I attended my baccalaureate thirty-eight years ago today. That makes me sixty years old. But even though my class graduated in 1970, I still survey this scene with the eyes of a twenty-two-year-old. Like you, I have gazed upon this hill, this green slope that leads from Lee Chapel to the Colonnade, more times than I can count. It is a familiar scene, one that is permanently inscribed on the tablet of my memory. I have had classes here on warm spring days, tossed many a Frisbee and basked in the sun, met friends for coffee and led tours for prospective students through here, and participated in a university-wide anti-war protest in this very space. My own commencement took place over there, under the canopy of trees just below the president’s house and beside the Episcopal Church that most of us referred to as “St. Bob’s.” But I prefer this location for these pivotal events, because it lies at the very heart of things.
In fact, you are seated along the central axis of the historic front campus. This sidewalk traverses the hill, as though bisecting the grassy expanse into two fields. It also provides a physical link between the works of architecture honoring the pair of individuals for whom the university is named. The walkway connects the two foci of the hill – Washington Hall, with its red-painted brick and brilliant white columns, and with “Old George” perched at its pinnacle, peering down at us with sword in hand, and this Victorian chapel, with its ivy-covered tower, mechanical clock, and carillon of bells. Here is the place where convocations and lectures, recitals and concerts, weddings and funerals have brought the community together, and where the recumbent Lee lies in peace above his tomb.
These landmarks and this space are more than merely familiar to us; they are integral to our mental landscape. They compose a sacred picture – an icon – of what life at Washington and Lee has meant to you. It is a scene to revere and to cherish; you will long to gaze upon it, and if you’re anything like me, you will seek to see it first whenever you enter the Lexington city limits in the years ahead. During this past academic year, you may have found yourself looking at this scene more and more, as if to memorize it. And, as a graduate, you may have more than a few paintings, prints and photographs of it. There is a common fear that this sight, and what it symbolizes, is fleeting. And yet, coupled with that fear, there is a shared hope that all of this is not transitory.
My high school Latin teacher used to write maxims on the chalkboard to urge us to take things seriously. To that end she often counseled: tempus fugit. (1) How right she was. Time really does fly. And if you think that your years at W&L have flown by, then just wait until you stand where I am standing. Since 1970 I’ve lived a life full of learning, challenge, loss and gain. I’ve experienced a full gamut of emotion – from elation to heartache. And yet, when I stand here, and take in this sacred scene once again, the decades dissolve, and my perspective clears. I remember how it was, as though it were today. And I can close my eyes and imagine that I am in your seat, waiting for tomorrow. I can recall what it was like to have life laden with pure possibility before me. And you will, too, someday.
While those former prospects of mine are now past, I am not unmindful of the future. And as I move forward into that not-yet time, I still feel the need to check my inventory of essentials, such as the values adopted, tested, or discarded in this formative atmosphere. I trust that, if you have paused for reflection as this learning process has come to a close, you will understand that need as well. So, this morning, on the day before you take the next, big step into your future, I join with you in the task of taking stock of the experience that you are savoring – your years at Washington and Lee.
What is it about this place? What was the one thing – the essence – that drew you here, and kept you here? What will you take with you as you leave?
Over time you have probably thought about this – especially the first two of the questions that I raised just now. Both deal with the power of attraction, the persuasive allure and the convincing force, emanating from the Washington and Lee experience. Some might have been drawn to W&L’s reputation as a great liberal arts college – as celebrated by school counselors, student chatter, or US News and World Report. Some might have been lured by the locale. Ensconced in the Shenandoah Valley between two mountain ranges, its picturesque placement is famously important to a host of admirers. Others may have been impressed by the caliber of the alumni, or felt a kinship with those who are currently students. There are, I suspect, those who believed what the Princeton Review had to say about W&L’s “country club Southerner” image, and wanted either to change it or to sign up immediately. And, of course, there are quite a few who may have fallen in love with the school at first sight.
Whatever it was, something clicked for you, and choice was made. However, the sticking power of that initial attraction – the thing that convinced you that you made the right choice – was related to your experience. Your attraction was tested in the day-to-day process of being a Washington and Lee student. You may have known people for whom this proved not be the right place. But you were not disappointed; you invested yourself in W&L, and that has yielded rich dividends. Now you are here, assembled on this hill, awaiting your graduation. And it is meet and right that you indulge yourself in a little nostalgia, and reflect on the decisive factor that brought you here, and kept you here. For I am persuaded that this is what you’ll take with you into your future.
