The 2020 Commencement Address I Wish They Had Given
Those were the parting words of the man who stood on this very spot 102 years ago. It was 1918 on the eve of the 92ndcommencement exercises. In front of Northam Towers was the largest crowd to ever assemble in the history of the College. 5,000 people hung on every word from the 26thpresident of the United States. It was one of his final speeches, lasting over an hour. He would be gone forever just six months later.
There had been Roosevelts at Trinity, but Colonel Roosevelt (he preferred “Colonel Roosevelt” to “President Roosevelt”) was there at the behest of his friend, President Flavel Luther. Later that year, brass letters were embedded into the Long Walk in front of Northam to memorialize that moment in history and the Biblical passage the Colonel read in his address.
Consider what that morning looked like. It was 11 o’clock on a beautiful, cloudless Sunday. A large dark blue banner with the name Trinity in old gold lettering hung from Northam Towers behind the podium and furled in a gentle breeze. The flags of wartime allies Belgium, Britain and Italy surrounded the dais, while the stars and stripes were suspended prominently overhead. In the audience were 40 empty chairs, each with its own American flag draped over it representing a member of the College who couldn’t be there because he was serving in the military.
Although they didn’t know it, at that moment there were two wars raging.
One was in Europe where the First World War was in its final bloody months. German forces stood within 60 kilometers of Paris. American “doughboys” were arriving on the Western Front by the thousands and the second battle of the Marne—the final German offensive—was about to begin. In all, 40 million souls would perish in that war.
But even as bloody as that war was, there was another far bloodier one they were facing. Nobody knew it, but as Colonel Roosevelt addressed that audience on June 18, 1918, the Influenza Epidemic was wending its way across the globe laying waste to everything in its path. As soldiers returned later that summer, many would bring the contagion of the deadliest pandemic in modern history back home with them. Some estimate more than 50 million died.
We will look at the Teddy Roosevelt plaque on the Long Walk differently from now on. It will remind us not just of a giant in history who once spoke there, but it will remind us of a time of unimaginable loss of life and personal sacrifice.
|Translation: The one putting on his armor should |
not boast like one taking it off. (I Kings 20:11)
It is my hope it will also remind us of one more thing. History will forever remember that Trinity College was fearless in confronting the dual challenge of global war and sickness. At a time when this college numbered no more than 250 students, a total of 521 alumni and undergraduate men served in the war effort. 21 would perish. Similarly, two decades later, when there were roughly 3,500 alumni, a total of 1,460 enlisted to serve in the Second World War. 76 Trinity men lost their lives.
These are the brave souls who came before us. But history is more panoramic photo than snapshot. The broad expanse of events after the First World War tell a greater story that reveals the true fabric of the institution. The soul of Trinity College.
Conventional wisdom says hardship and adversity build character, but history tells us hardship and adversity reveal it. The Great War and the Great Depression that followed it did not stifle Trinity. Instead, they galvanized it.
Students, alumni, faculty, administrators and friends all came together to mount the institution’s single greatest period of expansion. Trinity College grew from 167 to 530 students. At a time when endowments at private colleges fell more than 25% and alumni giving sank more than 70%, the endowment at Trinity grew by 250%. Faculty expanded from 25 to 62 members. Salaries doubled. The value of the land, buildings and equipment more than doubled. 8 different buildings were erected in a space of 10 years, creating twice the major buildings on campus. Among them is one of the greatest chapels on any campus in the country even today.
The people of Trinity fought ferociously for their country in wartime and, afterwards, just as ferociously to preserve and grow their alma mater. We stand on their shoulders—stewards of a 197-year old repository of everything that is good in our society. One that grows stronger with each student and each passing year.
Today, we celebrate the class of 2020. You are now graduates of this college. Wear this moment with pride in your accomplishments and in your newfound standing among a community that has always met challenges fearlessly. Slavery, the Civil War, the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, the Great Depression, World War I, World War II, the Holocaust, Korea, Vietnam, 9/11, and, now, the Pandemic of 2020. In the face of each, we endured. And for the class of 2020, it’s time to do that yet again with one more war to endure and overcome.
Remember that you are not alumni for life. It’s longer than that. History will record you among the Class of 2020 at Trinity College for eternity. Forever. But consider this: History already includes your name among “that class that graduated during the Pandemic of 2020.“ So congratulations. Your life is just beginning, yet you have already attained a place in history.
And so it is time to continue that Long Walk—the lifelong one—that we know the sons and daughters of Trinity will take together.
I leave you with words you have heard before. Now hear them again. For the first time.
Our business is to win this war. Begin. Now.