2009 Convocation

Convocation Address
September 7, 2009

It is a real pleasure to welcome you all here today to open the 229th academic year for Washington & Jefferson College. 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 school year, we will sing together, tell stories, and, finally, share a picnic supper with good friends, 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.  Jim Sloat and Terese Fiedler led this effort, calling on the talents of Katie Twining, Dan Shaw, Billie Eaves, Kyle Simpson, Aaron Weaver and Keri Bailey from Parkhurst, Byron McCrae, Beckie Keenan, Susan Medley, Bob Reid, Pam Norris, Jim Miller, Jan Czechowski, our singers, our cheerleaders, our bell ringers, our banner bearers, our jazz combo, Protection Services, and everyone who contributed to the Convocation Video.  We also thank Jennifer Miller, our sign language interpreter.  Of course, this kind of collaboration 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.  Convocation gives us an opportunity to take notice of this spirit of community that we all treasure.

Before we begin today's ceremony, I would like to take this moment to remember as well the members of this community who have died during the summer, particularly, Ann Schmidt, the wife of one of faculty members, who died a few days ago and Eric Monday, a student who would have graduated this year but who passed away unexpectedly over the summer. Eric was an exceptional athlete who not only studied at Fudan University in China last fall but was also a wrestler and a bicycle racer.  It is when we lose important people, when we are grieving, confused, and in pain, that we lean on our close college community and we know why it is so very valuable to us all.  May I ask for a moment of silence for Ann, for Eric and the other members of our community who are no longer with us.                    

Thank you.

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 part of that story.  This year, we will focus on the Civil War period, the time when Washington College & Jefferson College begrudgingly merged.

But let's begin at the beginning.

Washington & Jefferson College has its roots in three small log cabin schools that were founded in this area in the early 1780's.  These three schools were headed by three Presbyterian ministers, all graduates of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton.  The three men came out west separately, but once here, worked together to ensure that young men in the area were prepared to become the teachers and preachers needed to sustain European settlements as the frontier moved farther westward.

Those first students met in cramped and drafty log cabins.  It's hard to imagine what their lives must have been like, six of them to a small room that served as both sleeping quarters and classroom.  Indian attacks, the threat of starvation if the local crops failed, no running water, no electric lights, and one copy of a book for the entire school.  Despite these challenges, those early students left their families and came together to study the Greeks, to learn mathematics, to think about the lessons of history, to master the art of writing.

After about seven years, the log cabin schools became too small, and the academies consolidated, holding their classes in the Courthouse in downtown Washington.  This single school did not last for long, however, and soon there were two colleges, Washington College, on whose campus we now convene, and Jefferson College, in Canonsburg about 10 miles away.  The two colleges were bitter rivals and engaged in what were called the "College Wars" for almost a century. Many times, when the two schools were struggling to make ends meet, they considered joining together to create one, united College.  But, again and again, the rivalry between them prevented their union.

In the 1860's, when the Civil War heated up, young men from this region marched off in large numbers to defend their ideals, some going North and others going South, for Washington County was truly split in its sentiments.  President John Scott, a strong abolitionist, was accused of making Washington College a "political institution" and aligning it with the North because of the anti-slavery rallies that he hosted here.   In Canonsburg, however, where Jefferson College was located, sentiments were more strongly aligned with the South.  Although technically north of the Mason-Dixon line, many citizens in both towns favored the South's argument for states rights.  Some families were even seriously divided.  A Washington College student, Bishop Crumrine, who fought for the Union, wrote home wondering if his blue uniform would even be welcome in his hometown.  Many of his letters also rail at his father, whom he saw as a "copperhead," that is, a Northerner who sympathized with the South.  This Union soldier wrote, "The happiest moment of my life will be when my Father does something or says something for his government and against the rebel government."

