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Office of the President Emeritus
Hinman Box 6166
Hanover, NH 03755
Phone: (603) 646-0016
Fax: (603) 646-0015

Commencement 1999 - Valedictory to the Seniors by President James Wright

June 13, 1999

The Dartmouth Community: Learning Together, Learning From Each Other

James Wright

Speech by James Wright

Go to video of speech

I extend my hearty congratulations to you, the graduates of the Class of 1999. This place today resonates with your accomplishments; this is your special day. Your memory will forever cherish this occasion. And, there will surely be few times in your lives when you will be surrounded by so many who care so much about you - family and faculty, alumni and administrators, classmates and friends.

Your hearts, I know, are filled with many things on this day and I would be pleased to participate with you in acknowledging one of them: a sense of gratitude. I join you in thanking the faculty who taught you, as well as learned with you, the families who sacrificed for you, and the friends who sustained you.

Whatever your individual capacities and energies may be - and we here attest that they are indeed considerable - others enabled you and your accomplishments.

But let us acknowledge also that the gratitude you feel leads to an important obligation you now assume: that of assisting others, so you can glow in the warmth of their accomplishments, as they in turn extend to you gratitude for what you have given them.

Those whom we have celebrated today with honorary degrees can affirm that behind any life or deed of honor there is an implicit awareness of those who supported, taught, and sustained. And who is to deny that perhaps the best measure of a life well lived is less a tally of our own record and more a pride in what we have encouraged in others. Surely, this commitment to empowerment shapes an institution like Dartmouth, and it enriches those of us privileged to do the good work of this good place.

All of this points to one of those transitions that is marked today. You will now ceremonially march away from this important part of your life and move on to engage the rest of it. Life transitions are personal, their meanings subjective, and their recognitions typically delayed. The fact that this public transition of yours occurs on the cusp of a new millennium may attach even greater symbolism to it. You are the last Dartmouth class to graduate in the Twentieth Century. (And we won't forget, either, that you were the first Dartmouth class to have a majority of women.) You have accomplished much in your four years here. You are the worthy conclusion of a long line of distinguished Dartmouth classes in this century.

But today you look ahead, rather than backward. We ask only a few things of you as you move forward. Never lose your appreciation for the richness and diversity of the human experience. Never lose your sense of curiosity or enthusiasm for learning. Your education does not end here today; it continues. This is not a time of conclusion, but of commencement. As you progress on your journey you will find that some of the things learned at Dartmouth will need to be unlearned in the future and replaced with new understandings. That is part of the continuing marvel of human imagination and discovery. Emily Dickinson wrote, "I dwell in Possibility." And so do you.

Leave here too with a sense of belonging, with an understanding of the importance of community and of the obligation of sharing. These things will be especially important for you to hold onto in a world increasingly marked by the anonymity of cyberspace and the increased fragmentation of life's activities and personal connections. As our society becomes busier and more complicated, it can also become lonelier. The random violence we have seen of late in our society does not necessarily reflect a lack of learning, but rather an absence of belonging. Recognize and celebrate difference, but define your lives and your communities as inclusive. You leave here knowing the value of community and of sharing; carry that knowledge with you always.

We wish we could alert you more precisely to what lies ahead, but we are unable do that. Just in the last few days our community has been jolted by unexpected loss and trauma. The Class of 1949, joining you today in their reunion and in their own reaffirmation, can attest as well to the impossibility of anyone predicting life patterns and the turns of history. As Robert Frost wrote:

The tree the tempest with a crash of wood
Throws down in front of us is not to bar
Our passage to our journey's end for good,
But just to ask us who we think we are

Insisting always on our own way so.

Fifty years ago, on a quiet Hanover day, the Class of 1949 received their degrees and they shared in the same feelings you have: a mixed sense of excitement and anticipation tempered by the bittersweet sensation that all this is happening too quickly. Since their graduation, members of the Class of 1949 have witnessed the expansion of the nuclear age, wars both hot and cold, declared and undeclared. They have seen the long-overdue recognition that minorities and women need to be in the mainstream life of our nation and our world. They have witnessed the exploration of outer space and the unfolding wonder of cyberspace. The Class of 1949 has observed and has participated in many things. They have witnessed human cynicism, despair, and suffering; they have also seen, time after time, a reaffirmation of the creative wonder of the human imagination and the generosity of the human spirit.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, the great 19th-century man of letters and of medicine who for a time was Professor of Anatomy at the Dartmouth Medical School, once wrote: "I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand as in what direction we are moving . . . we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it. But we must sail and not drift or lie at anchor. " Members of the Class of 1999 do not be afraid to test yourself in uncharted waters.

Now we come to this moment, to the time for leave taking, for you to commence the rest of your lives. Go catch the wind in your sails. We have left much for you to do. "The strongest and sweetest songs yet remain to be sung," wrote Walt Whitman near the end of the last century. We leave them still, for your voices. But know too as you leave today that the door here is always open for you. You are ever a part of Dartmouth undying as Dartmouth is forever a part of you.

Last Updated: 8/21/08