Sarah Purcell's Baccalaureate Remarks
Parents and families, President Osgood, guests and especially class of 2010. It’s a distinct honor and pleasure to be asked to address you here today. Baccalaureate addresses are designed traditionally-originally they were actually sermons-they’re designed traditionally to bid the graduating class farewell. That’s the whole idea of a baccalaureate, lots of people ask me what is a baccalaureate? And that’s what it is, it’s a farewell. And it’s a real joy, with a little bit of sadness at seeing many, most all of you, go from here, to be chosen to wish you this very special farewell. Tomorrow is a really big day in your life as you graduate from college, but it’s also big for us, the faculty, the staff, the people that you will leave behind and also as we invite you to join the community of Grinnell Alums. I am also an alum of Grinnell College. And so will join into that family at the same time. We’ll keep you in memory as were here on campus and we expect you to keep us in your memory as well.
Now it’s my special joy also to speak to you here in this building, in Herrick Chapel. This is a place of many memories for me and for our campus as a whole. I remember my own baccalaureate, I was sitting right over here, eighteen years ago. And I mostly remember being completely panicked and not knowing at all how to get through the next couple of days, so that part is normal, rest assured. I remember attending students’ weddings in this chapel, alumni’s weddings, my own stepdaughter’s wedding, walking down the aisle to see my stepdaughter get married. Alumni assemblies at alumni reunion, ever year. Now here is the skinny on that: you start at the back your very first reunion, and then you move forward as you age. So all the really cool people are always in the front. And I will encourage you to study the Grinnell song right now, it’s on the website. They make you sing it at alumni assembly, and no one who graduated after 1980 know how to sing it all, so study that before you come. And Grinnell Singers we will need you when the time comes, you are the only ones who know it every single year. It’s very important. We also have, of course, had many convocation addresses and lectures in this space, concerts, Joan Baez, Lady smith Black Mambazo, just in recent years. And also sad events, I remember myself speaking at that podium at the memorial service for my mentor and advisor, Professor Alan Jones.
But this building has been important for more than a century in our College life, that’s just my little part of it. First of course as a chapel, first and foremost as the chapel, but also always ever since it was built, finished in 1907, as a lecture hall, a community space that holds a great number of people on campus, a baccalaureate location, just this year you can recall the announcement of our new incoming president in this very space, that kind of ceremonial space for the college. Even now that our college is quite secular, the chapel is that kind of communal space for us and if you look around you in this room, this room has many echoes of our college’s past. There are more Grinnellians in this room than you know. People who came before for whom this college and even this space was meaningful and they support you all now as you graduate. Many thousands of them are out there right now and some have died. This week we’ve been reminded again that some Grinnellians are taken from us too early in life, but many others have gone before. The living and the dead, Grinnellians are all with you in spirit, just as you will be with us when you leave. Now if we look around the room in here we can see objects and places in the chapel that remind us of those who went before. In the back there is a plaque, a memorial to the Iowa band, who founded Iowa College, which then became Grinnell. There is in that corner, the Civil War memorial to students who were killed in the Civil War, leaving Grinnell College and joining a regiment in the Civil War.
