Davidson College 55th Reunion Remarks

A few weeks ago I received a letter from Carol Quillen, the president of Davidson College, informing me that I had been selected to receive the Distinguished Alumnus Award. This came as quite a pleasant surprise and a great honor, especially given the achievements of so many in the fabulous class of 1964. When I told Embry about it, she exclaimed, “You got the Disruptive Alumni Award? Fabulous! Long overdue.”

The letter and the award certificate cited my work in social justice and civil rights, in developing affordable and seniors housing and my writing, teaching, and volunteer involvement. My Davidson roommate for three years and best friend, Sam Glasgow, gave the award. 

Here are my remarks:

Thanks, Sam, for your kind words. I do not know how I could add anything but I will give it a try. First of all, thanks, Davidson. This is an extraordinary honor for me. Now I have not gotten a whole lot of awards in my lifetime; but even if I had, I would put this one at the top of the list. I know how much many in this room have achieved and accomplished and am aware that this award could have gone to a whole lot of people in our class. 

Davidson is a great school and had a great impact on my life. I am truly grateful and want to say thanks. Here are the things I am thankful for in order of importance.

First of all, thank you, Davidson, for blind dates. Or more specifically one blind date in particular. This blind date occurred at the Spring Frolics weekend during  our senior year. My good friend and our classmate, Reese Coppage, who sadly is no longer with us, arranged it. The date was  with a former townie and a student at Randolph Macon Women’s College, one Susan Embry Martin, known then by all as “Mimy” Martin and the daughter of Louise and Grier Martin, the president of the college. 

Now I was a bit apprehensive since I was already something of a persona non grata on  campus due to my civil rights involvement, but also I knew President Martin to be a kind and gentle person, who I believed would not hold grudges. That blind date resulted in our marriage in December 1965 and some 54 years of life together– and counting. Mimy, now known by most as “Embry,” has had quite a distinguished career—a PhD in public policy and a noted researcher in the health policy research field. She is an ardent feminist and advocate for the disadvantaged. She is also a world traveler. We have visited or worked in some 45 countries and in 2015 traveled around the world without flying. It has been quite a ride. Thank you, Davidson, for blind dates.

My next thank you is for best friends. I had several best friends in Davidson and they—almost all of them—are here, some with their wives. Sam Glasgow and his wife, Diane; John and Jane Spratt, Hank and Mel Ackerman, and my roommate senior year, Bud Fry. Jim Killebrew was supposed to be here but flaked out at the last minute. These friendships have been very important to me, and I think it is pretty unusual that I have kept up strong ties with all of them for some 55 years and counting. Thank you, Davidson, for best friends!

My next thanks is for the professors that we had. Now these guys were not all great teachers, but they  were on the whole great men and great human beings. They were men  of integrity and decency and whom we got to know as people and mentors, not just as teachers. 

The first on my list is Bill Goodykoontz. Now it is true as Sam pointed out that English Professor Goodykoontz was a bit of a loose cannon, and it is true that he did call President Martin a “female fish monger” at one point, but he was also inspirational and had a huge impact on many people. He left Davidson—he probably was fired—our junior year and moved on to Chapel Hill where he lasted a couple of years before he was fired or quit and ended up in New York City writing for the Weekly Reader. Embry and I were in New York at the time where I was studying at Union Seminary, and we saw him and his partner Chuck Wry, also a friend of ours, on a regular basis. The most amazing thing was that this overweight, disheveled intellectual became a serious runner and completed the New York City marathon in the late 1960s. He died in Chapel Hill in the late 1980s when he was in his early 70s and was buried in the outfit he wore when he completed the New York Marathon. Thank you, Davidson, for Bill Goodykoontz.

And there were many others. Think for a minute about these extraordinary people: Dan Rhodes, Max Polly, Charlie Lloyd, Henry Lilly, Frontis Johnson, Phil Secor, Ernie Patterson, Olin Puckett, Malcolm Lester, Bill McGavock, Jim Martin (erstwhile Chemistry professor to become US Congressman and two-term Governor of North Carolina), Earl McCormack and philosophy professor, Dr. Abernathy. (Does anyone know if Dr. Abernathy had a first name?). These men—and other professors at Davidson–were great human beings. They embodied integrity and decency, and were student-focused and accessible. They instilled in us the Davidson values that have guided a lot of us through life. Thanks, Davidson, for the professors that we had at Davidson.