What attracted me was the civility – the courtesy and honesty and trusting openness – of this community. I had been all set to go elsewhere when I set foot on this campus for the first time. I was on a tour of Virginia schools, and I’d seen a couple of great ones before coming to Lexington. My mother and brother and I were walking toward the freshman dorm when a gentleman pulled up to the curb and stepped out of his car. We were clearly tourists, but instead of ignoring us, he took time to welcome three strangers to W&L. He was polite, warm, and focused on us. Although he identified himself by name, I had no idea who he was, or what he had meant to this university. I found out three years later, when I looked up in the Evans Dining Hall to see the portrait of the man who had welcomed me. It was Mr. Mattingly, the revered treasurer of the university. (2) It seemed as though there was nothing more important to him at that moment than to be hospitable to visitors. His personal touch epitomized the difference – the quality of life that separates Washington and Lee from other schools of academic excellence.
And I soon found that this experience was not a fluke. Being spoken to by students, faculty, and administrators was a regular occurrence. At every meeting on the campus there was some word of welcome. That had not happened anywhere else that I had visited.
But the icing on the cake was a call that I received when I returned to Richmond. It was from a young man who had recently graduated from W&L. When he learned that I was thinking of applying here, Dave Montgomery made it his business to connect with me, and to tell me about the school. He spent an hour or so in my family home, explaining why he had come to W&L. Dave talked about professors for whom teaching was the highest calling, about athletes who actually were students, about an honor system that worked, about traditions deeply rooted in the past, but open to change, and about a social scene marked by Fancy Dress and big weekends and fraternal life. He was enthusiastic and persuasive, but more than that, he was the coolest guy I’d ever met. After his visit the die was cast. I applied early decision, was accepted, and my life was forever changed.
And I keep coming back. W&L’s culture of civility has become a part of me. It has permeated my character. It has formed you as well.
The essence of the place is subtle, but it is powerful. We who have lived and moved and had our being here have unconsciously picked up and incorporated its influence. In part it is intentionally taught to new members of the community, but largely it is absorbed, as if by osmosis, from the generations of students, teachers, and administrators whose spirit abides in the culture.
A few years ago my niece Jennifer (W&L class of 2004) gave me a wonderful birthday present. It was one of the t-shirts that the alumni association provides for the freshman class. When I saw that word SPEAK emblazoned in white on that navy blue cloth, it struck me with considerable force. It touched me deeply. For us to speak is not a suggestion; it is an imperative – one that continues to exist for us by common consent. It is what we do in this culture of civility.
On spring break this year, my family spent a couple of days in Lexington. The children like this place; they are attracted by the same thing that attracted me. We were staying in a hotel on the edge of town, and there was a field nearby offering a nice spot to play a little catch with our lacrosse sticks. Because the weather was brisk I donned a sweatshirt bearing a W&L logo. As we waited for the elevator, a young woman sitting in the hall looked up from her reading. She spied my attire, and – guess what? – she spoke! “Did you go to W&L?” she asked. “I did along time ago,” I replied. “Great! I’m a freshman, and I love it here!” Her enthusiasm and her willingness to engage in a conversation with a stranger who happened to be wearing a symbol with which she identified were so genuine that I knew that she already understood.
A men’s lacrosse game at Randolph-Macon College this year ended in lopsided victory for the Generals. Every player for W&L was “on,” and the sum total of that energy overwhelmed the Yellow Jackets. In addition, the esprit de corps among our players was strong, and the level of sportsmanship was high as well. In short, it was a terrifically played contest, and pure pleasure to watch. When the final whistle sounded, there was much cheering from the sidelines while teammates congratulated one another briefly, and with a reserved dignity. There was no sign of attitude, and no condescension.
The players gathered together as a team, and then they did something quite unexpected. Instead of lining up to say, “Good game,” to their opponents, the Generals quietly walked over to the bleachers. I watched as they presented the game ball a young boy who was obviously thrilled to receive it. One after another, W&L’s players stepped up and shook hands or gave high fives to the boy. The lad beamed as he looked into the eyes of each of his heroes. It was only after these greetings were complete on the sideline that the team returned to the field for the game-ending ritual.
