My heart is so full of thanks today in this beautiful new Schar Center, exactly as we had imagined as a gathering space. Just beautiful.
I have a deep appreciation for each of you, for this great university and its student-centered mission. Elon University’s story is one of aspiration, of reaching, of always becoming.
In 2015 I went on a professional journey of my own – an always-becoming journey – and left Elon to become the provost at The Citadel. While there, a faculty member shared the book, "Small Craft Advisory," with me. “A must-read for any transplant Charlestonian,” he told me.
The autobiography is by Charleston native Louis D. Rubin, an English professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who was considered one of the great scholars of Southern literature.
Rubin loved sailing. In 1937, at age 13, he got it in his head to build a boat and sail into the dangerous confluence of the Ashley River and the Atlantic Ocean. He didn’t have much money, so he rounded up discarded wood, nails, tar, and in just a few months, crafted a sailboat.
The day he tested the waters, his mother watched, hands on her head, worried about her son, but not intervening. As he courageously navigated the rough waters and guided his boat to the calmer sea, he felt an overwhelming sense of power. At 13, he had learned the valuable lesson of having an idea, a dream, grabbing hold, not letting the naysayers or his own poverty stop him. He called it his Liberating Act.
He even capitalized that term in the book. A Liberating Act.
As I read, I felt the strength of a dream realized, through hard work and effort – a lesson so powerful this young man would write about it more than 50 years later. I was so excited by what I had read that I stepped across the hall to General Rosa’s office to share the story.
When I explained Rubin’s concept of a Liberating Act, General Rosa pointed to the model of the stealth fighter, the F-117 Nighthawk, that he kept on a stand, and said, “Like the day I first climbed into that, leaving my wife and two sons behind?”
And I said, "Yes—like that."
I was so moved by these moments of human courage, when people followed their minds and hearts that I started asking everyone, "what was your moment? What was your Liberating Act?"
This state of always becoming, where we grow to understand that our lives are a continual process of reaching ever higher, of learning and growing, our personal power, our choices, how we see the world and, ultimately, how we then decide to change it.
Always becoming is Elon’s story – this great institution recognizing the strength of setting our own course, our own sails, a perpetual state of always becoming more, better, stronger.
Today, many of my colleagues from The Citadel are here and I am so grateful for the lessons about leadership I learned from them – for their constant guidance and support.
I think of Ms. Eartha Brown, seamstress supervisor in the tailor shop, who on my first day measured me for my uniform, a 1954 Women’s Army Corps uniform. And trust me when I say this is a no-nonsense, no-frills, skirt and blouse.
So in an effort to modernize just a little, I asked Ms. Brown if I could have my skirt two inches above the knee. Without missing a beat she said, “No ma’am.” How about a little tighter here in the hips? “No ma’am.” Ms. Brown was taking the time to set me up for success. She knew that if I reported to my new duties wearing the general’s uniform incorrectly that my credibility would be diminished. She didn’t want that for me, for her or The Citadel. She was leading from her position. She was my teacher and I listened as I became.
In fact, wearing my uniform correctly became a group activity. Everyone invested in my success so that nothing I was wearing could distract from the work we were trying to accomplish together.
So thank you General Rosa, Ms. Brown, who is here today, all my uniform checkers.
My own father and mother left impoverished Opelousas, Louisiana, in a Liberating Act, when they packed up the family station wagon in 1970. All nine children were in the car, including my newborn brother Paul, and we headed to Corvallis, Oregon, so my Dad could continue his education. That Liberating Act would change all nine of their children’s lives, forever better, forever richer, and all of our children’s lives. I am enormously proud and grateful that my parents faced their fear and in an act of courage pulled out of that driveway and pulled our futures forward.
My father, who passed away in 2015, would have been so excited to be here today and be a part of these events. In fact, he’d be telling us all what to do at this very moment, wouldn’t he Mom? Please join me in welcoming my mother and all eight of my brothers and sisters who made that station wagon journey with me and have joined us today.
You see, I believe Liberating Acts break us out of the status quo. They do away with the expected and open wide the horizon to a bolder future that we hadn’t previously imagined. And yes, this state of always becoming help us understand that the most meaningful part of our lives is not about the finish line.
The richness of life is in the next, the hope of becoming better, brighter, stronger, wiser. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his first novel, "This Side of Paradise," "It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being."
