The Best Times

A View from the Hill - Summer 2013

By the time this issue of Denison Magazine arrives in your mailbox, Tina and I will have moved into our new home in Georgetown, Texas, just north of Austin, to begin our new life as “civilians.” I taught my first college class in 1974, while I was still completing doctoral studies in history at Northwestern University, and have been employed in higher education ever since. Although we still had a private life during my professorial career and even in the first years after I assumed a succession of academic administrative posts, 15 years as a college president hasn’t given Tina or me much time out of the public eye. In a college town, it seems I’m always the president and Tina always the first lady, even when we’re just going to the grocery store!

So it seems right that now, in retirement, we’re going to have more time to spend with each other, to undertake some travel that isn’t dictated by the rhythms of the academic calendar, and to enjoy living much closer to our young Texas-born grandsons. Tina, having grown used to making beautiful things grow in Henderson Gardens surrounding our home, Monomoy Place, is now going to relearn how to make things green in Austin’s warmer, drier, stonier environment. And I hope ultimately to resume the writing of a couple of books in American history that I set aside as my administrative responsibilities grew.

Since this is the last opportunity I’ll have to write to so many in the Denison family, I thought I’d use it to answer the question I am asked all the time—and even more often in these last weeks of my presidency: What has been my favorite experience at Denison? I offer this reply: There is no one time or occasion, but rather five times each year that stand out for me. The first is our annual First-Year Induction Ceremony, held on the evening of the day that the new class arrives for August Orientation and often attended by parents as well. I love this ceremony for the sense of expectancy that we all have—not only students and their loved ones, but Denison faculty and staff, too, as they see the possibility in these young men and women. And I enjoy this as a brief moment to teach again, to share ideas that I hope will help launch these new Denisonians into a productive college career.

The second occasion arrives just weeks later. It’s what we now call Big Red Weekend, the amalgam of the old Parents Weekend with what used to be Homecoming into a general open house for the families, alumni, and friends of Denison. This is a time to show the college off a little, especially as the leaves on our hillsides begin to turn red and gold. It is a time when students are able to share their pride and excitement in what they are doing in and out of the classroom and an opportunity for our visitors to see the college in action.

In mid-April, we conduct the annual Academic Awards Convocation in Swasey Chapel. On this occasion we celebrate outstanding learning and leadership and exemplary teaching. We recognize the ways in which members of the student body (especially the seniors) have distinguished themselves, and we award the President’s Medal to the seniors who have exemplified academic and leadership achievement. New holders of endowed professorships are named, as are the two faculty members selected by their peers to receive the Brickman Teaching Awards.  On this occasion, the members of the board of trustees, the faculty assembled in academic regalia, and I all agree that we rediscover why it is we do the work that we do at Denison. It’s inspiring.

Just a few weeks later comes Commencement. Graduates pass through a double file of faculty decked out in the riotous color of academic gowns and hoods from around the world. I get to “ring the class out” with the historic college bell just as I “rung them in” with it at Induction. But the best is enjoying their smiles, handshakes, and sometimes hugs as they receive the diplomas that represent their four years of accomplishment. And then, at the end, behold, I get to “teach” one more time, offering a Charge to the Class to set them on their way.

About three weeks after Commencement comes Denison’s Alumni Reunion Weekend, when more than 1,000 Denisonians and their families are back on campus. I love the fact that they are rediscovering their college—not just as it was, but as it is—and rediscovering one another, too. The best thing about reunions is that you not only enjoy old friends, but you often make new ones, finding in classmates one barely knew five or 50 years ago, men and women who now have shared important life experiences. I watch each year in wonder as these friendships unfold.

So, you know, it hasn’t been a bad life being a college president! It’s been fulfilling, for both Tina and me. And for this reason, we know we will always stay connected to Denison and Denisonians. The college is in our hearts. Consequently, we are excited about our successors, Adam and Anne Weinberg, and want to do everything we can to see that they have an experience that is a success for them and for Denison. By embracing them as you have embraced us, you will help make Denison’s future bright.

Published March 2013