2012 Convocation

Convocation Address
September 3, 2012

We have three all-campus ceremonies at the College, Matriculation and Commencement, marking important transitions in the lives of our students, and this ceremony, Convocation, which is our family reunion. After a summer apart from one another, this is our chance to see eccentric Uncle Cyrus again, exclaim over Cousin Hannah’s new baby, or marvel at the way we all have grown.  It is like a family dinner--a time to catch up with one another, to think about the community we create here, the shared history and values that make us a family.

Today, to mark the opening of the 232nd school year, we will sing together, tell stories, and, finally, share a picnic supper with good food, balloon art, and perhaps even a game of volleyball or ultimate frisbee.  At the picnic, we hope you will have an opportunity to reconnect with your colleagues, your students, your professors, and your friends.  Thank you all for participating and for the hard work you devote to making W&J the special place it is.

And let me specifically thank all of those who helped to coordinate Convocation this year.  Maureen Valentine led this effort, calling on the talents of Troy Bonte, Kate Clark, Dan Shaw, Billie Eaves, Aaron Weaver and Keri Bailey from Parkhurst, Byron McCrae, John Zimmerman, Al Newell, Susan Medley, Bob Reid, Karen Oosterhous, our singers, our cheerleaders, our bell ringers, our sign language interpreter, Protection Services, and everyone who contributed to the Convocation Videos.    And, of course, Kyle Simpson and his jazz combo have provided wonderful prelude music featuring uptempo jazz from New Orleans.  Of course, the kind of collaboration that creates convocation happens every day at W&J.  That’s the kind of place W&J is—a place where everyone is willing to work together, shoulder to the wheel.  Thank you all so much. 

We want to start today’s celebration with the announcement of a new endowed professorship at W&J.  Endowing a professorship helps ensure on-going funding for a key faculty member and provides programming and research support for that individual.  Dean John Zimmerman will announce the new professorship.


Today I have the high honor and pleasure of announcing the first-ever Joseph A. Walker ‘42 Endowed Chair of Physics.  This endowed chair was made possible by the generosity of our College benefactor, Dr. John A. Swanson who is an engineer and science entrepreneur. 

As many of you know, Dr. Swanson and his wife have been generous donors to W&J.  Think of the Swanson Tennis Courts, Swanson Wellness Center, and Swanson Science Center.  And there are many less visible programs that owe their existence to Dr. Swanson—for example, our Center for Energy Policy and Management, many of our Magellan awards, and our solar energy lab. 

When Dr. Swanson decided to endow a Physics professorship, the president assumed that it would be the Swanson Endowed Chair of Physics, but Dr. Swanson said his name was on enough buildings and programs; he wanted to honor a famous W&J graduate in Physics.  And so together they chose to honor Joseph A. Walker.

Joe Walker, a native son of Washington, PA,  graduated from  W&J in 1942.  His liberal arts and sciences training here opened the doors of opportunity to pursue military flight training during WWII followed by a twenty year career as a test pilot.  In 1958, Walker was selected by the Air Force for its nascent National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics which ultimately became what we know today as NASA.  In 1960 Walker became the first NASA pilot to fly the experimental X-15 supersonic aircraft, a feat he performed 24 times (4104 mph = Mach 5.9).  Also, Walker was the first American civilian to make a spaceflight (Valentina Tereshkova) via the X-15 to an altitude of 100 km (328,083 ft) which crosses the threshold definition of outer space. Just a note, the X-15 may be seen at the National Aeronautics Museum in Dayton, Ohio.

Sadly, Walker was killed on June 8, 1966 when his F-104 Starfighter chase aircraft collided with the XB-70 experimental long-range nuclear bomber.  This was a man who lived on the edge of discovery and made the ultimate sacrifice in service to his country.  As a side note, it seems fitting that we honor the memory of Joe Walker in the wake of the passing of another great civilian astronaut, Neil Armstrong.

The awards that Walker received during his lifetime were many.  Included are the Distinguished Flying Cross, 1963 Pilot of the Year, and an honorary doctorate from W&J!

In the spirit of recognizing excellence and stratospheric achievement, Dr. Swanson established the Joseph A. Walker ‘42 Endowed Chair of Physics to promote science, particularly physics which is the bedrock of all engineering fields. 

I am pleased to announce that Dr. Michael S. Pettersen, Chair of Physics, has been selected for this honor.

Dr. Pettersen graduated Summa Cum Laude in Physics from Harvard University and earned his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology.  Mike has been the chair of our physics department since 2003.  A glance at his resume reveals a scholar who also has a long list of awards and accomplishments. We can confidently say that our colleague is really cool.  To support that claim, he recently published a paper on “The Hydraulic Jump and Ripples in Liquid Helium.”  In addition to 29 refereed journal articles and numerous invited speaking appearances, Mike’s 2007 book on the trial of Galileo and the Catholic Church stands out as a tour de force of scholarship. Dr. Michael S. Pettersen is the epitome of the teacher-scholar.  It is truly an honor to have such a wonderful and talented colleague here at Washington & Jefferson College.

