Final Exercises 2009: Wilkinson Speech

J. Harvie Wilkinson III
Commencement Address, May 17, 2009
University of Virginia

Good morning. First thing I want to do is congratulate the wise men and women who choose to hold this graduation ceremony outdoors. A little rain isn’t going to keep us off the Lawn is it?

It is such a pleasure to be here for this very special day. It is a pleasure also to welcome so many people from so many places. The University’s deepest roots will always be in the Commonwealth of Virginia. But the greatness of this institution will depend not only on attracting marvelous students from our home state but the best students from around the country and increasingly from around the world.

Now, I have heard it said that there is a move afoot to legislate strict limits on out-of-state enrollment at this and other state universities. This, this move not only runs counter to the essential premise of broad-mindedness in public education. It is also contrary to the vision of our Founder. Thomas Jefferson was a Virginian first and foremost. But the Founder did as much as any person to establish a transcontinental nation. In the founder’s copious correspondence with Enlightenment figures beyond our shores showed his vision to be international in scope. We should never turn our backs on this vision. This great Virginian understood that both the Commonwealth and the University would be immeasurably enriched by opening doors to those beyond our borders. We have always done this and may it always be so.

It’s possible to love an institution as one loves individuals. I love the University of Virginia. The word love should apply to both. As the Rector mentioned, my devotion to the University of Virginia goes back a very long way. I want you to take your thoughts back to the Jurassic Age – not that old. Back to Prehistoric times. Way back in time to when Interstate 64 did not run between Richmond and Charlottesville. We had to travel on Route 50 then and stay behind long tractor-trailers on that two-lane road for twenty miles at a time. But from the time I was four or five years old, my dad and I made the trek from Richmond to Charlottesville on Saturday to watch those home football games. Now I have to tell you, many of them did not end in victory, but so be it. It was the pilgrimage that mattered. And we had a lunch in the courtyard, and then dad and I took in the game, and we would always watch the shadows fall across this Lawn before heading back to Richmond.

As graduates, it’s your big day. It isn’t just your day. Today is a celebration of your marvelous accomplishments, but it’s a lot more then that. It’s a celebration of the efforts of many, many others -- parents, teachers, friends who brought you to this place. Think back just a moment. Who was it? Who was it that made sure every morning you reached kindergarten or first grade on time? What particular teacher do you remember from your past who most inspired you to learn? Most importantly, who helped to keep you out of trouble? Who helped you to finance your higher education? Who was it that encouraged you to attend college or graduate school? And is there any particular person that helped you over those moments of discouragement that are inevitably part of reaching a celebratory day?

And herein lies the paradox. You can love these people very much. And you can owe them all an enormous debt of gratitude. And yet -- and yet -- you have got to dare to be different from those for whom you have the greatest affection. You may have the most devoted parents in the world You may have the most dedicated teachers in the world, but all that devotion and all that dedication does not obligate you to be just like them. Sounds so simple, but as with most rules, the difficulty comes when you put it into practice.

You’re going to learn that other people have formed expectations about how you should live your life. And sometimes these other people may be immensely close to you. Of course you want to listen to what they have to say. Of course you do. Ultimately, however, you’re going to have to live, the courage to live according to your own lights and not according to others' expectations for how you should live your life.

You often hear the words mid-life crisis and what is meant by that is that in middle age there comes the realization that life's options are not limitless; that there are roads which are not taken; that there are rewarding ways to use your finite gifts and talents and energies, and ways which are empty and hollow.

So there will come for you in middle age a time of accounting and taking stock. You will look at yourself in the mirror one not too distant day and ask yourself the hard question. That fundamental question -- is the way I am leading my life worthwhile? One way to avoid that mid-life crisis in your forties and fifties is to make choices even in your twenties which reflect not the road that others would map out for you, but your own true aspirations and convictions.

