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Opening Convocation Speech at Emory & Henry College, Fall 2016: “A Time and Place of Consequences”

A Time and Place of Consequences


A few years ago, Dr. Joycelyn Elders visited Emory & Henry. At the time of her visit, she was the Surgeon General of the United States and our nation’s point person in the fight against HIV, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, and other important medical and social issues. Dr. Elders came to deliver a lecture but ended up staying longer, visiting with students. She loved it here.

Over dinner, Dr. Elders shared the story of how she rose from being the daughter of a sharecropper to becoming the first African-American Surgeon General of the United States.  She climbed through education.  At Philander Smith College in Little Rock–like us, a Liberal Arts college associated with the United Methodist Church–she became excited about learning and further developed her social and moral compass. Using a phrase coined by Winston Churchill, Dr. Elders said that those years had become for her a period of consequences. “College changed my life,” she said; and then added, “Emory & Henry reminds me of that time and place.” A time and place of consequences!

A commitment to excellence.

We are at our best when we are committed to excellence.

In the summer of 1998, one of our Political Science professors, Dr. Samir Saliba, and I attended some meetings in Washington, DC with the purpose of raising money for a program we were initiating at the college. While there, we made a point of visiting the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Among the exhibits, we saw a Wright brothers’ glider; the X-1, the first plane to break the sound barrier; the P-51 Mustang from World War II; and many other amazing machines. But what was of special interest to me was a small satellite on display. It looked fragile, covered with what appeared to be golden-colored foil. But, there was nothing fragile about that satellite; for although extremely light, it was designed to withstand an orbit speed in excess of 17,500 mph.

Samir and I examined that satellite a long time.  For, the team of NASA engineers that created its foil covering had been led by one of our colleagues at Emory & Henry, Dr. Phil Young.

Phil fits with a tradition of excellence at Emory & Henry. Another of our scientists, Fred Allison, who studied and taught here during the first half of the twentieth century, developed magneto-optic spectroscopy and for many years was credited with the discovery of two of the elements on the element chart, elements 87 and 85. Allison was also the person who brought the Creed Fulton observatory and telescope to Emory & Henry. This year, some of you will study with Dr. Jim DuChamp who was honored by the State of Virginia for his work with endohedral fullerenes used in the detection of tumors. One of your friends or family might one day be saved from cancer because of Jim’s work. In 2014, Dr. Michael Lane, another of our scientists, was likewise selected the state’s outstanding teacher.

Our learning environment.

I get excited thinking about the opportunities that await you in the classroom. In the last quarter of a century, more faculty from this small college (perhaps 17 or 18) have been recognized with state and national awards than from any other school in the Commonwealth. Chances are you will be in a course this year taught by Dr. Kathleen Chamberlain, Dr. Scott Boltwood, Dr. Alma Ramirez, Dr. Teresa Keller, or another amazing, award-winning teacher.

You will soon discover that Emory & Henry professors are passionate about the subjects they teach. They are scholars and artists. My Religion Department colleague Joe Reiff’s new book, Born of Conviction, just received Mississippi’s Institute of Arts and Letters’ Nonfiction Award. The book retells a piece of America’s struggle against racism. At Emory & Henry, we affirm a brotherhood and sisterhood embracing all people, regardless of race, ethnic background, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, physical disability, or age.  Here, what counts is the quality of your work and the purpose of your life.

I urge you to take advantage of the Powell Resource Center and to use our library. Get to know the Directors Talmage Dobbins and Jane Caldwell and their wonderful co-workers. And by all means, allow your relationships with coaches to extend beyond the playing fields and courts into their offices. Do yourselves a favor and let coaches, librarians, counselors, and all here become to you friends and mentors.

Our programs are without peers in this region; and some, number among the best in the nation. Everything is in place here to help you succeed.

Live to serve.

But let me talk to you about another type of success.

In August 2005, hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. Katrina was one of the deadliest and costliest natural disasters ever to hit the United States. That next spring, a team from our college traveled south to Gautier, MS, to help with relief. Dixie and I went. The students on the team, alongside Robin Grossman and Travis Proffitt from our Appalachian Center, planned the trip.

One of the students, Christian Miller, a strong, happy-go-lucky upper classman, was a good-hearted person; born good. But I worried about him.  Sometimes Christian would come to my office to talk about what he was going to do in life. However, our conversations never got very far because Christian had no idea of what he was going to do.

Christian says that he found his life’s calling while nailing shingles and tearing out moldy drywall in Gautier–that is, while sweating and dirty and bone-tired and sleeping on the floor, helping strangers who had lost everything and had no means to ever pay him back. Today, Christian is married and a father and works for the public school system in Pulaski, helping young people navigate their own life journeys. It is one of those paradoxes in life—we find ourselves when we lose ourselves for others.

Giving back.

A person I enjoyed getting to know here was Junius Griffin. Professor Griffin would periodically take our students to Atlanta to visit the King Center and to introduce them to Mrs. Coretta Scott King and others there. There is a photograph in my office capturing one of those times.