On behalf of Dr. John A. Swanson, the Trustees, Administration and your faculty colleagues, it is my honor to present to you this distinguished award


As at any family reunion, it is appropriate that we tell stories from our family’s past.  The history of a college reveals its values and reminds us of the people who have shaped the institution.  Our history and our stories tell us who we are.  They bear repeating.  So, at Convocation, it has become traditional to recount the College’s history, focusing each year on a different major event in that story.  Two years ago we focused on the period surrounding World War II and last year we talked about entrance of women in 1970.  This year, I will focus on four men who made a difference in the first 100 years of the college’s existence --John McMillan, Frances LeMoyne, John White Geary, and James G. Blaine--represented by the four banners that flank the stage. 

Collectively, their stories exemplify how individuals who fulfill the college’s mission statement do, in fact, change the world in important and remarkable ways.  These days, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the problems we face—violence defies explanation whether it erupts in a movie theatre in Colorado or a highway in Iraq, climate change may disrupt global food supplies, and we face increasingly difficult choices in terms of providing health care, education, and basic human rights for all peoples.  I truly do believe that we have the leaders of tomorrow among W&J’s students, those individuals who will move society forward.  I am here because I know that we need to do everything we can to empower these young people to have the courage and fortitude to persevere against all odds and make the world a better place.  For them and for all of us, we need to remind ourselves that as individuals we can indeed make a difference. So, let’s look at four men who did just that.

And let’s begin at the beginning.

Washington & Jefferson College has its roots in small log cabin schools that were founded in this area in the early 1780’s and later consolidated under the leadership of John McMillan. 

After McMillan graduated from the College of New Jersey, now Princeton, he headed west in December 1778 to found a school on what was then the frontier.  At that time, the Revolutionary War was raging on the East Coast, but this part of the world was just being settled.  There was no road here from Philadelphia, and so he could not bring a wagon—all he had was what he could pack on horses.  When he arrived, he wrote, “We had neither bedstead, nor table, nor stool, nor chair nor bucket. . . Sometimes indeed we had no bread for weeks together.”  (McMillan, 36) 

He faced incredible odds, but with the help of his neighbors, he was able to build a house with a small log cabin school next door.  There, in 1781 he began to take in students, whom he schooled in mathematics, natural philosophy, literature, and religion.   Imagine being a student at that time.  Six of you in one small room, sleeping as well as studying, and sharing one copy of a book because books were so rare.  No running water, no electric lights, and the threat of starvation if local crops failed. 

Soon after John McMillan founded his log cabin school, two other Princeton graduates, Thaddeus Dod and Joseph Smith, joined him in this area and set up their schools.  The three worked together, but the real leader among them was McMillan who knew how to rally a community around a project, how to raise funds, and how to build institutions. 

The colleges soon outgrew their cabins and McMillan led the effort to merge them into a new and larger institution.   He tried to raise money to build facilities for this new consolidated college, but was unsuccessful, so he arranged for the new college to meet in the log courthouse downtown.  McMillan hired Dod to teach, and about 20 students were enrolled.  Things were going well.  Benjamin Franklin even gave the young school 50 pounds for books.   But, not long after the college opened, a fire burned the courthouse to the ground, leaving the young school homeless.  Once again, John McMillan found himself asking townspeople for money to build a school, but there was still little interest expressed.  He had hoped that John Hoge, a wealthy landowner, would donate some of his land, but Hoge refused.  At this point, McMillan might well have given up.  He must have felt alone and unsupported.  He had faced starvation and now fire.  But he persevered and traveled to Canonsburg, about ten miles from here, to seek support from his friend Colonel John Canon.  As it happened, the Colonel had been eager to found a college but had held back when the academy in Washington was prospering.  And so, when McMillan came to him for support, the Colonel gladly donated land for the building as well as money for its construction.  There was so much excitement about the new Canonsburg Academy (which later became Jefferson College) that a meeting was held the very next morning to celebrate.

Well, as you can imagine, once the town of Canonsburg had a college, Washington decided that it could not be sidelined, and so John Hoge bowed to pressure and donated his land for a new site for the Washington Academy.  A stone building was erected on that land, where Old Main stands today.  That stone building, completed in 1793, was later moved to the corner of Lincoln and Wheeling and where it is now known as McMillan Hall.  It is the third oldest building in continuous use on a College campus. So, when you come to my open office hours for faculty, staff, and students, you are in the first building solely devoted to the Washington Academy. 