And then there was Grier Martin, my father-in-law to be, though I surely did not know that at the time. He was a kind and gentle person with extraordinary integrity and vision. What you saw is what you got.  My favorite Grier Martin story was when the spring of our senior year I was called by his assistant to tell me that the president wanted to see me at his home that very evening. This came two days before the planned “March In Charlotte” in support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I had been expecting this call but was still apprehensive when I knocked on the door of the president’s house and was met by his gracious wife, Louise, who directed me to the parlor on the first floor. Dr. Martin offered me a seat and then got right to the point. The chairman of the Davidson College Board of Trustees and the Mayor of Charlotte had both contacted him and directed him to direct me to call off the march. They both pointed out to him that Charlotte had a pretty good track record on race relations and a march would give the town and the college a bad name. It was not fair and would cause more harm than good.

He went on to list other reasons that I should consider, such as our own safety, and then looked me right in the eye and said, “Joe, I am directing you as is my duty to call off the march, but you should know that I do not have the authority to keep you from doing this.”  I noted a slight smile and twinkle in his eye. I knew a wink and a nod when I saw one, and this was surely it. I smiled right back and replied, “Thank you, Dr. Martin. I fully understand.”

What I did not know was that Grier Martin had been working for years behind the scenes first to bring Africans to campus as students, which happened our sophomore year, and then to open up Davidson to African American students, which happened just after we graduated. He was a great president of Davidson and a great man. We lost him way too early. Thanks, Davidson, for Grier Martin.

The final thing that I will mention that I am thankful for is what I would call strong Presbyterian values: hard work, perseverance, determination, steadfastness, humility and modesty. 

Now I can talk about Presbyterian values from the perspective of an outsider. I am not a Presbyterian but rather what is called a “cradle Episcopalian.” We Episcopalians share some of the same values but not the last two—modesty and humility. In fact the minute I get back to Washington I am going to post a photo of this award and post it on Facebook! Thank you, Davidson, for strong Presbyterian values.

As some of you know, Embry and I have lived in Washington DC since the early 1970s. The neighborhood where we live in Washington seems to be a magnate for people who come to Washington to make a difference and to change the world for the better. They do not come to make a lot of money so much as to make a name for themselves. A lot come from Ivy League schools, and several of my best friends went to Yale, Harvard or Princeton. At reunion time we often share stories and compare notes. These Ivy League graduates when talking about their 25thor 50thor 55threunions casually mention some of the panels of graduates—a panel of Nobel laureates, another of Pulitzer prize winners, another of CEOs of Fortune 500 Companies and so on. I listen patiently and then reply that we Davidsonians have our high profile stars. Our class has Congressman John Spratt, basketball coach Terry Holland and humanities star Bill Ferris. We can match our guys  with their guys. But I tell them that the high profile stuff is not what Davidson is all about. I say to them, “You Ivy League guys, you are like the landed gentry. We Davidson guys, we are the yeoman farmers. We are the unsung heroes, who work tirelessly in our home towns and communities to make them better places, and this in my view is really what counts and makes America great. “

We are leaders in our various professional organizations. We are cub scout and boy scout leaders. We are PTA presidents and Sunday school teachers. We tutor disadvantaged, inner city kids.  We work in soup kitchens. We raise money for the United Way and other charities. We serve on planning boards, zoning boards, city and county councils, civic associations and the most thankless of all, neighborhood and condo association boards. We are church elders, session members, vestry members and serve in various other leadership capacities in our churches and non profit organizations.

 We Davidson grads do the heavy lifting that makes a difference in people’s lives on the local and grassroots level where it really counts. We learned at Davidson the importance of service to others and to our community, and for this I am especially proud. I am proud of you guys, my classmates of the Fabulous Class of 1964. We have made a difference. I am honored to be part of the Class of 1964 for doing our part. And thank you, Davidson, for this honor of recognition, which I will cherish always.

