May 9, 2015
President Elizabeth Davis, Furman University Graduating Class of 2015, supporters and family members, distinguished faculty, and valued administrators and Trustees, I thank you. I thank you for giving me this moment to express my deep gratitude and humility for the honor you have given me. I share this honor with my wife, Diane, Furman class of 1970. Her inspiration, devotion and support have been and continue to be the joys of my life. To the class of 1965, thank you for welcoming me and my freshman classmates with open arms. Many of you were my mentors in teaching me how to study, how to have fun, and how to have a party –not necessarily in that order.
Class of 2015, I am here to announce to you that each and every one of you has won three lotteries. And Furman itself has won a lottery. The world is vitally in need of you to share your lottery winnings in responsible ways. You want to make your mark on the world. How do you make a lasting mark on your world? I taught college and university students for 35 years. I began all my classes of new students and new places I went with the same question: “If someone can stand up and give me the first and last names of their grandparents’ parents, I will give the whole class three points extra credit.” No student has been able to answer that question. So now I say, “Not only will they not remember the kind of car you drove, the house you lived in or your salary—your own great grandchildren quite likely won’t even remember your name.”
What then lasts? The culture that your generation builds and leaves to those who come behind you is what lasts. Will it be one of trust or mistrust, responsibility or self-promotion, a culture of honesty or deceit, a culture that has a market economy but follows intrinsic moral values or a culture where the market has become the total value and everything and everybody is for sale and gaming every system they are in?
I owe a lot to a wise woman named Ruth Babb. She was 82 years old when I met her. She had been a successful business woman in the town where I had my first job. She had married into the family of Winston Babb, a Furman history professor. My first week in her town, she invited me to visit her. She said she had some advice for me. We sat on her front porch, and she said, “Young man, do not read what we read. We read the newspapers; we read the popular magazines. We read professional journals. We watch television and go to the movies. You are a Furman graduate so connect us with some higher encouragements so we can get somewhere that we could not have gotten to on our own. Do research and make connections that will open some windows of our minds. And if you do this, you will open your own mind and fix some parts of yourself, just as you will enable us to fix parts of ourselves that are missing higher encouragements.”
Class of 2015, you are the stars of this night. I am going to try to help you realize something of the inheritance and accompanying responsibilities that should be yours through having graduated from this great institution that has taken you somewhere that you could not have gotten to on your own The lotteries you have won are the geographic lottery, the educational lottery and the support group lottery. We send you out of here to use your lottery winnings to help our world build better societies.
Having studied in the United States of America, you have won the world’s geographic lottery. Most of us did nothing to earn these winnings. Most of us were born into this land. Others had the privilege of studying here, as well. The United States has 25,068 rivers that have 3.5 million miles of water. All the people currently living in the United States could fit within the borders of Texas and Oklahoma, and each person could have half an acre to live on. And they could all have enough water by utilizing just one river, the Columbia River.
That is not all our winnings. The state of California at present is the eighth largest economy in the world, greater even than the economy of the nation of Russia. The state of Texas has a bigger economy than the continent of Australia. And for all of our fear about losing our position in the world economy to the oil rich nations, the tiny state of Massachusetts has a GDP larger than Saudi Arabia. If our moral mandates matched our riches, we could solve most every problem we have.
The second lottery you have won is the educational lottery. The most popular destination for study abroad is the United States. Two-thirds of the post-graduates in the world who study abroad choose the United States of America as the place to study. A report by the Kauffman Foundation in Missouri found that alumni of just one American University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, founded 25,800 companies that are still active and employ 3.3 million people. A lot of that effort was realized in 1961-1966 when Charles Townes, a Furman University graduate with a Furman B.A. and B.S. was the provost of M.I.T.
Having majored in history at Furman, I like to trace some things to their origin because, more often than not, the end is determined by the beginning. When we combine new knowledge with old wisdom, we make surprising connections. You and I reap the winnings from an educational lottery. It was started by Thomas Hollis who was born in 1659. At age 41 he began to reflect upon his successful life as a sea merchant. He decided that God had blessed him and he should distribute his wealth to the poor. The poorest and most needy group of people Thomas Hollis could find in his day was in the American colonies. By his religious standards, America was parochial and intolerant. He considered its people to be backwards and more than just a bit illiterate. They had few books and not a single college professor in the whole land. A few preachers had started a little college in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when John Harvard had given them his cow yard and a few books. This college was about to fold up by 1720. Thomas Hollis gave the school several gifts of money to enable the first endowed professorship in any American college, The Hollis Professorship of Divinity in 1721. He followed that gift six years later with the Hollis Professorship of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy. But what good are professors without books? Being a merchant who traveled over Europe, Thomas Hollis began to purchase books and send them to his professors to begin a library. Hollis sent some books to Harvard which concerned the professors who worried about the liberal ideas in the textbooks. Hollis, irritated at the critics noted, “If some (books) are not quite orthodox, don’t be afraid of them. Let the students read them, try them, judge them, and see for themselves.” He was a champion of civil and religious liberty. Hollis sent books to the college by the trunk load.
Following his death, his great nephew, Thomas Hollis V, built the first college library in America, a library that is now the second largest library in the nation. A lot of people in London at the time were concerned about the liberal ideas of government in the books the Hollis family was sending to Boston by the thousands. Thomas Hollis V became a one-man promoter of liberty and sent books like John Locke’s on the rights to private property, and Isaac Newton’s on the scientific method, to the library at the college. The results were amazing.
