterprise, large or small, ever received more committed effort. The store opened early, by seven o’clock at the latest, and it stayed open until the last customer left at night. The hours were long, and the work, especially on the peddling truck, was grueling. There was no air-conditioning, and the store and the truck were often unbearably hot in summer and cold in the winter. I can never recall a complaint about his work or life. He loved his job, and was proud of what he did as a merchant.
Uncle B was a man with a child’s sense of playfulness, a trait that endeared him to children. Children were drawn to him, and he kept candy in his pocket. He loved to play. The only food fights in which I ever participated broke out when Uncle B and I were cleaning out the produce counter. Aunt Sis did not approve of such foolishness, and scolded us like the children we both were.
My uncle’s reputation for honesty was legendary. In those backwoods where his peddling truck traveled, there were those who could not see and hear, and others who could not count. But each customer received a penny’s goods for a penny. Many customers traded chickens and eggs for grocery items, and when there were not goods and money enough to provide for necessities, Uncle B’s traveling store became a kind of early version of meals on wheels. His acts of charity, conducted as part of doing business, were incalculable. He fed the hungry, and cared for the needy.
Another youngster in that little community my uncle served was Jack Higgs. Jack went to the Naval Academy on a football scholarship, became an English professor who published on the cultural meanings of athletics. In his book God in the Stadium, the preface contained the following as he described the influence of his upbringing:
In addition to my father, I want to mention another wonderful individual, W.B. “B” Cooper, a dear friend of my father. As operator of the store, superintendent of the Sunday school, sponsor of our ball team and even manager for a while, he was the uncle of Tom Hearn, who used to spend part of his summers in our village. Hearn has been a voice … to reform college athletics. How much his attitude towards sports was shaped by his Uncle B, I don’t know. Starting with church and Sunday school, Sunday dinner, baseball in the afternoon, a replay at B’s store with cold drinks, and then a dip and bath in the blue hole …. [I]n the relationship between sports and religion, I have seldom seen such sanity, thanks to my father and “B.”
It will not surprise you that as I read those words, in an academic book a decade after my uncle’s death, I felt a tear running down my cheek. In print for the ages was the public acknowledgement of something important that I had known and should have written down myself. As my uncle walked his path doing his duty as neighbor and a friend, he left marks on the world. Jack Higgs had given Uncle B a tribute his life deserved. I offer mine today as a lesson to you.
Emerson defines success as follows:
To laugh often and love much, to win the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of children; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to give one’s self; to leave the world better whether by healthy child, a garden path, or redeemed social conditions; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exaltation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you lived—that is to have succeeded.
That is not, of course, the kind of definition one would find these days at a career-planning seminar. It says nothing of power or wealth or status. But it does describe those qualities which, if practiced over a lifetime, promise to join success with life’s other ultimate aims — goodness and happiness. Success is not enough. A well-ordered life must be crowned by goodness and happiness.
In thinking about these ultimate aims in life, they appear to be not just different but conflicting. Achievement or success is not the same as goodness or service to others, which is again not the same as happiness. To seek one would apparently compromise pursuit of the others. But in a certain sense, even accounting for his frustrations and disappointments, my uncle was a successful man in Emerson’s sense, who was also a good man and a happy man. As they say now, “He had it all.”
What made this union of success, goodness, and happiness possible for Uncle B — and makes his life worth your consideration — is the work of love. That is why Corinthians teaches us that the greatest of the spiritual gifts is love.
Though my uncle’s life was unmarked by education, wealth or position, his path through the world was crowned with all those rewards which love provides. He loved much, and was loved in return. Love crowned him with happiness, goodness, and, yes, even success. I wear his watch on my arm to this day, in remembrance, but also in hope that the counting of the days and hours of my life can bring rewards so cherished.
The theme of these remarks is Pro Humanitate — the motto on the seal of your diploma about to be handed you. This motto states Wake Forest’s ambition for your life—to live in service of humanity. In that respect, Uncle B is the greatest among men. His life, guided by love, was invested in the world—Pro Humanitate.
Our family was blessed with another grandson last year. My son and his wife named him Cooper. While I fervently hope that young Cooper Hearn will receive an education, freedom from want, and fuller opportunity than B Cooper had, I could not wish for him a better life measured against those ideals which matter most.
St. Paul wrote that the fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control. Uncle B had those gifts. He possessed them because he offered them to others. May such a life be yours, and you will be both blessed and a blessing. He was.