And so, when the civil war broke out, the students and alumni of Washington and Jefferson Colleges could be found wearing both the Union blue and the Confederate Gray. For example, Christopher Parsons Wolcott, a Jefferson graduate who served as the attorney general of Ohio and later Lincoln's Assistant Secretary of War, traveled to Harper's Ferry, Virginia to argue for sparing the life of John Brown, a strong abolitionist accused of attempting to steal arms from a local armory.  The man who denied Wolcott's request and condemned John Brown to death was the Governor of Virginia, Henry Alexander Wise, a Washington College graduate.  Even fraternities were divided.  One of the founding members of the Fijis, James Elliott, served in the Union army but a man he recruited for the fraternity, W.B. Crews, left to fight for the Confederacy.   The Betas sent 4 to the Confederacy and 19 to the Union side during the war.  Perhaps one of the strangest encounters must have occurred between two classmates from Jefferson.  Bishop Crumrine at Fort Delaware was in charge of guarding Confederate prisoners of war, including one of was his classmates, Duncan Cooper, a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate army.   He wrote home, "Dunc. Cooper is in the guard house and I am on guard.  Don't you think he feels FUNNY, he tried to swim the river the other night in company with four others, but the guard caught them and they were placed in close confinement inside the Fort.  . .  I don't think he finds it as pleasant here as he did in Canonsburg."

At any major battle, you could find Washington and Jefferson men on opposite sides, and Gettysburg was no exception.  Fighting in that battle on the Union side were members of the 140th Pennsylvania Volunteers, many of whom came from this region, including Captain David Acheson, a 22-year-old Washington College student, who recruited his classmates, friends, and even his younger brother to go to war with him. Also in the 140th Pennsylvania Volunteers was a company led by John Fraser, Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at Jefferson College.  At the end of the school year in 1862, Professor Fraser closed his observatory and declared that he was going to respond to Lincoln's recent call for more troops by forming his own company.  As a result, many of his most beloved students marched off to war beside him.  Most did not return.

The young men of the 140th Pennsylvania Volunteers-including Acheson and Fraser-- arrived at Gettysburg exhausted.  They had marched for two days to get to the battlefield, walking with heavy burdens through rain soaked roads for up to 17 hours a day. The men's feet swelled and blistered so that many were limping as they trudged along.   David Acheson wrote home, at night "the men dropped down on the road and most of them fell asleep immediately. . . I never knew what a man was able to endure before."  But once they arrived, the 140th was credited with turning the tide of the battle when they attacked Confederate troops who had overrun an area called the Wheatfield.  In the thick of the fight, Acheson turned to see his friend and classmate Lieutenant Isaac Vance seriously wounded, but before he could react, he himself was shot.  He died on the battlefield and was later buried under a boulder that still bears his initials scratched into the stone with a nail.

Also on the battlefield that day was Jefferson college graduate, Henry Harrison Bingham, who is one of the figures on the famous memorial to the members of the Masonic Temple who fought at Gettysburg.  He became well known as the Union soldier who responded to a call for help from a dying Confederate General and, at the man's request, delivered his watch and other mementos to his closest friend, a Union general.

On the other side of the Gettysburg conflict was Albert Gallatin Jenkins, a Jefferson graduate, who led a contingent of Confederate cavalry.  Jenkins, who had served in the US Congress and then in the Confederate Congress, had made a name for himself by leading a group of irregular raiders who harassed Union troops and interrupted their supply lines in West Virginia and Ohio. General Robert E. Lee directed Jenkins to join him at Gettysburg, but being more used to guerilla warfare than orderly battle, Jenkins and his men did not arrive at the appointed spot on time.  Instead, they paused in some woods and Jenkins went forward to scout out the battlefield.  While he was surveying the situation, though, his horse was killed and he was wounded.

The final battles of the war saw also Washington and Jefferson men on opposite sides.  When General Lee surrendered at Appomattox, his flag of truce appeared first before Professor Fraser's company from Jefferson College.  As those Union soldiers watched Lee surrender, they faced classmates and alumni on the Confederate side, including Henry Wise, the man who had condemned John Brown to death 6 years earlier.