In 1993, Louisiana State University developed an exhibit on freedom. It featured copies of some of the actual books and prints that Hollis and his family sent to Harvard College and later to Princeton. The exhibit showed clearly how the phrases and writings from those materials were taken to produce most of the words and ideas behind “The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America.” The early shapers of our government had something more valuable than guns with which to work. They had the books chronicling the hopes of freedom of the human race that had been arriving by the thousands for almost sixty years (1718-1774), from one family that believed that a liberal arts education was the greatest gift that could be bestowed upon a people.
Thomas Hollis never came to America. He died having never seen the colonies that he and his family’s books had helped turn into a free and mighty nation. He died knowing but one thing: he had spent his life and his wealth promoting civil and religious liberty through education. It was the highest encouragement he could offer, and it was the right thing to do. He helped a people get to a place they never could have gotten to on their own.
In terms of the third lottery you have won, class of 2015, most of those winnings are the people sitting here ready to congratulate you. Furman University is a place that invests itself in some activities that other universities do not. It supports young people who need some higher encouragements relative to attending college. Fifteen years ago, I worked with a husband and wife who wanted to give something back to higher education. They had a passion for helping students in need. The husband, Tom Keller, knew about need. His mother left him with his paternal grandparents when he was but two years old. He did not see her again until he was eighteen. His father had also abandoned him, never to return. He grew up in a factory house that did not have hot water. One high school teacher changed his life. He recognized Tom’s talent with a drawing pen. He even left his classroom open many nights so Tom could sleep there when things got difficult at home. The teacher got him a scholarship to go to a school of design in New York City. He and his wife, Rosemary, built a highly successful furniture design company. After Tom died, his widow came to me and wanted me to find a college program that she could support that would help bright but needy young people prepare for college. Tom was born in Virginia, so we started there. To our surprise, the two institutions we were looking at were voted dead last in the nation in economic diversity of their student bodies. After some less than fulfilling experiences elsewhere Rosemary said, “My family lived in South Carolina when I was young. What about Furman the school where you went? I have never seen Furman and know little about it, but call them.”
I called Furman and asked, “What do you do to provide funds to help students and potential students?” The person at Furman replied, “We have funds from tuition, grants, endowments, and foundations–and we have a program that we do just because it is the right thing to do.” I said, “Tell me about this ‘right thing to do’ program.” That is how we discovered the Furman Bridges to a Brighter Future Program which helps needy students go to college. Furman is different. It should be different because Furman itself won a lottery at a critical time in its own existence. James B. Duke, the son of a poor dirt farmer, never forgot the poverty of his family’s early life. Consequently, in 1924 he signed the papers for an endowment to benefit poor people in North and South Carolina. He specified that the greatest portion of the funds be awarded to four schools of higher education: three in North Carolina and Furman in South Carolina. James B. Duke could never have envisioned the far-reaching influences he started. He helped Furman get to a place it could have never reached on its own.
Class of 2015, we send you out from a university that has offered higher encouragements to people far and wide for decades. We send you forth hoping that you will aspire to continue that legacy of helping people. Aim for higher encouragements. The world needs what you can model. You are points of light, and this is your world. Don’t just live in it. Accept the responsibility to enlighten yourself about it. Help people get to places they can’t get to on their own. I hope that you are as proud of your Furman degree as I am of mine. God bless you all.
Notes for the Commencement address at Furman University, May 9, 2015. Material may be used with proper attribution.
See the map, “Nearest GDP equivalents, 2009 to latest, $bn,” The Economist (January 15th 2011), page 35. I utilized some of these figures and updated others July of 2014. See material from Stephen Levy, director of the Palo Alto-based Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy which compiled the rankings from annual figures put out by the World Bank. See also material presented in an article “California Ranks as World’s 8th Largest Economy” by KBPS television news investigator Amita Sharma, July 8, 2014.
If Texas were a nation –Note: Dollar conversions to GDP are based on average annual exchange rates to the U. S. dollar in 2013 Sources: International Monetary Fund and U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Published August 2014, based on data provided by Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts staff.
For much of the information about Thomas Hollis, see The Rev. Professor Peter Gomes, “The Most Bountiful Benefactor,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Volume 27, Number 1, 1999, and W.H. Bond, Thomas Hollis of Lincoln’s Inn: A Whig and His Books (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). Bond was Librarian of the Houghton Library and Professor of Bibliography, Emeritus, at Harvard. The Bond volume encourages a re-evaluation of Hollis’s influence in the Age of Revolution. The Journal of Library History, vol. 22, no. 3 (Summer 1987), pages 338-341, has an important article by Bond on the crates of books shipped to Boston harbor by the Hollis family in the period 1720-1774, including the thousands of books shipped after the fire of 1764 and the subsequent first endowment of a library in America by Thomas Hollis V, the great nephew of Thomas Hollis. Five members of the Hollis family, all named Thomas, contributed to the effort to build the Harvard Library.
William F. Campbell was for 32 years Professor of Economics at Louisiana State University. The Hollis material is part of a larger exhibit, “Whigs, Tories, and Classical Republicans: 1640-1760,” of which Campbell was appointed curator in 1993. The Hollis material has been used in the book You Can’t Keep A Good God Down: Messages of Hope and Inspiration from a University Chapel by Harold C. Warlick: High Point University Press, 2007.