My own dreams of becoming started when my mom would pile us all into that same station wagon and head to the public library. The back bookshelf, lower third to the left in the children’s section, was my favorite. There were the biographies of courageous women: Amelia Earhart, Annie Oakley and Louisa May Alcott. Each had their own story of moving beyond the expected.
Amelia Earhart, whose father’s alcoholism created fear and anxiety, so much so that flying into the unknown felt comfortable. As a result, she had the courage to do what no one had done before – fly the Atlantic and the Pacific.
Annie Oakley’s father died young. Left in poverty, she began hunting at age six to feed her sisters and brothers. She became such a sharpshooter she would earn enough money to pay off her mother’s mortgage at age 15. And Louisa May Alcott, who taught herself to write with both hands so she could write for longer periods of time, publish more, feed and educate her family. From that service to her family sprang one of the world’s greatest literary accomplishments, "Little Women." Not because she loved to write, but because she had to write.
And I have found those same inspiring stories here at Elon.
Many of you remember Isabella Cannon, Elon class of 1924. At age 96, she gave Elon’s Commencement address in 2000.
During her long life, Isabella Cannon was always becoming. Born in Scotland, her family traveled to Alamance County so her father could work in the textile mills. The Great Depression changed her life and in a series of unexpected events her husband would enter diplomatic service that led them around the globe, to Liberia and Iraq. She was even in China when the Tiananmen Square uprising took place.
Then in her own story of always becoming, at age 73, widowed and without children, she aimed to be elected the first woman to serve as mayor of Raleigh. Her campaign slogan — “the little old lady in tennis shoes.” Against all odds, she won that election.
It was a grassroots effort, built on her strong belief that the community power of welcoming neighborhoods was the best ingredient for a successful city. In her Commencement address, Isabella Cannon told Elon graduates to embrace the unexpected opportunities in their lives. A great message.
Jump ahead to 2005, to Trustee Jeanne Robertson’s remarks to the graduating class, one of my favorite Commencement addresses. Prince Hussein of Jordan was scheduled to speak and a conflict arose. Jeanne embraced being the stand-in. She told the crowd that instead of a prince, they had a queen – 1963 Miss North Carolina.
For those of you who don’t know Jeanne, she makes her living as a humorist, has a popular show on SIRIUS/XM radio and travels the world sharing her stories. She told Elon students that she had spent her life searching for good material, humor, the positive in everyday life. And she said when you go looking for good things, you find good things.
I still chuckle when I remember Jeanne describing her son Beaver’s time as an Elon student as "the six best four years of his life."
Earnest and striving, these are the stories of becoming that inspire me and this is Elon University’s story as well.
Elon was established by the Christian Church in 1889, and you can still feel the legacy of our founders’ faith and principles here on campus. A faith that describes itself as united and uniting. Dynamic – always becoming and evolving, with greater understanding from life lessons.
Elon’s historian and professor of history, George Troxler, summed it up beautifully in his work, "From a Grove of Oaks: The Story of Elon University," when he wrote that Elon’s powerful trajectory in higher education had not been from a single act or a single transformative financial gift. Instead Elon’s “commitment to community, openness to new approaches and a penchant for planning ... have been essential...”
The broader effort of “we” versus “me”, the firmer foundation of collective action and change, advancing a new model of teaching and learning that celebrates engagement and relationships as the essential ingredients. This is Elon. A community of courageous and determined educators, dedicated to liberating acts and always becoming better.
One of the things I have so admired about each of you and Elon is, when faced with challenges, we get to it and work to improve, to listen to each other, and with our new understanding advance our community.
I was moved this semester when Don Chaplin and Andy Hunt, of Burlington, North Carolina, shared with me how they had witnessed firsthand that Elon commitment to our LGBTQIA students. That experience led them to make two generous gifts to support the students in those programs. In making this gift, Don remarked on not only the academic quality of the students and their Elon education but on their hearts as well and said, “These students are people who will make the world a better place.” I couldn’t agree more Don and Andy. Thank you for your inspired gift.
Dr. Earl Danieley, Elon’s sixth president, wrote about these Elon constant values and their intersection with teaching and learning in his inaugural address in 1958. He said, “great teaching is our high calling, and that “A liberal education must help a student to FIND themselves in concerns, causes and ideas which are more important than individual gain.”
In 1973, Dr. Fred Young, Elon’s seventh president, here with us with his wife Phyllis, also arrived on campus in a station wagon and through his 25 years as president, Dr. Young understood the importance of always becoming. He loved to say he had been president of “four different Elons.”