Junius was raised the son of a coal miner in a company town near Big Stone Gap. There, he attended a two-room segregated school for African Americans. At 16, he entered Bluefield College with the idea of playing football but left without finishing to join the marines. By then, Junius had discovered that he had talent beyond sports for writing. He became a field reporter for the Stars and Stripes during the Korean War–one of only two African-American correspondents reporting for the armed services. Junius was appointed Far East Bureau Chief; he took a job as a reporter for the Associated Press and the New York Times; he was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. He joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as Public Relations Officer and speech writer and was with Dr. King on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated. Later, Junius worked for Motown Records as a Director of Public Relations. He himself won a Grammy for a Motown production of Dr. King’s speeches.

Fascinating life! Junius was one of the most generous persons I have ever known. And I must say that other people were generous to him in return. Over one spring break, Junius left to visit friends and came back with a brand new Volvo that Berry Gordy, founder of Motown, had given him. Junius’s friends included legends like President and Mrs. Jimmy Carter, Jesse Jackson, Ralph Abernathy, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, and Diana Ross.

I asked Junius why someone with such accomplishments (and friends)–someone whose name had been read into our nation’s congressional record–decided to leave the glitz of Los Angeles and the music industry, leave a high-paying job. Why did he decide when in his 50s to go back to school to work on his Master’s and PhD so he could come here to teach?

Junius’s answer made sense to me and maybe it will make sense to you: He said that life was an adventure. With Dr. King, he learned that if we truly wanted a better society, we must visualize that better society first. Junius added that he wanted to help others dream, to glimpse that new world.  He had received much and he wanted to give back.

Caring for our neighborhood.

Emory & Henry’s campus is beautiful. And Dr. Ed Davis with planning and Scott Williams, Joel Bassett, Robert Jones and all the good people from Grounds and Facilities do a marvelous job keeping it beautiful. I love the duck pond and the library and the old buildings. The new McGlothlin Center for the Arts is one of the wonders of Southwest Virginia.  Sometimes I find myself getting emotional when inside Memorial Chapel, especially as light streams through the colored glass windows and the choir sings the Westminster benediction. But in spite of the tranquility and natural beauty that surrounds us at Emory & Henry, we would be wrong to think of our time here as a retreat from the problems and issues that are central to the well-being of America.

A drizzly October, I stood at the entrance of Van Dyke looking at the cardboard and tent city Andrea Rocha and some other of my students had built to publicize the situation of the homeless. In my Christian social justice course, we had read about the conditions of the poor and had examined statistics in Appalachia. The class’s assignment was to discover what it would be like to be poor and powerless, to go to bed hungry. Andrea and a dozen others decided to spend two weeks in a cardboard city.

Very well. But then those students took their assignment a step further. Their idea became to educate and empower our community for positive change. That was what the cardboard city became as the students culled and distributed statistics, targeted Homecoming weekend, and placed their story on television, the radio, and in the newspapers. By the time the project ended, the Dean of Students, the Chaplain, a number of Trustees, and many others had become involved.

Make a difference in the world!

Lives of consequence.

Many of you seniors are involved with volunteering and other service-learning initiatives. Even as you study, you work for greater social justice and enduring positive change. I’m proud of you.

The idea of fully integrating education with service and citizenship is part of the mission of this school. Under the wonderful leadership of Dr. Tal Stanley and Professor Travis Proffitt, we extend classroom learning into local communities and empower students to make a difference.

The other day, the phone rang. The call was from two of my former students, Terry and Carla Brown, home on leave from Bahrain. After two tours in Iraq, Terry now serves as a special agent for NCIS, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. He puts his life on the line every day to protect our nation. Carla is an accountant and mother of three. Terry and Carla lead lives of consequence.

Another phone call: It was Renato Nascimento who, as the Alabama, North Florida, West Tennessee supervisor for a Financial Services Corporation, controls many millions of dollars. He had been selected employee of the year.  But what he wanted to talk about was his passion for helping orphans in Haiti. He organized a team to provide dental care and school materials for the children. Renato, his wife Rebeca, and their children Julia and Emily lead lives of consequence.

A Facebook friend, my former graduate student Sarah Sanders, heads the Social Studies program at John Battle High School. This past year, Dixie and I hosted an exchange student in our home, Danilo Barbieri. Sarah, along with the other teachers at John Battle, welcomed him with American generosity. Sarah and her colleagues at John Battle lead lives of consequence.


For those who are just entering our Emory & Henry family, President Schrum, the College’s administrative and support staff, your fellow students, and the faculty invite you to take ownership of your education and your future. By all means, we want you to enjoy your time here, to grow in knowledge and ability, and to capture a high-paying job once you graduate. Welcome to Emory & Henry. We are going to do everything we can to help you succeed.

And if you understand yourself to be entering into a place and time of consequences for your life; if you see life as an adventure and are committed to using this period wisely to prepare for what is ahead; then you are going to love it here. And we are with you.

If you are committed to excellence; if you are ready to learn in the classroom and outside, by studying and reading and through hands-on doing; then you are going to love it here. And we are with you.

If you are a person who lives to serve and serves to live; if you wish to help create a better world; then you are going to love it here. And we are with you.

In sum, if you truly desire to make a difference for yourself and for others; then you are going to love it at Emory & Henry. And we are with you.

May God make His face to shine upon you!  May God bless Emory & Henry!

About religiousjourney

I'm a professor at Emory & Henry College and operate the religiousjourney.com blog.


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