Curious about what just witnessed, I asked one of the team parents who that young boy was. She told me that his name is Drew, and that he had been “adopted” by the Generals through a program to support and encourage children with special needs. I learned that Drew has been fighting a highly aggressive, adult brain tumor for four out of his eight years of life. He’d endured extensive surgeries, debilitating chemotherapy, seemingly endless clinical trails, tests, and medicines. Drew has suffered greatly, but he is determined to overcome brain cancer. The Generals decided to join his fight to live, and Drew has responded to his new teammates with gratitude and delight. That partnership, the bond between Drew and students at this university, was the real victory on the field that day. The kindness of those players was something to behold. What they did showed character, and that transcends winning and losing.
How did all this happen? How did this culture of courtesy, honor, and trust come about? Is this climate of civility an accident of history, a confluence of disparate ideas? Or is there something more intentional about the development and formation of this venerable institution?
In my opinion, it is the latter.
Four decades ago, there were institutional mechanisms in place that sought to inculcate, promote, and enforce the adherence to this culture. On the administration’s part there was “Freshman Camp,” a quaint attempt at indoctrination-by-male-bonding among the incoming first year students. Having arrived on campus with the help of parents, the freshman class awoke the morning after that first night of complete freedom to a quick breakfast and then to being herded onto buses for a trip to Natural Bridge. There we were put up in hotel rooms, fed, lectured, and expected to compete in athletic contests – all in the name of class unity and receiving the traditions of Washington and Lee. Many of us thought it odd that this all took place at Natural Bridge, and away from the place that we had chosen to attend. Nevertheless, much was learned and friendships did begin to form. However, I’m not sure that telling us about W&L’s culture actually accomplished what people in charge hoped.
On the student side of the enterprise, there was an official group that attempted to hold our feet to the fire. It was called the Assimilation Committee, and its purpose was to get students to act in accordance with the ideals of the university. Members of the committee visited dorm sections to persuade freshmen to live by the culture’s norms, such as: speaking before being spoken to, staying off the grass, and wearing what was called “conventional dress.” That last term is meaningless today, but in my era, which was (alas!) all male, it meant wearing coat and tie, or a letterman’s sweater and tie, everywhere on campus except the gym or the athletic fields. As you might imagine, clothing stores flourished with that rule in place. Students dressed well both because they had to and because they wanted to. But that all changed with the arrival of the denim-clad sixties.
The Assimilation Committee in its heyday had the power to admonish, and then impose a fine, on those students who relaxed any of the rules. I recall feeling compelled to speak for fear of being fined, and I made sure that I never cut across a lawn.
Eventually everyone woke up, and the committee itself was assimilated. It became the University Center Committee, providing hospitality and welcome to freshmen, rather than serving as campus “police.” Besides, “the times they [were] a-changin,” and students refused to conform to what we called “the establishment.” I remember one protester who came to English class in bell-bottom jeans, sandals, and a coat and tie. The problem was that he wasn’t wearing a shirt. Bare-chested, and defiantly sticking to the letter of the law, he dared the professor to eject him from class. The professor won.
It was a good thing to dispense with institutional management of the culture. When all the rules evaporated, and all the structures disappeared, we were left to learn what defines W&L on our own. You have followed in our wake; you have had none of the official enforcement that earlier students faced. However, as I have walked this campus since 1970, I have consistently been impressed with the spirit of civility that has passed from generation to generation. Without being forced to do or say anything, you “get” W&L.
The culture of civility that sets us apart is alive and well.
I admit to being something of an idealist, but I am not naïve nor am I unmoved by reality. The truth is that our civility exists despite those who have abused or neglected the values that many have lived by and fostered. You and I know about these disappointing (and sometimes infuriating) departures from grace that appear from time to time in our community. They are real and they are damaging. These anomalies must be met head-on as though we were dealing with a virus.
And yet, despite disappointment and detraction from the good, we have inherited and passed on the ideal of a university dedicated to civility, as well as academic excellence. This culture is here and now, and it will proceed into the future. There is no accident about this. There was a defining influence that shaped this institution. The influence was a person who put his stamp on the culture, a person in the throes of change who drew upon resources of intellect, character, and spirit to articulate what a nation in reconstruction would need for wholesome recovery.
Francis Pendleton Gaines, president of Washington and Lee from 1930-1959, not only felt that influence, he embraced it. Moreover, he deemed it essential to the ongoing health of the university he had been called to lead. So, Dr. Gaines became a standard bearer for the one whom he regarded as W&L’s prime mover. In 1933 he delivered an address to The New York Southern Society meeting at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. His subject was R. E. Lee, the Educator. The scope of his concern was “the final achievement,” namely what Lee accomplished here in Lexington in the last five years of his life. For Dr. Gaines, to understand what Lee did in that period “is to learn something of the real man, and to learn something of a definite, a substantial and a permanent contribution which he made.” (3)
President Gaines prefaced his comments about Lee’s contribution by taking the measure of the man who, in 1865, agreed to serve students rather than his own self-interest, the man who chose not to wallow in the past but to attend to the future. He said:
Among the ideal attainments which Kipling suggests in his poem, “If,” is the capacity to
“Lose, and start again from the beginnings,
And never say a word about your loss.”
