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Dartmouth Commencement 2006

(Posted 06/11/06)

Address to the College by Valedictorian Robert D. Butts
Elie Wiesel
Robert D. Butts (Photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Mr. President, members of the Board of Trustees, honored guests, ladies and gentlemen:

Members of the Class of 2006, it is an honor to stand before you on this Commencement day.

The burden of saying something commensurate with the occasion weighs heavily upon my shoulders, but I will give it my best try. Before speaking, though, there are many people here today who deserve my acknowledgement. For without their steadying influences and constant support, I would not stand here now.

First and foremost, I owe thanks to my parents Bert and Susan, to my brother William, and to my grandmother Susan. I have been blessed with the love of a wonderful family, and that means everything to me.

To my friends in this graduating class, congratulations. This day belongs to you. I owe a special thanks to my brothers and sisters in Alpha Theta. You made Dartmouth a second home for me.

And to my professors of these past four years, thank you for your time, for your patience, and for your commitment.

Another person to whom I owe more indirect thanks is not here, even though his legacy is as much a part of this College as is Dartmouth Hall. John Sloan Dickey, Dartmouth's president from 1945 through 1970, also played a major part in my Dartmouth experience, although I would never have expected as much when I arrived here four years ago.

The late President Dickey, himself a graduate of Dartmouth - Class of 1929, B.A. in History with the highest distinction - served in many key positions in the U.S. State Department, and held innumerable appointments to academic institutions and charitable foundations. After the Second World War, he returned to Hanover to serve this College as its President and its guiding light for 25 years.

John Sloan Dickey was an extraordinary scholar and public servant. He was a living embodiment of the value of education in the liberal arts - or, as he called them, the "liberating arts."

But when I first became truly aware of John Sloan Dickey, I confess that my interest was much more parochial. For back in the late 1920s, Dickey held another office which - while it does not often appear on lists like the one I read earlier - was of keen interest for me. For while John Sloan Dickey was a student here at Dartmouth, he served as the President of Theta Chi Fraternity, which later became Alpha Theta Coeducational Fraternity, the Greek house of which I am a proud member.

The story of how John Sloan Dickey came to be President of Theta Chi is worth relating. As an unofficial tour guide at Alpha Theta, I've enjoyed telling this story to many visitors to our house. It's always one of my favorite parts of the tour. And today, I would like to share it with you.

Now, I should caution you upfront that the complete veracity of this tale is unclear. Likely it contains a kernel of truth that has been improved upon over the years. It well may, at some level, be an apocryphal tale. Nevertheless, I will endeavor to relay it as it is known today.

John Sloan Dickey joined Theta Chi his junior year in college. Theta Chi was then a relatively new institution, having only been founded 1920. So the Dartmouth chapter was still undergoing growing pains, and found itself in dire financial straits. The membership realized that they needed a quick cash infusion or they might be forced to shutter their house. As a desperate ploy, a few members were dispatched to Theta Chi's national convention, to intercede on behalf of the house and to beg for money.

One of those members was John Sloan Dickey.

As the story goes, Dickey arrived at the convention where he made an impassioned plea on behalf of his new brothers. But his words fell upon deaf ears, and he left the convention with his pockets empty, his mission unaccomplished. So he and his friends retreated to a nearby tavern, where they proceeded to drink themselves into oblivion.

Afternoon turned to night, and the bar emptied out. Dickey found himself alone with another tired-looking stranger. He struck up a conversation with this man, and over the course of another few rounds it came out that Dickey's newfound compatriot was a well-to-do alum of Theta Chi. Sensing a ray of hope, Dickey explained the Dartmouth chapter's plight. The alum wrote him a check on the spot.

The triumphant delegation then returned to Dartmouth, where, upon hearing this extraordinary story, the members of Theta Chi elected John Sloan Dickey - still only a pledge - to be their President.

Or so the story goes.

Later, when he served as President of the whole College, Dickey challenged Dartmouth's fraternities to protest clauses in their national constitutions that institutionalized racial segregation. That challenge, issued by a man who had served on President Truman's Commission on Civil Rights, led to Theta Chi's eventual transformation into Alpha Theta, a fraternity that welcomes members of all races and all ethnicities. A few decades later, in that same spirit of inclusion, Alpha Theta voted to accept both male and female members, becoming the coeducational fraternity that I love so dearly today.

And so I owe a great debt of gratitude to John Sloan Dickey, for it is thanks to his actions that I have so many wonderful Thetian brothers and sisters, many of them in the audience today.

Furthermore, to me, men like John Sloan Dickey represent the nexus of those qualities that I believe are pillars of the Dartmouth experience: a passion for this college, and a belief in the liberation of the mind that comes from an education in the liberal arts. A commitment to humility and to understanding, to constructive exchange and dialogue. And a belief that the fruits of education can be used not only for personal advancement, but for the betterment of the world that we inhabit.

These values have been institutionalized by this college at our John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding - a place where, as in so many others on this campus, Dickey's legacy lives on today.

That legacy is a part of what Dartmouth has given me. My desire to help carry it forward shapes many of the aspirations I have for my future beyond these college grounds.

Thus, when trying to make sense of these past four years, this Dartmouth experience that we have all shared, it made sense for me to turn to the words of John Sloan Dickey. The many addresses he gave to Dartmouth students over 25 years of convocations, bonfires, and commencements have all been collected in a book titled just that: The Dartmouth Experience.

I found a copy of that book many terms ago in the Alpha Theta house library, and I confess that I took it. Some people might consider that to be "stealing," but I think anyone who has seen the state of our house library will understand that "rescuing" the book might be a better term.

So I will leave you today with the words of John Sloan Dickey, far more eloquent than my own. Words that were first spoken by that great statesman, that man of learning, that champion of this college and of the "liberating arts" as he addressed another class of Dartmouth graduates at this Commencement ceremony back in 1945.

He said:

"This ceremony is one of those occasions in life which are important. [...]

I venture to remind you of this manifest fact, because it points up the most important thing that I can say to you as you push off from Hanover Plain. And that is this: the quality of your happiness and the worth of your life are now solely in your keeping. [...] From here on, gentlemen, to the end of the road, the choice of the good, the beautiful, and the true will be made for you only if made by you. [...]

But let us also be clear about this business of choosing the good life. It is not made with one dramatic resolution. [...] It is not something that you do tomorrow but not today, let alone yesterday. It will either be in some measure of your daily business, or the good life of the liberally educated man will be beyond your knowledge, and Dartmouth will be the poorer for it.

On other days we have spoken together of the role of competence in the useful man, of humility in the wise man, of loyalty in the true man, and of faith in the reverent man. If you choose it, the good life will put the muscle of experience into those words. [...]

Gentlemen, if you have been worthy of it, your Dartmouth education has given you perhaps the most precious possession of a human being: a larger opportunity of choice. May you use it.

And now the word is 'so long,' because in Dartmouth fellowship there is no parting."

So long. And thank you.

Return to Commencement 2006

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