If John McMillan had admitted defeat after his school burned down and his immediate community failed to help him, we would not have a college today.  For he truly founded both Washington and Jefferson Colleges, which joined in 1865 to create Washington & Jefferson College.  That is why we have two towers on old Main, one for Washington and one for Jefferson.  But more about that later . . .

By the time the two separate colleges were chartered, Washington College in 1802 and Jefferson in 1806, each school had about 40 students and they were beginning to fulfill their missions—they were producing the leaders needed to shape a young and increasingly divided country. 

One of these leaders was Julius LeMoyne, a medical doctor who entered Washington College in 1810 when he was only 12 years old.  In addition to attending to the local community’s health,  LeMoyne devoted himself to the abolitionist cause in the years leading up to the Civil War.  Since we are located very close to what was the Mason Dixon line, dividing north from south, the issue of slavery was contentious here, with almost equal numbers supporting and opposing it.  But LeMoyne felt strongly that slavery must end, so strongly that he held rallies, distributed literature, and lectured about the evils of slavery.  When he was holding anti-slavery meetings in the garden of his house, just a block or two from campus, angry mobs would gather in the street outside.  He used to station his young son on the balcony over his front door, holding a bag of bees.  If the crowds got out of hand, the young boy was to release the bees—an early form of crowd control. Despite the criticisms aimed at him, LeMoyne, a powerful speaker and a respected citizen, stood firm in his beliefs. His home became a well-known refuge on the Underground Railroad that provided safe houses for runaway slaves.  Once, while he was away from home, his wife hid as many as 25 slaves in their bedroom, many under the bed, and feigned illness to drive away those who were hunting down the runaways.  He and his wife faced death threats for taking a stand against slavery, but they persevered.  And gradually they began to change minds.

After President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves, and the Northern side won the Civil War, you would think that LeMoyne could have settled back into practice as a quiet country doctor.  After all, his side had won.  But he realized that the newly emancipated slaves were still at a terrible disadvantage--landless, largely illiterate, and unprepared to support themselves.  So, he made a large gift to create the LeMoyne Normal and Commercial School in Memphis, TN, committed to the education of former slaves.  This school was a model in its time and is thriving today with the name LeMoyne-Owens College.  Closer to home, he donated the money to start the public library in Washington, another means of bringing education to all citizens.  His actions changed opinions in Washington, PA, and the lives of generations of African-Americans in Tennessee.

Toward the end of his life, LeMoyne continued to work to improve his community by promoting cremation.  He was concerned that the gases from decomposing bodies might be fouling the local water supply and so he built the first crematorium in the United States on the outskirts of Washington.  As you can imagine, his efforts drew national press and a crowd gathered to see the first body burned in 1876.  The third body cremated there was his own.

While Julius LeMoyne was taking a leadership role in Southwestern PA, a Jefferson College graduate, John White Geary, was helping to insure law and order in states further west.  After graduating from Jefferson, Geary earned law and engineering degrees before he was appointed by President Polk to serve as postmaster in San Francisco.  When Geary arrived in San Francisco in 1849, the Gold rush was in full swing, and there was no law and order at all.  Gun battles and duels were frequent; thievery was commonplace.  Fires swept through the city, burning the crowded wooden buildings and spreading rapidly through neighborhoods.   The post office had been idle for some time, and Geary faced 5000 undelivered letters when he arrived.  Despite the immensity of the task, he set about to create order out of chaos.  He did such a good job of this that, although he did not wish to be elected, he was chosen to be the mayor of San Francisco for two terms, a job which encompassed the roles of sheriff, judge, coroner, fire chief, and political leader.  He became famous as a judge for his even-handed fairness—of his more than 2500 decisions, only 12 were appealed and none overturned.  Geary Street, a main thoroughfare in San Francisco, was named in his honor.

Because he was successful in bringing order to San Francisco, Geary was later appointed to serve as governor of Kansas when that state was similarly lawless.  When he arrived in 1856, Kansas was in the process of determining if it would be a slave state or free. This was not an orderly process.  Outside agitators from pro-slavery Missouri and anti-slavery Nebraska continually stirred up the population.  Houses were burned and homeless families wandered the prairies. The army was powerless, the judges corrupt, and chaos reigned.  Previous governors had favored the pro-slavery factions, but Geary was even-handed in his dealings with both slave-owners and abolitionists.  Whereas his ability to be even-handed was welcomed in San Francisco, in Kansas, he was attacked by all sides.  When the situation got seriously out of hand and Geary turned to the U.S. army for help, he received no answer.  And so, unsupported by the government that had appointed him, he resigned and returned to his Pennsylvania farm.  Kansas had beaten him, and he could well have retired, but instead, when the Civil War broke out, he led the Twenty-Eighth Pennsylvania Regiment, fighting for the Union throughout the South as well as at Gettysburg and Chancellorsville.  He was almost killed several times, but he persevered.  After the war, he was elected governor of Pennsylvania, a position in which he served for two terms. During this time, he helped to assure equal justice for African-Americans, managed the growth of railroads, added programs to ensure the welfare of Civil war veterans, increased the number of public schools by 1000, and oversaw the writing of the state constitution that remains the basis for today’s state constitution.  Like McMillan and LeMoyne, he didn’t let early setbacks overcome him.  He took on new challenges, and he made a difference. 