In a striking drama of character, this capacity found fulfillment in the closing years of the life of Lee. He is justly reckoned as one of the world’s noblest losers. The calm acceptance and serene faith which he counseled to his countrymen, he first achieved himself. There was no rationalizing on his part, no labored attempt at justification; no word of blame for any whose better support of him might conceivably have changed the course of history; no phrase of futile regret; not so much as a whispered syllable of bitterness against his successful antagonists. If bravely to bear calamity be among the human virtues, then in this respect Lee is excelling.
But the quality of the man is indicated not only in the manner with which he accepted defeat. Even more significant was the new start he made, intelligent, heroic, effective. The surrender and its sequel did more than reveal character; they furnished him opportunity for a new and important work.(4)
We know that Lee’s fresh start included the transformation of Washington College. With his leadership, it grew from a struggling classical academy to an institution that would soon rightly be called a university. The “new work” that transpired included plans for a school of commerce, and the addition of schools of engineering, journalism, and law. All of these innovations were aimed at resurrection not only of the college, but at the revival of a nation. There were more changes that should have happened, changes that eventually would be made to enhance the inclusiveness and diversification of the student body and of the faculty. However, Lee’s time ran out; his new work was left unfinished. Fulfillment of a more perfect vision has been left to us. One hopes that he is pleased and gratified with how Washington and Lee has developed.
But Lee did more than transform academic program and policy. The influence that he had on the community, that is, on the students and teachers themselves, is what has become the most important contribution of all. Lee gave himself to the college, and he did so because he had a clear vision of a culture wherein education engages the whole person. I have called this a culture of civility; others have described it as one of gentility. Nevertheless, Lee’s view of a beneficent climate for learning was accepted, and it has become a mark of W&L’s identity. That unique legacy, according to Dr. Gaines, can be directly traced to Lee’s persuasive personality:
He was, for example, infallibly courteous, and he spread as if by contagion his own grace of manner into a permanent college tradition. Trained in the military regimen himself, he willed that the college should have no trace of it; instead he wanted maximum responsibility placed on the individual and utter confidence reposed in him, and from his purpose grew the University’s “Honor System.” . . . He did not permit the order of private conversation or of formal instruction to be tinged with hostility or with even a partisan interpretation of the events in which he himself had been conspicuous. He emphasized the mood, later to become happily general through his section, of citizenship in a united country, a mood of unvaried loyalty to the country and of faith in its destiny. (5)
In Lexington, Lee poured his remaining energy into those who would build rather than destroy, who would unify rather than divide. He did this largely by living a simple life of devotion, by taking the high road of civility, by exemplifying a code of honor, and by treating others with humble compassion. The effect of this influence is all around you. I believe that Francis Pendleton Gaines was right in concluding that His spirit abides as the principal force in [the university’s] educational enterprise. . . .
His spirit abides, not merely in sculptured likeness or even as a matter of historical distinction, but as the summation of institutional ideals. His character defines the aspiration of youth who come within the radius of his influence. (6)
I asked at the outset, “What attracted you here, and what persuaded you to stay?” Those are questions for you to contemplate at this baccalaureate. But, because you are about to leave, the most important question of the day is, “What will you take with you?”
My hope is that you have been so touched by the spirit of this community that its culture of civility will be your lifelong companion. Courtesy, honor, and trust are gifts to be cherished and shared and taken to heart. They can affect the whole person who has sojourned and studied in this place. May you take them with you as you step boldly into your future. The world awaits your “new work.” This special place has equipped you to increase the good of all as you strive for excellence. Let it be so.
2. Earl Stansbury Mattingly was treasurer of Washington and Lee University from 1940-1966.
3. Dr. Francis Pendleton Gaines, Lee: The Final Achievement (New York: The New York Southern Society), 1933, p. 9. I am indebted to my friend and fellow alumnus, Allen Mead Ferguson, who made available to me a copy of this rare collection of Dr. Gaines’ speeches concerning R. E. Lee.
4. Ibid., pp. 9-10.
5. Ibid., p. 18.
6. Ibid., p. 20.