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Office of the President Emeritus
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Commencement 2003 – Valedictory to the Seniors by Dartmouth President James Wright

June 6, 2003

This moment affords me a special opportunity to extend my hearty congratulations to the graduates -- to the Class of 2003. This is your day. Your memories 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.

Your hearts, I know, are filled with many things on this day. My custom, and my pleasure, is 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 have sustained you.

Goodness, this day has come upon us quickly. I recall greeting you in the fall of 1999, when the world seemed to be your oyster, to be opened and enjoyed. The past four years have not followed script. They have been marked by economic dislocation, by the anxiety of war, and by the fear of terrorism. And, our own community has been jarred by loss and tested by tragedy.

Joining you here this morning, are members of the Class of 1953, returning for their fiftieth reunion. On the weekend of their graduation, a member of the Class of 1903 passed along greetings that members of the Class of 1853 had, a half-century earlier, asked them to transmit! Having shared this salutation, he in turn asked the Class of 1953 to remember the '03s "” the 1903s "” to you. The consecutive bearers of those greetings, spanning a century and a half, represent enduring values and traditions of Dartmouth.

While such links connect you to Dartmouth's past, and while your recollections of your College years pull at you today, this is fundamentally a time to look ahead. Of course, we should learn from our history. We build upon our experiences and are enriched by our memories, each providing us with important guidance. But these are never predictors for the future or recipes for life. Members of the Class of 1953 can tell you about occasions coming on too quickly and of the continuing need to improvise on the plan of life.

The world is still your oyster. It may seem a little scratched and discolored, a little dented perhaps, spinning a bit off the course you had projected; but none of us who are older would hesitate to travel with you through the uncertain times you face. Although life is not scripted, it can be led; and your lives will be shaped by your capacity to respond to changed circumstances, by the values you hold most deeply and tenaciously, and by the ambitions you set for yourselves.

In one of his poems, William Merwin wrote about the image of the physical world that endures despite the onset of blindness. "It is all awake in the darkness," he declared. So need be your principles and values, and the liberal education that informs them. Today, you are ready for the twists and turns of life; and no darkness can extinguish the light that is in you.

In 1953 President John Sloan Dickey invited President Dwight D. Eisenhower to receive an honorary degree at that year's Commencement exercises. In an historic, well-publicized statement, President Eisenhower urged the graduates not to join "the book burners," an obvious and pointed challenge to the excesses of McCarthyism and a remarkably clear call for openness to ideas and tolerance towards those with whom we might disagree.

President Eisenhower's comments that day offered much more than the criticism of the book burners, which produced the headlines across the nation. He also told the graduates here that there were two qualities he wished them to embrace: joy and courage. Joy, that which makes for a happy life, is obviously personal, but it is critical. And President Eisenhower thought courage equally important. He described honesty and integrity as manifestations of courage -- the honesty to look closely at ourselves and what we do, the resolution to face those broader matters that seem to be simply wrong, the courage to confront them.

A year before Brown v. Board of Education, the President, in front of Baker Library, challenged "the disgrace of racial discrimination." The old war hero went on to say it was good, but not sufficient, to salute the flag and to sing "The Star Spangled Banner." Individuals also needed, he suggested, the courage and the resolution to make their country better. "It is not yet done," he said to the Class of 1953. "You must add to it."

So, now we stand here today reminded of a sense of history and tradition, a recognition of connection to the Class of 1853, participating in a ritual that dates back to the founding of the College. We raise our hands to you not only in farewell salutation, but also as an embrace -- a sign of our commitment to stand by you.

I will not seek to improve upon President Eisenhower's formulation in my charge to you. Life is to be enjoyed; don't try to follow a path that does not permit you to be true to yourself. How you live your life is up to you. Our hope is that you will do so thoughtfully, generously to others, and fairly to yourselves "” led by ambitions that respond to circumstance and are shaped by values that transcend circumstance.

The fulfillment that marks a good life requires integrity and honesty and sharing and giving. It also requires recognition that full and satisfying lives finally are not measured by what you do for yourselves but by what you do for others and for the natural world that is your legacy -- and your responsibility. "It is not yet done" remains your life assignment.

My bet is on you -- and I say this with an assurance that comes from my experience with you and from knowing the faculty's regard for you and for what you have done. These provide the best base we have for the wager of life. You have strengthened your College; you are fully ready to take on what comes next -- and to help shape, for the better, what that is. You slip away from the Hanover plain in the year when the Old Man fell off the mountain. But as that symbol survives, fixed in our memories, so your experiences here will remain in your hearts. You are prepared for the "girdled earth" before you. And '03s, the world had best be ready for you!

Now it is time for leave-taking. We know you go forth in good and capable hands -- your own. Near the end of the nineteenth century Walt Whitman wrote, "the strongest and sweetest songs yet remain to be sung." 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