2005 WFU Commencement
May 16, 2005
Dr. Thomas K. Hearn, Jr.
President, Wake Forest University
The name “T.K.” was my Albertville, Alabama, childhood nickname. I answered to it for years. So when T.K. became attached to me again at Wake Forest, it brought to mind all that has happened to me since that name came, was lost, and then came again. The rebirth of T.K. was a joyful return to my life’s beginning as well as to this professional ending. I thank you, our students, for the return of this old label. It took me back to my life’s origin, as well as to this conclusion.
My two decades plus at Wake Forest have passed like a mere season or so. There was always something important to do-some issue crying for our time and attention. I have given myself across the years mostly to those objects of concern. Our basic need has been to establish ourselves as a national rather than a regional institution. I believe that ambition has been largely realized.
We have in most years had growing numbers of students from every state in the union and from nations near and far. The college guides have ranked us high, and we continue to become what we sought ideally to become.
We established our institutional independence and rebuilt our physical plants. On the Reynolda Campus and the Bowman Gray Campus we renewed our academic programs and undertook major educational renovation. We became leaders in technology programs. These are all projects we did together.
This growth of our national status will continue, and as alumni and friends you will be asked to participate in this thriving outreach. We will, of course, need your interest and help. Just as our alumnus and friend Arnold Palmer has helped and supported us, all of you, and all of us, must carry the Wake Forest name and reputation. Being a school that is small in the number of our constituents, there is a share of this load we can all consciously assume. We want you to be part of this community from now on. Bear your share, and Wake Forest will flourish accordingly.
For example, I am delighted by Chairman Greason’s announcement this morning that we have reached the $600 million dollar goal in the Honoring the Promise Campaign. This is a great milestone, one for which I am grateful. We still have another year to go, and that will help us focus all our energies on reaching and surpassing the Reynolda Campus goal. I want to thank you all for your roles in this achievement. When I came here, we were celebrating the $17.5 million dollar goal of the Sesquicentennial Campaign. So we have come a long way, but we still have a way to go. Just look at the endowment totals of the private schools ranked above us. We can all change that status in the years ahead. From $17.5 to $600 million is a long reach, but that kind of effort will be needed to sustain and advance this great school. A big “thank you” is part of this final goodbye.
Over these years I have learned also that to be your president, I must reveal to you not just what I think or believe — like a college lecturer — I must also let you know how I feel or what I am concerned about. I must share my heart as well as my head. I had to extend my notion of academic discourse from a didactic lecture to something more personal, even subjective.
As president, the Wake Forest community needed to know what kind of person I was and aspired to be. Oddly enough, that lesson was often most clearly expressed and felt at these ceremonies. If I was to tell you about the present meaning of Pro Humanitate, I had to tell you how its meaning was unfolding to me.
My charges at these ceremonies have gone from world events, like the attacks of 9/11, to the fall of the Soviet Union, to reflections on people whose influence on me was central to my personal development-my mother and a beloved uncle. We have also reflected together on things critical to the life of Wake Forest University. These vital lessons were in themselves part of my teaching, my lecturing at these occasions.
In coming to frame this last lesson of goodbye, I realized that as I stayed and served here, my life and experience were also changing, evolving in ways that caused me to mature and to know. In fact, as we grow and mature, our understanding of ourselves develops in ways that are part of our education. Thus, I trust that you too have the basis for the kind of development of your sympathy and understanding that will grow over your lifetime.
All this background was with me, of course, as I faced in the recent past, my brain tumor. I want to share with you today what I have learned from this experience and also what my lesson may also mean to you.
My presence before you this morning is in large part due to the skill of the Wake Forest University Brain Tumor Center of Excellence and the compassionate care I received there. The science that healed me was sustained by the loving art of family and friends, and the nurturing spiritual care that I sought and received. My network of support-spiritual, medical, my family, and Wake Forest University-was strong and secure. It fortified me.
As I said last year at commencement, my illness proved to be a kind of lesson in happiness. When you are physically tested, you are required to confront all the supporting elements that sustain your work and your life. In this important confrontation, you are given a vital revelation: we all live by grace and by grace alone.
My cancer and those who tended me, both medically and at home, were my instructors in this course. I am deeply grateful for its many new insights. So also am I grateful to all of you who are here today for your part — large and small — in this instruction. I have lived through a teachable moment and am grateful today for the lesson I have received — we all live each day by grace.
Living by grace means being able to live each and every moment of each and every day with the present realization that we and those whom we love are at constant threat for illness or grievous injury. That is, alas, the human state of being, no matter how far it may be from our daily thinking.
When we are physically robust; when our life’s circumstances seem to be harmonious; when our careers are thriving — in these times human nature can blithely ignore or even reject this message of grace. But this contingent nature of human existence is not some distant warning. It is rather a present and near danger.
While our natural tendency is to believe that happiness is achieved by ourselves managing our lives well, unmanageable circumstances, such as I confronted, challenge this assumption. Our first and obvious response is to attempt to manage this new threat in the same controlling manner.
