Bob Ward’s Final Commencement Address
Of all the thousands of documents in the Williston Northampton Archives, two stand out for having been requested multiple times. Perhaps not coincidentally, both are the words of Headmaster Robert A. Ward, who led newly-merged Williston Northampton through the difficult years of 1972-1979. The most-asked-for is Ward’s “Farewell to Seniors,” words with which he concluded each of his Williston graduations and which have ended most Commencement ceremonies since. (“A Farewell to Seniors” was posted on this blog a year ago.)
The second, which may surprise some, is Bob Ward’s Commencement Address of May 28, 1979. There are those, including this writer, who think it is the best they ever heard. As Ward himself pointed out, graduation speeches aren’t supposed to be memorable. But anyone who knew him will recall that Ward had a rare and special talent for communicating from the heart. On May 10, 2013 philanthropist John Hazen White Jr., class of 1976, received the school’s Robert A. Ward Medal, celebrating Ward’s dictum to “do good well.” In his remarks to the assembled students and faculty, White noted that “It is difficult to try to translate what a person meant to one.” “There will be few who will challenge you to think about how to challenge yourself and those are the ones that really matter.” “Bob Ward was one of those . . . that drew forth the best of our ability to think from the deepest part of our soul.”
Here, then, is Bob Ward’s 1979 Commencement Address. We dedicate it today to the Class of 2013, who graduate this weekend.
At this point in the program it is customary to introduce the Commencement Speaker. This time, for better or worse, that will not be necessary, for the Commencement Speaker is already speaking. We might back up and do an introduction – but that wouldn’t work either, for even that way the Commencement Speaker would already be speaking. Confronted with this intractable dilemma, this hopeless impasse, this curious conundrum, there is one solution – as always – ignore the problem.
Over the years, we have always been slightly nervous as our visiting speakers took this rostrum and somewhat anxious lest they bomb out. Today, no such fear exists. I take the same comfort this morning that I did last December in sending out the home-grown Christmas poem. Before it went out, Mr. St. George read it and said, “Well, Bob, at least you can’t be fired.” Again, secure in that knowledge, I assume the full risk of delivering the Commencement Address.
Most of the visiting dignitaries who have spoken to this gathering in years past have generally sounded ringing calls to various kinds of greatness and laid before the graduating class modest challenges – like saving the world, cleaning up the environment, harnessing or eliminating nuclear energy, or improving the condition of mankind. All well and good, since those talks have reflected the distance between the speakers and those addressed. Today will be different, for this speaker has no intention of giving a talk which might well have been prepared for the halls of Congress or the United Nations. It will be different for two important reasons: (1) I know you, and (2) you mean more to me than you ever would to any outside speaker. There will be no large or heavy theme this morning, rather just the sharing of a few simple notions as we come to the end of our Williston days. In the long run, it may be that simple notions are the most important ones, for from them flow all others. Just as a single photograph is made up of countless smaller dots, it is my intention today to focus on a few such dots as you move to frame your own larger picture.
Before getting into these simple notions, it cannot be overlooked that there are certain similarities that we share on this occasion. All of us, you and I, are going on to a new stage in our lives, a stage relatively unknown to us. All of us are secretly asking what it will be like, for that next stage may be somewhat scary as we leave Mother Williston. Some time ago, a parent of an admission candidate from Texas wrote me and said that she had the impression that Williston “was the kind of school that wrapped its arms around its students.” To the extent that that observation is true, our departure from Williston is yet more awesome. We have been spoiled, for it is unlikely that we will find ourselves again in an environment which is as caring as this one. For some of you that caring may have raised your displeasure, for at times it was manifest in a reasonable discipline that asked you to live up to certain standards. For most of you, I hope, it was a source of encouragement and direction as it guided you along the road of adolescence and growth.
Now, to the notions. There are twelve of them. You can view them either as Ward’s Words of Wisdom or the Headmaster’s Dubious Dozen.
Notion #1. Perhaps the biggest challenge that you will face in your time in college and after is to do the one crucial thing that will determine your happiness in all your years. You alone will have to define the feedback which is essential to give meaning to your life. For some, that feedback will include things like money, power, fame, status or countless other ingredients that are available to you. Down deep, you will come to know that you — you alone — have to decide this question or live your years in anguished unfulfillment. In connection with this point, you should also be aware that for a good part of your life you will be playing to those in the grandstand, a grandstand which includes your parents, your teachers, and your peers. At some point, however, you will discover that that grandstand loses its preeminence or, at least, that a more important grandstand exists inside yourself. So as you work to define your required feedback, remember that ultimately it is a lonely enterprise, for your deepest satisfactions must finally be internal, not external.
Notion #2. Another simple point which I would urge upon you is that you develop strong loyalties as the years pass. I suggest that you need to make those loyalties carefully and sparingly. Keep them large, for small loyalties are draining and small loyalties are the stuff on which petty people dwell. Make your loyalties to your family, to your country, to your roots, to your church, to your school, to your college. Whatever you do, keep them large.