While Geary and LeMoyne were working to end slavery at the state level, another W&J graduate, James G. Blaine, emerged as a political leader at the national level.  After serving in the state legislature in Maine, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1862 and was chosen as Speaker of the House just six years later.  He was influential in determining how the South should be treated after the War, and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution is largely his work.  Blaine was very successful in the House but he wanted to be president.  In 1876 he tried for the Republican candidacy and lost by only 28 votes.  Undeterred, he entered the Senate and tried again to become the Republican candidate for the presidency, losing this time after 36 ballots.  When the Republican James Garfield became president, Garfield appointed Blaine Secretary of State, and Blaine had just started working on a Pan-American treaty when Garfield was assassinated and the new president reorganized his cabinet, removing Blaine from his appointment.  But Blaine did not give up and three years later, he finally became the Republican candidate for the Presidency of the United States running against the democrat Grover Cleveland.  (You can see his poster reproduced on our banner).  This was one of the dirtiest presidential campaigns ever waged.  Cleveland was faulted for fathering an illegitimate son, and Blaine was taken to task for accepting stocks from railroad companies whose interests he then promoted in Congress.  Although he had defended himself in Congress against these attacks, at the last minute, a reporter attributed to him a nasty attack on the Democratic party, and he lost the election by 1047 votes. Negative campaigning was unpopular then, too.  When the next presidential election came around, he refused to run, but he did accept the position of Secretary of State once again, this time under President Harrison. In this role, he was responsible for laying the groundwork for America as a world power.  He not only advocated for annexing Hawaii, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, but he also arranged for American control of Pearl Harbor and laid the groundwork for establishing American Samoa as a U.S. territory.  Although he never achieved his dream of becoming president, Blaine was one of the most influential Republicans in the period leading up to the Civil War and the reconstruction period following it.  And how did this powerful politician get his start?  Well, at the age of 13, he entered Washington College.  A stutterer, he nevertheless decided to join the debating society.   It was on this campus, then, that one of the most powerful political orators of the nineteenth century learned to marshal evidence, make convincing arguments, and speak with a powerful, clear, and commanding voice that was heard in Washington DC for more than 20 years.  In fact, this young man who had been a chronic stutterer became such a strong speaker that several times crowds asked him to speak longer!

While LeMoyne, Geary, and Blaine were emerging as leaders, Washington and Jefferson Colleges were struggling to survive as young men from this region went off to fight on both sides of the war.  Soon there were not enough students to keep both colleges financially solvent, and the two were forced to join.  This was not a comfortable marriage. Most of the boys of Washington were Northern sympathizers and most of those from Jefferson supported the Confederacy.  The merger of the two schools occurred in 1865, when the country was deeply divided.  When the Civil War veterans returned to resume their college studies, they found themselves as roommates and classmates with those they had tried to kill only months earlier. There were sword duels on campus—no one was killed, but blood was shed.  Gradually, however, the College healed and a new community was born, a community where you can be sure that there were lively debates, bitter arguments, and searching discussions, but gradually there was also respect.  And so the college we know today as Washington & Jefferson, the college that started as three small log cabins on the Western frontier, was born.

Throughout its history, W&J has trained the leaders of this country.  All told, we have graduated 89 men who went on to hold college presidencies, including the founding presidents of Ohio University and Miami University of Ohio as well as presidents of Princeton, Penn State, and Michigan.  Our living alumni include leaders in all areas of life: Dennis Slamon who discovered and developed Herceptin, the most widely used breast cancer drug, John Reed the former CEO of Citibank and president of the NYSE who pioneered the idea of the ATM,  Roger Goodell the NFL commissioner,  Dick Clark the former CEO of Merck pharmaceuticals, Gary Churgin who holds 2/3s of the world’s music copyrights, Walter Cooper who rode with civil rights leader Medgar Evers during the 1960’s and many, many others who made a difference in their communities, their professions, and the world.  We can all take pride in the remarkable history of this college even as we commit to continuing to fulfill its important mission to produce individuals who will make a significant contribution to the world in which they live.