He led the effort to expand Elon’s admissions footprint, reimagine the campus master plan and invest in foundational buildings such as McMichael Science Center. He famously turned the parking lot in front of Alamance Building into Fonville Fountain. And he personally took a sledgehammer to start demolition of the power plant where Belk Library now stands.
Now I’m sure that was a Liberating Act.
In 1999, Dr. Leo Lambert, Elon’s eighth president, with his wife Laurie, here today, and two daughters, arrived in – you guessed it – a tried and true station wagon. Are we sensing a theme here?
In his inaugural address a few months later, Leo reminded us that, “Elon is not a place of polar opposites, of either-ors. It is a place with a can-do spirit that seeks integration rather than separation.” President Lambert invested in academic excellence, establishing professional schools, expanding facilities, and sheltering a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa to advance Elon nationally. Critically, he also led growth in scholarships to create greater access to Elon for students of all backgrounds.
Presidents Danieley, Young and Lambert built this university on the foundation prepared by their predecessors and on the power of a committed community, a vision realized by Elon’s founder William Samuel Long, a college for the world, “firmly established in the hearts of the people.”
The trustees have provided remarkable leadership, challenging Elon to reach and then to reach again. You only have to spend a day on campus – their names appear on buildings and centers, programs and scholarships. They represent generations of families who believe so strongly in Elon that they invested personally their time and resources.
In truth, I can’t stop smiling when I think of each of you here today — trustees, faculty, staff, students and friends – of the enormous gifts you all contribute to Elon’s community.
And today, on this historic occasion for the university, I am pleased to announce a new gift: the establishment by Trustee Louis DeJoy and his wife Aldona Wos of a new series of scholarships that will open doors to an Elon education to students from Title I schools in neighboring Greensboro.
This generous gift will establish the DeJoy-Wos Scholars in our Odyssey Program, and will grow to 12 full scholarships in a few short years. This dedication of personal resources by the DeJoy-Wos family represents the hope and confidence in an Elon education and in the future of our local communities.
Louis and Aldona are creating opportunity where little was imagined through the power of education. Louis and Aldona - please stand so that we can thank you for this remarkable commitment in endowing new scholarships for our collective future.
For 129 years, young men and women have come to this place to gain the education, experience, determination and spirit they need for a lifetime of growth. Elon graduates stand out. They are humble, hardworking, resilient and inspired to make an impact in the world.
I could tell you more than 33,000 stories of Elon alumni always becoming and achieving. But let’s settle on just one example. With us at the head of the Long Maroon Line today is Dr. Charles Kernodle. Dr. Kernodle, could you please stand?
Now Dr. Kernodle, Class of 1938 and 100 years young - Dr. Kernodle’s lifetime of becoming has included service as the U.S. Army chief surgeon in Germany during World War II. After the war, he returned to Burlington to establish Kernodle Clinic with his brother and cousin and he was always on call, providing family health care for generations. And that includes being the football team physician for our local Williams High School for nearly seven decades.
Dr. Kernodle continues to be always becoming. Thank you, Dr. Kernodle.
On the strength of the mighty oaks for which Elon is named, and the people who stood in that grove and determined that a new college be built on this spot, I stand before you today as Elon University's ninth president. Our strength for tomorrow depends on each of us – our dedication and our talents in support of Elon’s future – and our students’ futures.
We will hold tight to our student-centered mission —to develop the mind, body and spirit—understanding that this is Elon’s foundational strength, captured in our motto, Numen Lumen.
We will deepen and advance our curricular and experiential offerings here at Elon and around the world – the mastery of powerful and ethical teaching against a backdrop of vibrant and innovative engagement; the teacher-scholar-mentor model that leads our nation in student success.
We will expand our facilities and programs in science, technology, engineering and math to advance entrepreneurial graduates prepared to solve the world’s most challenging problems. We will build upon our residential success and advance our relationship-driven model that transforms lives.
We will deepen our commitment to the Town of Elon, Alamance County and Greensboro.
From this diversity of people, from all walks of life, the collective energy and inspired wisdom of our community will be our powerful guiding lights. Elon, we are the people who will do the work with passion and compassion.
Today, we boldly embrace Elon’s future, knowing there is no endpoint to this journey of always becoming– each of us, always becoming. Elon, always becoming.
That’s who we are.
That’s why we soar.
Long Live Elon!