Notion #3. I would urge this morning that you make a mighty effort over the coming years to understand clearly your fears. Identify those fears that you believe can be overcome and those with which you know you will have to live. Part of the process of maturity is knowing how to confront your fears. A complex and sometimes confusing world will come at you in a variety of ways. How you plant your feet as it comes at you will largely be determined by your own fears. My hope this morning would be that you overcome the petty fears which inhibit you and respect mightily the larger, legitimate ones.
Notion #4. You have had at Williston a large opportunity to begin to develop your own skill at making choices and moving from the use of the verb have to to the verb want to. That process is also part of growing up. The choices ahead of you will be even greater, for ahead are choices between and among courses and careers, life styles and values. In your years in college, you will face more mundane choices between the library and the local bar, between papers or pot, between reading and research or campus rah-rah. It cannot be expected for a moment that you will always choose the more serious alternative — none of us do — but you should realize that you are making choices and that those choices will condition what you do and what you become.
Notion #5. Another important talent you have begun to develop here at Williston — and will continue to develop in college — is the simple skill relating to the ability to ask the right questions. You will also know that the questions you ask are more important than the answers and that good answers should only lead to better questions. The difference between an educated individual and one who is not is that the former asks the right questions and knows where to look for the answers. An educated person asks the question “why,” while the less educated person is content to ask “how.” So I would stress the importance of questions, and knowing how to ask them and how to find the answers. There is an old story about a man who visited a carnival and noticed on the midway a sign which advertised a fortune teller by the name of “Madame Marie.” The sign said: “Fortunes Told — $10.00.” The man put down his $10.00 and went inside the tent and found Madame Marie sitting behind her crystal ball. As he seated himself, she looked up and said, “You get two questions!” Startled, he looked back and said: “Two questions for $10.00; isn’t that a bit expensive?” To which she replied: “Yes, now what is your second question?”
Notion #6. Even among the educated, however, there are those whose education is merely superficial. They can tell you everything they learned exactly in the order they learned it, as the saying goes. They did not process their learning. It all remained separate and discrete. There is a marvelous new machine in the kitchens of the nation these days, sometimes called “La-Machine.” I know very little about it, though apparently you can stuff a great variety of things into it and out come blended substances which produce exotic dishes. So should it be with education. Everything that is taken in should be fermented and processed, and the final result should reflect a fine grinding and mixing. Education is as much the process of learning as the content of what is learned.
Notion #7. Another charge that I would give you this morning is to develop a perspective that includes room for wit and humor. This perspective rests on a sense of discrimination that allows you at times to take serious things lightly and light things seriously. Tears and laughter, though different, are not far apart and knowing when to give way to either is a clear mark of a mature individual. Raphael Sabatini begins his book Scaramouche with this line: “He was born with the gift of laughter and the sense that the world was mad.” To the extent that you believe the latter, so may you come to value the former.
Notion #8. Another notion which I would urge upon you is one that you perhaps know. Do not be seduced by the tinsel and glitter that may beguile you at any given time, even when there are real rainbows in the skies. At Williston, you have already had the opportunity to test yourselves on this score. Some of you have found the tinsel and glitter irresistible, and have found that they have led you only to fool’s gold, transient pleasure, and emptiness. Others have seen the real rainbows and have savored their beauty. They have learned that only frenzy and false happiness can be whooped and shouted; authentic joy is softly spoken, if uttered at all. They have learned that the only “highs” which are sustained and sustaining are spiritual, not physical.
Notion #9. Once this year in assembly, you heard about a philosopher by the name of Martin Buber, who espoused a thesis relating to interpersonal relations labeled “I and Thou.” You probably don’t remember that assembly, so let me remind you of Buber’s position. We relate to other people either as full human beings or as depersonalized objects, either as “I – thou” or “I – it.” It may be frightening to say it in this way, but in a sense all your values will be tested and summed up by pronouns. It is possible that the only legitimate definition of sin boils down to the interaction of those three pronouns. When we make an object out of another human being or other people, something is lost in our soul. The tendency is always there to label other people pejoratively, primarily people at a distance or those whom we don’t fully understand, as bums, or freaks, or gooks, or queers, or egg-heads, or sometimes in my case — Republicans. But when we so label people, we diminish ourselves as much as those of whom we speak. In the future, may you encounter more “thous” than “its.” It is an easy assignment, for each of us controls the balance by the way we treat other people. If you want a world full of “thous,” make it so. It’s up to you.