To make this point real for you, I cannot be abstract. I’m going to have to speak to you very personally. I’m going to talk a bit about my father, but the point I make will apply to any parent, or any sibling, or friend, or mentor who is a forceful presence in your own life. Please go back once more with me again in time. I grew up in an odd sort of age when children were to be seen and not to be heard. My father had a special chair in the family den, and I sat on a small stool at the foot of that chair for hours on end. I never talked, simply listened to my father and his friends discuss the topic of the day. My dad seemed to me at that point the wisest man alive. I would never have imagined doing other than what he said. My dad was my North Star.

Well, the years passed and I went to boarding school in New Jersey. It’s horrible isn’t it? But, but wait for what’s going to come next! Wait for what’s going to come next, you’re really going to boo because when the time came to think about college, I found, to my surprise, that my father and I were not at all in agreement. In retrospect, our discussions seem a little bit insufferable and very much a tempest in a teapot. But at the time I promise you, it was a really big deal. I knew I wanted to return to the University of Virginia for graduate school and thereafter, so I wanted to go somewhere else in the meantime, namely to Yale. I know, what possessed me? But Yale was disputatious and that was the spirit of the 1960s. Dad didn’t see it that way. He was convinced that southerners would never receive a fair shake that far north. Princeton, he said, was the very farthest north a southerner could ever go and expect to be accepted. So dad and I went at it. And eventually, after much combat and consternation, he agreed to help pay my way to a place where almost on a daily basis during the mid-1960s, he knew I would have to defend and debate my point of view. You see, college for my father was a great deal more than a clash of viewpoints. And I guess at that time, college for me was a chance to experience the unfamiliar and test my mind.

Unfortunately for me, my conflicts with my father just continued to deepen. When I was in my second year of law school, Governor Linwood Holton urged me to run for Congress. My father was adamantly opposed. “Wait your turn,” he said. “You are only twenty-five years old.” I went ahead anyway. I won the Republican nomination. But the Vietnam War was not a good time for a student to run to Congress and to be face a three-term incumbent. “Send Satterfield back to Congress and Wilkinson back to law school,” that’s what the billboards read. And unfortunately the voters quickly took up that suggestion.

The day after my defeat was one I’ll never forget. I had a terrible hangover and I hadn’t had a drop to drink. A television reporter caught me getting into my car and asked me what I felt about the election. Well, I said, “I think I just received a mandate,” “What!” was his astonished reply. “A mandate to return to law school,” I said. My father thought the whole venture was a terrible mistake. And my father really had good reasons for his view. But still politics seemed to me the best chance to learn about every part of a University. I met people I would otherwise not have known, I visited places I would otherwise not have visited. And politics seemed to me to be a great way to get out of my own little world.

When I left law school and finished a clerkship, I was somewhat torn on which road to take. My father was not torn. From the many things he said to me, it was clear that my dad wanted me to go into the private practice of law in Richmond. My father’s friends in private practice had done their clients and their profession, and their community enormous good. And the financial rewards and community status that came from the private practice of law were of great benefit not only to oneself but to one’s family. And as was his custom, my father made no secret of his wishes: accept that attractive offer on the table, he said and proceed to become a distinguished Richmond barrister.

But you know there was something in me that really wanted to teach. More than anything else, I just wanted to be in a classroom, and I knew I wanted that classroom to be at the University of Virginia. You see I had been taken as a young boy by the Robert Donat movie “Goodbye Mr. Chips.” Chips was the legendary teacher who taught grandfather, father, and grandsons at a British boarding school, and had the sad task at the end of his career of informing the school community in chapel of recent graduates who died in the trenches in the killing fields of France during World War I. But I knew that the impact of Chips on his students was unparalleled. I wanted to spend my time in contact with succeeding generations of students just as Mr. Chips had -- and I thought it would keep me fresh and challenged. So to the disappointment of my father yet once more, I followed my heart and I went into teaching.