Belief

There have been two very moving stories this week on religion and death. The first was an op ed piece this past Sunday in the Washington Post or New York Times by a woman who was brought up as an evangelical fundamentalist— a Seventh Day Adventist—but had lost her faith; and the second was about a young woman in her thirties who died of cancer and who was also a lapsed believer. She was a spiritual pilgrim and the author of several best selling books and a website dealing with questions of belief and doubt that had a following of thousands of people. I could identity with both women. 

The theme of the first essay was about the author’s effort to deal with the death of her first child without a firm belief in an afterlife. She compared the experience of losing her infant son to her experience when she was still an ardent believer when her father died. Since she and her family believed that her father was going straight to heaven and would be seated next to Jesus at a heavenly banquet, it was not such a sad time. Surely they would miss him, but her loss was far less painful than it would have been for someone without faith. Her gentle and honest conclusion about the death of her child was that she had to accept reality for what it was and is. She could not return to her old faith in an all-powerful, human-like god. It did not mean that life was not worth living. It did not mean that God does not exist but rather that the Devine is a mystery beyond human understanding. 

 I could not help recalling the loss of Katherine, our first child, who died of heart failure following what we thought was a routine operation to address a valve defect. She was just shy of her first birthday. We were assigned an evangelical, fundamentalist Baptist chaplain in the hospital whose job  was to get Embry and me through the experience. I knew the job of a chaplain since I had been one myself during the summer of 1965 at Boston City Hospital. This was part of my “clinical training” education at Union Seminary in New York. But having a degree in divinity does not mean that you believe in the literal interpretation of the bible or that you do not have doubts yourself. The question in my mind was probably not all that different from what the young woman must have been asking: why do these things happen to us humans on the planet Earth. 

Following the chaplain’s introduction of himself, I angrily responded, “Do not give me any of this bullshit about how this was God’s will…”  After recovering from the initial shock, to his credit he got the message and provided the kind of gentle support we needed without preaching about an all-powerful, all-merciful God or suggesting that maybe that this was our punishment for not being more committed Christians. In fact I do not recall any effort on his part to try to explain the tragedy in religious terms. His being there with us, however, was very important and made a difference.

I have not read any of the books by the second person but from the article got the impression that she tried to deal honestly with spiritual questions, accepting the fact that there are no absolute and final answers. She had a large following because of her honesty and openness and because she did not provide pat answers to the universal questions of the meaning of life and death. 

My own thinking regarding the decline of the Christian religion today in the U.S. and most of the developed world is that the main problem with the Christian Church is not that the gospel is not being preached with sufficient vigor but rather the opposite: the failure of the Christian church to deal honestly with the human condition. Now I realize that there are all kinds of Christian churches and that I am probably talking more about mainstream Christianity, not evangelical or fundamentalist Christian churches, which appeal to people who need absolute answers even if not true. 

But pat answers do not ring true to a lot of people asking questions like these: How can God be both all powerful and all good? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do some people get dealt such bad hands? Why is justice elusive? Why is human suffering so pervasive? What is going on in the rest of the universe that you created and what is the purpose of all that? And how could there be a heaven where our bodies that have been cremated or have rotted in graves suddenly become reconstituted into a totally different kind of existence? There are no easy answers to these questions. In fact I am not sure there are any answers. But asking these questions is what makes us human. Rather than trying to save souls and provide definitive but unconvincing answers, the (mainstream) Christian Church would be far better off doing the best it can to nurture and support people asking these questions and through study and prayer to try to find clues to the answers. 

If you have been following my blog, you know that Embry and I, despite our questioning minds, are loyal members of our neighborhood Episcopal church. You also probably know that of all the irritants associated with church, the repetition of the Nicene Creed is at the top of my list. Well, I have good news: I can say that at last I have found a creed that I can say honestly and without crossing my fingers. Actually Embry found it. Two days ago she attended the graduation ceremony of our Afghan refugee family’s three-year-old child at the nursery school at St. Mathews Episcopal Church in Hyattsville, Maryland. Here is the creed that the children recited in the surprisingly religious graduation ceremony:

I believe in God above. / I believe in Jesus’ love. / I believe His Spirit, too, / comes to tell me what to do. / I believe that I can be / kind and gentle, / Lord, like Thee. Amen.