Posted on Jun 13, 2008

We gather together for this Baccalaureate Ceremony in Memorial Chapel, one of the most beloved spaces for many graduates of Union College. Memorial Chapel was completed in 1925 and was intended to honor Union alumni who had been killed in wars up to that time, especially the then recent conflict of World War I. Over the ensuing years, it’s evolved into a place for remembering the passing of all graduates of the College and other members of the Union community. For this reason, each year at the Baccalaureate ceremony, we take time to honor those members of the Union family who died during the preceding year. We do so again today. Their names are listed in the program and I would ask that you join me in remembering them, their many contributions, and their love of Union with a brief moment of silence.

Look around you. Surrounding you are the portraits of my 17 predecessors. Some, like Jonathan Maxcy, Union’s third President, served for a relatively brief time. President Maxcy served for just two years (1802-1804). He himself started college – at what was to become Brown University – when he was just 15 years old and then served as its second President before coming to Union. He was regarded as one of the most eloquent preachers of his day. His presidency here was brief due to what he perceived to be the ill effects of Schenectady’s weather on his health. Some of you may feel the same way!

To Maxcy’s left is Jonathan Edwards, Jr, Union’s second President. He also had a short term as President and died in office. In fact, he is buried a few blocks from here in the graveyard at the Presbyterian Church on Union Street in the Stockade District. Edwards was the son of Jonathan Edwards, a prominent theologian. He was among the early abolitionists and we just purchased a rare document in President Edward’s own handwriting, an anti-slavery sermon. Unlike Maxcy, he wasn’t likely called “eloquent.” He seldom looked at his audience and his sermons reputedly went over the heads of most people. He was said to lack “social graces,” to have been incapable of small talk and absent of wit. However, what he lacked in grace, he made up for in courage. When most ministers stayed on the sidelines in the early days of the American Revolution, Edwards blessed militia heading to Boston to confront British troops.

To Maxcy’s right is Eliphalet Nott, the fourth and most celebrated President of Union. He holds the record for the longest serving President of any college or university – 62 years. Nott’s accomplishments are the stuff of legend. As a minister serving one of America’s most prestigious congregations, he eulogized Alexander Hamilton (then our country’s Secretary of the Treasury) after he was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr (then our country’s Vice President). Nott the inventor, designed stoves that competed with those of Ben Franklin. As you’ve probably heard before, he defied the curricular wisdom of his day, allowing modern languages to meet graduation requirements alongside the classical languages. It was Nott who brought engineering into the liberal arts curriculum, making Union the first liberal arts college in the nation to do so. 

I could take you on a biographical tour of many more of the Presidents whose portraits adorn these walls. But, I’m sure you’ll be relieved to hear, I won’t. The portraits of the Presidents, like plaques honoring those alumni who died in battles in far off lands, are intended to ask us to remember. Memorial Chapel is special to so many students who have gone before you for this reason. When they enter this space, years after they graduated, they remember. If they were students between 1946 and 1965, they gaze at Carter Davidson, at the far end of the wall opposite Edwards, Maxcy, and Nott, and they remember him as their president. They remember their time at Union College. That particular generation of students remembers studies interrupted by World War II, rumors of the formation of a “Little Ivy League,” and fields full of army tanks where College Park Hall now stands. More importantly, they remember roommates, friends, faculty and staff who cared for and about them, classes they loved and classes they didn’t love so much, the challenge of crossing campus on blustery winter days and the seeming promise inherent in warm sunshine-filled days of spring. They remember a time and a place that mattered in their lives, mattered to the person they eventually came to be.

I know that Commencement is still a day away, but I suspect a sense of remembering is already beginning to grow within you if its not taken hold already. I hope that you too will remember your times here and this very special place overlooking the Mohawk Valley. Some of you will remember Maya Angelou speaking in this very place to a packed house. Some of you will remember what it feels like to be part of an athletic team, savoring victory together and sharing the pain of defeat. Some of you will remember lending a hand in the demolition and then reconstruction of the Habitat for Humanity House on Barrett Street. Some of you will remember raising funds to support the Diana Legacy program and thereby reduce suffering in Africa. Some of you will remember standing against hate crime. I hope you will all remember good times, fun times. I hope all of you will remember the time when your understanding of the world was shaken by a book that you read or a piece of music you heard performed. I hope all of you will remember and keep in touch with faculty and administrators who, I assure you, will continue to care about what you do. I hope all of you will remember the friends you’ve made.

And, remember this: while you graduate tomorrow, this doesn’t end your relationship to Union College. When you were accepted to Union, you were given a sort of life-long membership in this great and storied institution. I hope you will see tomorrow as the commencement of the rest of your lives and the commencement of a rich and abiding relationship to Union as graduates. I hope you will come back to campus for ReUnions, alumni symposia, special games, concerts, lectures, and exhibits. I hope you will be active participants in the alumni clubs near whatever cities in which you decide to locate yourselves. And, I hope you will come back many times to Memorial Chapel, gaze upon its walls, listen to its chimes, and remember: You truly are Union.