Notion #10. In the world you will enter in September, the emphasis will be primarily scholarly and academic. You will most likely be told that you have entered the holy realm of the “intellectual life.” The language may even get loftier and more rarified. Don’t let that scare you; it will still be the same old world, and you will still be you. There is no intellectual world; it is only one part of the whole world, rhetoric notwithstanding. The professoriat will concentrate understandably on the development of your mind; it will be up to you to preserve and enrich the development of your heart. I spoke earlier about fears, and one of the most challenging fears of adolescence is the fear of feelings and knowing what to do about them. After forty-five years of experience, I can offer but little wisdom. Don’t be afraid of your feelings; they make you human. Nurture those which are warm and reach out tenderly; reexamine those which are intemperately cold and divide you from others. But above all, don’t play games with feelings. yours or someone else’s. Our time on this planet — in its millions of years of history — is too short for games. Given that shortness, when you express a feeling, mean it — as if your life depended on it — because it does. Unless that ultimate ounce of integrity is present, you will prove to be a fraud, a sham, a charlatan — an empty and hollow hulk of hypocrisy. You can express all the opinions, thoughts, ideas, you wish, however absurd, far-out, or bizarre, but deceit in the expression of your feelings is the unforgivable sin.
Years ago, a British exchange teacher introduced me to a marvelous word — “bumpf.” It summed up everything unnecessary, irrelevant, and extraneous. Bumpf. Without wishing to be a heretic to the academic profession this morning, it is my firm belief that unless you come to a sensitive treatment of the feelings I’ve mentioned, all your learning, your professional accomplishment, your career achievement — all of it will amount to bumpf.
Notion #11. In the years to come, I hope you will save space in your lives for the concept of God. For God does exist whether you choose to recognize Him or not. For thirty years, the United States pretended that China did not exist, but somehow China managed to survive. So too with God. His existence is not threatened by your failure to grant recognition. You may remember as new students filling out a small white card listing a number of items about which we wanted information, such as your home town, your activities, your local newspaper, and also your religion. The entries on that line and the varieties of spelling of some of the more conventional denominations were often illuminating. There were generally a few who boldly listed “atheist,” spelled in a variety of ways. It always seemed impressive to know that we had two or three hard-core atheists — and — in the ninth grade yet. Let me be clear about one thing: I said at the start that urged upon you room for the concept of God. I would not ask that you necessarily embrace the God who dwells in stone churches. That concept may not be large enough for you. Still, I would urge that you recognize something ultimate before which you feel humble. Dylan Thomas perhaps captured this point best in a beautiful line in his poem, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” After a full day of fun and frolic, Thomas described climbing the stairs to his room, crawling into bed, and preparing for the night. He finished with this line: “I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.” I hope this morning that all of you will be touched by the presence of that close and holy darkness — and acknowledge it in your own way.
Notion #12. The last point, and perhaps one a little less heavy, is best summed up in the words of a contemporary song: ‘You’ve got to stop and smell the roses.” Whatever you do, whatever you become, however successful your career, it will be important from time to time to pause and appreciate the small things that exist on the periphery of our lives. We are all trapped in the dailiness of our obligations and our commitments, and thus it is even more crucial that allow for space to recognize roses and raindrops, sunsets and snowflakes — yes, and even people, too. If all of us allowed just a bit more time along the way to stop and smell the roses, the unemployment lines in this country would be clogged with psychiatrists. Sara Teasdale, not one of our major poets, knew this and outlined her version in a poem called “Barter.”
Life has loveliness to sell,
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings
And children’s faces looking up,
Holding wonder like a cup.
Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like a curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit’s still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.
For all of us, even when the snows of winter cover our landscape, we can still be surrounded by roses — if we but look for them.
You have grown during your time at Williston, and the faculty and I have watched that growth. We hope that it will continue and that you will grow strong, that you will grow into full possession of your mind, your talent, and your self. Yet for me, there exists a counter-hope that each of you preserve something childlike at the core. In your soul and in your psyche may there forever be an area inhabited by frisbies and snowballs, bubblegum and skate boards. And from time to time, particularly when you are feeling most heavily the weight of your maturity, reach into that compartment and resurrect something childlike to put it all in perspective.
I apologize this morning because this address has not reached upon issues which are cosmic, or at least global, or even societal. These few simple notions are all that I can offer you. You may be comforted by the knowledge that no one ever remembers anything said in Commencement addresses anyway. But my vanity leads me to hope that there are one or two notions on this list that will stick with you for a time, however long, after you drive away this afternoon. Perhaps in days when we are apart, your memory will be triggered by hearing a word or a note struck this morning: pictures and dots, questions and fears, largeness and loyalties, wonder and childlike, process and pronouns, roses and God.
At the end of these proceedings, there will be an opportunity to bid you a formal farewell, but for now you have heard your Commencement Address. It is not exactly the kind of talk you might have heard from an outside speaker, but then again, that is probably because this particular speaker knows you, cares about you, and loves you.
Before coming to Williston Northampton, Robert A. Ward taught English at Loomis, then served as Dean of Students at Amherst College. He retired to his family home in Kent, Connecticut, where he pursued his research interest in Robert Frost and where he was elected First Selectman. He died, far too young, in 1986.
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