My first office at the University of Virginia Law School had no windows. The paint was peeling, and it was located right next to the public commode, which distracted me terribly as I was preparing for class. When dad visited my tiny office and heard the latrines, his heart sank. All the stature and prestige of private practice his son was throwing out the window that wasn’t even there. Have you all ever read disappointment in a parent’s face? It’s the worst feeling in the world. I had to tell my dad my starting salary was only $16,000 (which was low even for 1973). But I was so happy, day after day, and being on the faculty of this University was a lifetime dream.

My conflicts with my father continued. During the 1970s, I jumped at the offer to go into journalism and become an editorial page editor of the Norfolk-Virginian Pilot in Tidewater, Virginia. Dad was again disappointed with me. He urged me to keep with the law. He saw this foray into journalism as a terrible career detour. His generation believed first and foremost in stability. With dad, you signed on with a company and a career path and you just kept at it. I tried to explain to my father that sometimes stability had to be balanced with mobility, but I doubt my dad ever saw it that way. In all events, journalism was a marvelous profession. Attending meetings of city councils, planning commissions, zoning boards, housing authorities, and the like, would better help me to understand what was really going on in communities and this experience has helped make me a better lawyer as well.

The stability versus mobility struggle with my father continued when the Reagan administration asked me to the Department of Justice as a member of the administration. As you know from reading the papers today, the Department of Justice handles just about every hot potato you could imagine. My father knew about its portfolio and wondered how anyone with an ounce of sense would ever get involved in it. The issues with which we dealt could explode in one’s face and end one’s career. As usual, dad had great reasons for what he believed, but I was young and impetuous and excited and it seemed to me that the Reagan Revolution was to a Republican what the New Deal was to a Democrat -- at the center of the action, the very place to be. So I went ahead, but with a heavy heart and I wonder whether my father and I would ever manage to come to agreement about anything.

It seemed impossible, you see, that the young boy sitting on that footstool, driving down Route 250 with his father would ever come to have such profound differences. Yet as time went on in the last decades of my father’s life, my dad and I became very, very close. Ironically, I don’t think we would have grown so close had I just nodded and accepted everything he said. My father and I came to mutual affection each on our own terms, and so must you do with the powerful presences in your life.

The great philosopher Eric Fromme has spoken of “the logical fallacy in the notion that love for others and love for oneself are mutually exclusive.” “If,” writes Fromme, “it is a virtue to love my neighbor as a human being, it must be a virtue and not a vice to love myself, since I am a human being too.” And loving yourself means being true to yourself, even when doing so requires intense disagreement with the closest and most powerful presences in your life. Loving yourself is different from selfishness -- it need not mean the acquisition of a great deal of money or satisfying your needs at the expense of someone else’s. Loving yourself means developing your innate gifts and your talents for the betterment of your fellows. But only by loving yourself in this way will it ever be possible to reach out to others in a manner that true love requires.

My father passed away in 1990. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss him terribly. I can see now that the fact that my father and I fought over so many things was a manifestation of how deeply he cared. It would have been easy enough for my father to have lapsed into indifference, to continue his own very successful life, and to just let me go my way. But he loved me and wanted the best for me, and I took away from all those interminable clashes with him a better and wiser way of making decisions which I hope helps me even now.

Now you know my dad, he graduated from the University of Virginia in 1927. And dad spoke of his years here on the grounds with unabashed affection and joy. The beauty of this Lawn inspired him. We celebrate those Corinthian columns on the face of the Rotunda, but the Doric columns down the length of the Lawn are every bit as lovely – cause its in the Doric columns that the ancient Greeks discovered the beauties and perfections of simplicity. These are not the only Doric columns at your University. When I came to serve on the Board of Visitors in the early 1970s, I fought hard to preserve those beautiful Doric columns in the Lambeth Field amphitheatre from encroaching development. Now those columns need a little sprucing up now, but they are still very much there, and I am proud those columns have persevered because my dad sat in those stands and ran in track and cross-country meets in the shadow of that Doric colonnade.

And so it seems fitting to me that on this wonderful day in your life that the last words be those of my father -- dad would want you to know that in choosing the University of Virginia for your education, you have chosen the very best. On that, my father and I are in complete agreement.

I thank you.