Often we find that our assumption must be revised and we, in some way, abandon the view that we must or can manage life, sickness, death, in an ultimate sense. Grace allows us to concede this control and not only to be comforted, but to accept the truth and realize-with such surrender-a greater happiness and hope than we had even comprehended.
This was, as I said, a lesson in happiness. Cancer taught me that I was living, as humans always live, at constant risk for both flourishing and dying. Coming to inner terms with such teaching was a marvelous transformation. I commend it to you on this occasion of saying goodbye.
This lesson of grace was so well learned that I could sustain the rigors of radiation, brain surgery, and chemotherapy, while at the same uncertain time plan to resume my life and my work. That lesson of hope, too, was part of this miracle.
Thus I reached an understanding, both spiritual and emotional, that prepared me to receive the benefits of medical science. With my wife and family as my guides, and with the physicians who treated my cancer-these were all my personal teachers. I remain grateful for your care. But even more, I am grateful for your instruction in the larger truth of life.
So I learned that we live each day by grace. Coming to that understanding is also a guide that fosters happiness as well as hope. Thus even with the fact of cancer and my extensive treatment, the doors were opened for me to seize happiness. For cancer simply posed, in a direct and obvious way, the threat of extinction. But that threat was already present and real, though I did not acknowledge it on a daily basis. Coming to and accepting this lesson was the opening to happiness. I am a better man today, better in health, richer in spirit.
Happiness presents with it the subtext of hope. The ideal of happiness presents with it the prospect of hope. As we go about our regular lives-family, work, recreation-all those efforts are undertaken with the expected outcomes that contribute to our living and living well. In achieving the lesson of happiness, I was also given hope and opportunity. In my therapeutic activities, painful or not, I came to believe that the outcome of hope for the future would also be achieved.
The moral, the teaching of this illness, was and is that my life was still all it had been earlier. Life is and will be as it has always been. As we reach toward happiness, we are also given hope that our outcomes may be achieved.
My experience with cancer and my treatment had, oddly perhaps, a benevolent outcome. I was given the chance to learn directly what human happiness is and, more deeply, the hope that such happiness engenders. Those life lessons were learned and internalized long before I knew what the outcome of my illness might be. I told my doctors that my intellect, my reason was the basis of my life. Please do not save my physical life, I urged them, if my intellectual life was to be sacrificed. That was not, as I thought and said, a sacrificial statement but a liberating one. I know in a personal sense what I need to serve my profession, my family and, of course, myself.
This happy conclusion was, as you may have guessed by now, reached as a consequence of our motto Pro Humanitate, in service to humanity. To serve that set of purposes in my life, I required my intellectual powers. That was the foundation of my life.
So today T.K. says goodbye, having walked through the deep, dark valley. But I was not alone. The doctors, my family, the love of one Wake Forest family and, of course, my nurturing faith were with me. Saying goodbye, and not farewell, means that our lives will cross paths again. I remind others that I am not leaving this school, just this office. And you, our graduates, will not leave Wake Forest, just our campuses. We hope that you will return often.
Another mark of this goodbye is my realization of the importance of community. Wake Forest is a large and complex place-on campus and off-and what we set out to do requires the joining of many hands. That process of the joining of our hands, and also our hearts, is the result of our sense of community in pursuit of our shared purposes. My illness brought to me the importance of this gift of communal union. When I was not here, Wake Forest friends took my place and did my work. I have never been able to thank them enough, but will try again today.
In these last weeks and months, I am sometimes given credit for major changes at Wake Forest. In fact, however, these changes have come from our common work. Our boards and their leadership are commonly engaged in our policy transformations. When we are visited or surveyed by college guides, it is the commitment and work of our faculty and students that is being examined. So also when our students are successful in achieving scholarship status, it is their work and the work of their faculty supervisors. I urge you, therefore, to practice this art of community if your groups are to succeed. That too is a part of this message of Pro Humanitate. We must grasp to the very ends of our collective reaches. We can-as we already have-accomplish what seems beyond our reach. Achieving more than we thought possible or probable has become a Wake Forest metaphor.
I must, therefore, end this final goodbye by giving thanks to all of you, in and out of Wake Forest. You helped me and often stood in my places. Your help has been a measure of grace. I hope that I, in turn, helped you.
This final goodbye to this great audience must be a warm hello to Dr. Hatch and his great family. He joins us as a tested and mature academic leader. We can expect from him and his office the continuation of the progress all of Wake Forest has made. So Wake Forest and T.K. welcome President Hatch with good luck and Godspeed.
This charge is dedicated to the memory of our great friend Russell H. Brantley (d. February 13, 2005).
I want to thank my doctors and teachers: Dr. Vardaman Buckalew, Dr. Peter Donofrio, Dr. Edward Shaw, Dr. Stephen Tatter, and Dr. Glenn Lesser. I also must thank the Rev. Dr. Douglass Bailey for his spiritual guidance. Help with this essay came from Laura Hearn, Carolyn Dow, Sandra Boyette, Reid Morgan, and Michael Strysick.