And some of the most striking are the stained glass windows. This window behind me is the first one I’m going to tell you about. I’ve often stared up at this window. I’m not saying that the lectures I attend are boring, but we all have a moment when we might, you know, put our gaze from the speaker up to the window and wonder about that. Don’t do it right now. Now, it’s not the most spectacular stained glass window ever, in any building, in the United States or Europe, that’s for sure. Although I have learned it was made by a quite famous glass artist in Boston, and he made it simple on purpose to match the Gothic simplicity of Herrick Chapel. And it’s not something that’s necessarily easy to understand, even though it sheds a nice light on our proceedings today. But if you look a little deeper, this front window was a special gift to the college from a former trustee, the first mayor of Grinnell, and business leader Samuel F. Cooper. It’s a memorial to his wife, Margaret Jane Cooper, and their good friend, Sarah Pierce Parker. The Coopers and the Parkers were all classmates at Oberlin College in the late 1840s, and they moved to Grinnell in the 1850’s, where Sarah’s husband, Leonard F. Parker, became the first professor at the College when it moved to town. Sarah Parker, who the window is dedicated to, became the first principal of the lady’s department, and the first female professor at the college. She was, by all accounts, a remarkable personality, and she was for a time during the Civil War, the acting president of the college. This window is a memorial to Sarah Parker and her lifelong friendship with Margaret Jane Cooper, who never taught at the college, but who had been a teacher, and was close to many generations of Grinnell professors and students, active in women’s organizations, and who raised money to help fund Grinnell students who couldn’t afford their education. She herself had had to leave Oberlin College because she could not afford to complete her degree. In May of 1907, when Herrick Chapel was dedicated, Harriet Jane Campbell gave a speech summing up what this window stood for. She said that on the window, “two dear names of Sarah Parker and Margaret Jane Cooper should ‘shine out as a memorial to the departed and as a reminder to those who come after them.’” That’s you. “That friendships, as deep and as strong and far, far more enduring than the most celebrated in literature, exist today and may be formed here where these names shall shine for many years to come.”
Now we know how that is. Friendship that’s so deep, it’s difficult to articulate. You want to put it in a window to shine out to the world. So look up and think about the friendships formed here over 150 years, still shining out over your farewell today. You can survive leaving; the friendship will still be there. You might take something physical with you; you don’t have a stained glass window, maybe, but a t-shirt, a photo album, it doesn’t have to be as spectacular as a big stained glass window. But be sure to remember the emotions and the friendships that you made here. It’s very possible and necessary to keep your friends close. My friend, Rachel, is in charge of this ceremony, she’s from the class of 1993, right after me, and I remember her baccalaureate even better than I remember mine, I was less panicked. We didn’t know we’d be back here, speaking, running the ceremony, but we kept our friendship really strong, and she’s been very dear to me ever since, for 20 years.
Now of course there’s more to it, Sarah Parker’s husband, Leonard F. Parker, once said of the windows in Herrick Chapel, “These large and beautiful windows are ornaments to this chapel, and we are pleased that they are, but that is far from the best we can say for them. They are emblems of college-born friendship, on the one side, and college-inspired service, on the other. May college friendships here give occasion for more memorials of the one kind, and the business of service by those who frequent the halls today and tomorrow.” Parker wanted us to remember his wife’s friendship, but also to look at its dialogue with the big window in the back. You can look at that one as you go out today. That window, also installed in 1907, was dedicated to Parker himself, and to all the Iowa College students who contributed to missions, religious and social. In the 1860’s, college activities were Christian missionaries. That’s why the window is Christian in nature. But by 1907, when the window was installed, the college recognized that its graduates were also what we would call social activists. The college alums who grace that window, you can’t see their names too well from down here, but they were missionaries, but they were also scholars, teachers, physicians, nurses, and political activists.
Now, I hope for you guys that Professor Parker was right, that you, in this room today, can see yourselves, here this morning, poised between these two windows: one of college friendship and love, and one of service, striding out into the world to do good things. As you go out, look at the window, and think about your commitment to stand up as a Grinnellian in the world. You’re up to the challenge of the future, and when you need some strength, think back to Grinnell and all those Grinnellians who have your back. You’ve learned a lot here, how to think, and lots of knowledge, but keep the memory of your experiences, your skills, and your knowledge to give you that strength. As my own parents always told me when I was a kid, they still tell me sometimes, “do your best, and your best will be good enough.” You are leaders, whether you can admit it or see it right now, or not. You are leaders. So go and do your best in the world. Be the best business person, the best librarian, the best grad student, the best employee, the best partner, spouse, or parent. Just be the best you know how to be; it doesn’t have to be the best in the world. And make sure you stand up when you see something wrong in the world: be a force for good. These Grinnellians are counting on you for that. So take this place in your memory, keep up your relationships, that’s what’s important. We will be here, some of us will still be here. Stop by and tell us how you’re doing, send us an email, you might find us on Facebook. Some of you may own Plans, some of you may even stay or move back, never get out of here. But wherever you go, remember that you will always, always be part of our community. But for today, farewell, and go take on the world.