In addition to these well known Civil War soldiers, there were, of course, countless Washington and Jefferson men who died or were wounded on the battlefield.  Two of the white officers attached to the US Colored Troops, for example, were James Stockton, a Washington College student who served as an assistant surgeon for the troops and Thomas Sickles, a Jefferson grad who was their lieutenant.  If you saw the movie GLORY, Thomas Sickles was the character portrayed there by Matthew Broderick.

Perhaps the most famous man associated with W&J in the Civil War was Jonathan Letterman, known as the Father of Battlefield Medicine.  At the beginning of the civil war, ambulances carried more supplies than wounded, and injured soldiers were carried off the field by litter bearers who were, more often than not, someone like a musician with no medical training.  Letterman, who served as Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac, is credited with saving literally thousands of lives by reorganizing battlefield hospitals.  He created the system of triage to determine which wounded were treated first on the battlefield.  He also designed today's system of first aid hospitals close to the front lines, backed up by mobile field hospitals behind the lines.  And he made it clear that ambulances should carry the wounded, while supplies were transported by other means.  To honor him, the large military hospital at the Presidio in San Francisco was named for him and remained Letterman Army Medical Center until 1995.  By the way, Jonathan Letterman is shown in one of the prints hanging on the first floor of Burnett.  And his brother, also a Jefferson graduate, was one of the two founders of the Phi Psi fraternity's alpha chapter at Jefferson.

Because of the many soldiers fighting in the Civil War, there were just not enough young men to sustain both colleges and the two rival institutions were finally forced to merge or to fail financially. Washington College's Class of 1865 had only 12 graduates, and Jefferson College's class of 1864, which would have been the largest in its history, lost almost half of the young men (57 of them) to the war effort.  As one alum remembered, the students felt that "Jefferson College would be destroyed if we did not enlist."  Ironically, of course, it was their enlistment that put an end to Jefferson by depleting its student body.  Instead of being the largest class in its history, the class of 1864 became the last to graduate from Jefferson College.

Within a month of the two colleges' joining, the surrender at Appomattox was signed and Lincoln was dead.  As soon as the war was over, the veterans from both sides returned and resumed their studies at the newly united college.  But the country was still deeply divided, and in this environment, the boys of Washington and Jefferson (now W&J) returned to share rooms and classrooms with those they had previously tried to kill during the bloody battles of the Civil War.  There were sword duels on campus-no one was killed, but blood was shed.

For a couple of years, the consolidated college held some classes on both campuses, but it was not easy to travel the 12 or so miles between the two towns.  And so the Colleges decided to abandon one campus.  But which one?  Unable to settle upon a location for the new college, W&J held a contest to see which town could raise the most money for the college's endowment.  The winner would earn the right to have the college sited there.  Canonsburg raised $5000 (not a small sum in 1865), but the larger and more prosperous town of Washington raised $50,000.  And so the college was located here.  However, legal wrangling over that decision made its way through the courts for four years, eventually being resolved by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1869.  Even the man who moved the college president's piano from his residence in Canonsburg to his new residence in Washington was heard to mutter, "I'll do this for Jefferson, but not for Washington." And the men of Jefferson refused for many years to call the new College "Washington and Jefferson," referring to it instead as "the united college."

Gradually, however, the country and the college healed.  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.  Because those individuals worked so hard to learn together, we have W&J today.

There have been other wrenching moments in the College's history - moments that changed our definition of ourselves.  During World War II, for example, the population of the college was again diminished as many young men went off to war.  Then, once the GI Bill was passed, the enrollment of the college soared again, straining the resources of the school.  Another defining moment came in 1970 when W&J first admitted women, changing the practices and traditions of the college in profound ways.  But for over 225 years this college has proved true to its motto: Juncta Juvant: Together we Thrive.  When the two colleges joined, Old Main had only one tower.  Now, of course, it has two, representing the two proud colleges who learned to live and learn together.  Today we heard the bell from that building ring out over the campus, giving voice to the spirit of Juncta Juvant that brings us together - a community of many voices, joined out of curiosity, out of common cause, and out of respect.


To represent the history of our college and as a visual metaphor of our community, the Convocation banner will now be completed, uniting the two towers of Old Main.  During the banner ceremony, the musicians will play "Tenting Tonight," a haunting melody that was passed from campfire to campfire during the Civil War as the armies would rest at night.  Often the song started on one side and was picked up by the opposing army, linking the Union and the Confederate soldiers as they camped next to a bloody battlefield, waiting for the carnage to begin again the next day.   The song was chosen for this ceremony because, like W&J, it unified young men who, though fighting on opposite sides of a war, shared a common humanity.

Those assembling the Convocation Banner represent groups that were active at the two Colleges during the time of the Civil War:

Stephen Dukes, representing the Fijis.
Stefan Firmstone from the Phi Psi's
Johnny Galli from Delta Tau Delta
Katie Rowley, representing the Franklin Literary Society
Craig Rumbaugh from Beta Theta Pi
And Felicity Williams, an Alpha-Beta Scholar and historian of the Black Student Union

Today we also want to recognize individual student groups that have played leadership roles in our community.  And I have asked our Vice President and Dean of Student Life, Dr. Byron McCrae, to lead this portion of the ceremony.  Byron.


And now, a long-standing W&J tradition, one that was lost in the 60's as so many college traditions were lost nationwide-"Good Ole W&J."  I don't need to gloss the text for you, but I want to remind you to add "and daughters" in the line, "Wash Jeff's been run by loyal sons-and daughters for generation back."   I'd like to sing the song in choral format.  Let's have faculty and staff do the first verse, everyone do the chorus, students do the second verse, and everyone finish with the chorus.  Our leaders will help us through.


In place of an outside speaker, we have a college video-prepared by Bob Reid, Mike Camden, and Brian Norville, class of 2011. All summer people dropped by McMillan to tell Bob Reid what they had done over the summer.  Others sent photos and left messages talking about their adventures.  Once again, imagine yourself at a family reunion, checking in with one another and asking, "So, who are you?  And how did you spend your summer vacation?" Think of this as a family video.


What strikes me as I watch this video is the number of times people talk about working together-whether faculty and students are doing research together or Tabitha is giving directions to a W&J alum in Budapest, or a student is thanking Career Services-this video is yet one more piece of evidence of how our W&J community supports one another.
Before we close today's ceremony, I want to mention a couple of events that are upcoming and should be on all our minds.  First, the city of Washington, which you now know supported the College at a crucial time in its history, wants to welcome W&J faculty, staff, and students back to the area by celebrating W&J at First Thursday this week.  So, from 5-8 or so on Thursday, two days from now, please take a moment to go downtown.  Billy Kozich, the student government president, and I will receive keys to the city, there will be food, and music, and a chance to say "thank you" to Washington.

Second, in a couple of weeks the finance ministers of the G-20 will gather in Pittsburgh, the first time this important international group has met outside of a national capital.  Dr. Dodge will convene a panel on September 15 in the afternoon to discuss the issues and import of this major gathering.  And then, one week later, Judge Richard Goldstone, who led the truth and reconciliation trials in South Africa, prosecuted war criminals in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and has just published a major report on human rights in Gaza, will be on campus, visiting classes and giving a public lecture.  Watch for posters.  This is only the beginning of what I hope will be a lively, intellectually stimulating year.

Finally, let me encourage all our students to complete the Student Satisfaction Survey when it comes out later this semester.  This survey is extremely helpful as he plan for next year.  Residence hall renovations, new majors, new programs, and even the advising system have been changed in response to student concerns expressed through this survey.  Let your voice be heard.

And now I would like to ask the singers and cheerleaders to join us as we close today's ceremony with the Alma Mater. As is traditional, we will sing the two double verses, each followed by a chorus, after which it is traditional to shout the "Whichi Coax" cheer, so don't forget to add it at the end.  In this way, the ceremony will begin and end with Whichi Coax, our college version of a secret handshake among friends.  PLEASE RISE FOR THE ALMA MATER.

Thank you so much.  The ghosts that haunt these halls must be applauding.  I now declare the 229th year of W&J College open.

Dr. Tori Haring-Smith