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Office of the President

2008 Convocation Address

Convocation Address

September 1, 2008

It is a real pleasure to welcome you all here today to open the 228th 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.

Convocation is still a work in progress and we continue to make small revisions in the ceremony.  This year, in addition to talking about the history of the College and seeing the video of how some of our family members spent their summer vacations, we will also recognize certain student groups for their contributions to the community as a whole.  I hope that as this ceremony continues to evolve, we will have more chances to recognize our students, staff, and faculty at this event.

Today, to mark the opening of the 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.  Jim Sloat led this effort, calling on the talents of Katie Twining, Dan Shaw, Billie Eaves, Kyle Simpson, Aaron Weaver and Keri Bailey form Parkhurst, Al Newell, Byron McCrae, Beckie Keenan, Anna Mae Moore, Susan Woodard, Susan Medley, Bob Reid, David Carroll, Pam Norris, Jim Miller, Jan Czechowski, Dana Shiller, Ryan Sayres, our singers, our cheerleaders, our bell ringers, our banner bearers, Protection Services, and everyone who contributed to the Convocation Video.  We also thank ­Deborah Gates, 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 just gives us an opportunity to take notice of it.

Thank you all so much. 

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.  Over the past three years, we have focused on the union of Washington & Jefferson College, on World War II and the effect it had on the college, and on the entrance of women when the College became co-educational.  In this election year, I will focus on the early history of the college because it demonstrates so vividly how the oldest colleges in the country, like Washington & Jefferson, were crucial in educating the political and civic leaders who shaped our young nation.  In that spirit the music played during the processional consisted of two marches from the Colonial period of this country—the Guardian Angel March and the Free America march.  As we look at the early history of the College, I will focus specifically on four of the most illustrious public servants who were part of  W&J over our first 100 years, all represented on this year’s convocation banners: John McMillan, Julius LeMoyne, John White Geary, and James G. Blaine.  Why all men?  Well, of course, the college only educated men during its first 200 years.  But let us recall that these national leaders were all supported not only by their fathers, brothers, uncles, and sons but also by their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters.  The college motto comes to mind: Juncta Juvant, Together we Thrive.

So, 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 here and establish European communities farther westward.

When John McMillan, the first of the preachers, settled here in December 1778, 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, but we had plenty of pumpkins and potatoes, and all the necessaries of life; as for luxuries, we were not much concerned about them.”  (McMillan, 36) 

But, with the help of his neighbors, he was soon able to finish his house and build 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.  All too often, lessons or worship services would be interrupted by news that the Indians had attack a settler’s cabin and everyone ran to help the wounded and the dying.  The schoolmaster’s wife and other neighborhood ladies would make you clothes and you would do chores for them in exchange for food and shelter.  Puts the issues of parking and air conditioning in perspective, doesn’t it?

Soon after John McMillan founded his log cabin school, two other ministers, also Princeton graduates, joined him in this area and set up their schools.  Thaddeus Dod established his school west of Washington and Joseph Smith (not the Mormon prophet, another Joseph Smith), taught students just north of here in his cabin's kitchen, an arrangement he reports that his wife accepted gladly.  McMillan, Dod, and Smith were very different kinds of men.  Smith was more of a preacher than a teacher.  It was said that “He would often rise to almost supernatural and unearthly grandeur, completely extinguishing in his hearers all consciousness of time and place.”  (McMillan 51)    Dod was a mathematician who wrote poetry in his journal in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.  He was the scholar.  John McMillan was the administrator.  He knew how to rally a community around a project, how to raise funds, and how to build institutions. 

As the communities around Washington and Cannonsburg, 17 miles to our north, grew, it became desirable to consolidate the three schools, hire teachers, and find a larger facility.  McMillan appealed and received funding from the State to build a school, but local funds could not be found to match the state appropriation. This did not stop the intrepid McMillan, who located the new school in the log courthouse downtown.  Dod was hired to teach, and about 20 students were enrolled.  McMillan and other town leaders formed the Board of Trustees.  The school was to be supported by fees from courthouse judgments.  The young school was very well known--Benjamin Franklin gave it 50 pounds for books.   But, not long after the school opened, fire burned the courthouse to the ground, leaving the young school homeless.  Once again, John McMillan found himself asking townspeople for money for the school, but there was little interest expressed.  He had hoped that John Hoge, a wealthy landowner, would donate land, but Hoge refused.  Disheartened, McMillan went to his friend Colonel John Canon, in Canonsburg, to propose that a school be opened there.  As it happened, Canonsburg had been eager to host a school but had held back when the academy in Washington was prospering.  Seeing his chance, the Colonel donated land for the building and loaned money for its construction.  There was so much excitement about the new Canonsburg Academy that a meeting was held the very next morning to celebrate.

Well, as you can imagine, once Canonsburg had a school, Washington decided that it could not be sidelined, and so John Hoge, the landowner who had refused McMillan his land a year earlier, donated his land for a new site for the Washington Academy.  A stone building was erected on that land, just behind me and across Lincoln Street.  That stone building, completed in 1793, still stands today.  It is McMillan Hall, 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 will be in the first building solely devoted to the Washington Academy.

McMillan served on the Boards of both Washington and Canonsburg Academies for several years.  Even though his allegiance gradually shifted to Canonsburg, we can truly give him credit for the founding of both colleges.  Without McMillan’s perseverance, we would not have a college today.  Both academies thrived and became chartered as colleges, Washington College in 1802 and Canonsburg in 1806, at which time it took the name Jefferson College.  At that time, each school had about 40 students and the colleges were beginning to fulfill their missions—they were producing the teachers, preachers, lawyers, and civic leaders who helped to spread civilization westward and to shape a young and divided country.

One of these leaders was Julius LeMoyne, the son of a French doctor in town, who entered Washington College in 1810 when he was only 12 years old.  When he graduated, LeMoyne went to Philadelphia where he studied to become a doctor and then returned to Washington and his home, which you can still visit on Maiden Street just a block and a half from here.  His trip from Philadelphia was easier than McMillan’s had been 43 years before.  Now there were stage coaches that traveled this route.  But on his return, one very cold night, a blizzard struck and the stage coach driver packed the passengers in straw up to their necks in an attempt to keep them warm.  It didn’t work.  The result of this cold journey was a lifetime of rheumatism for Julius LeMoyne.

Once established here as a doctor, LeMoyne devoted himself to the abolitionist cause.  At that time, about 30 years before the Civil War, many people in this part of Pennsylvania sympathized with slave owners.   LeMoyne set out to change this, not a popular stand.  He held rallies, distributed literature, and lectured about the evils of slavery.  In 1839, the Liberty Party selected his as their vice presidential candidate, but this third party only garnered 7000 votes nationwide.  When he was holding anti-slavery meetings in the garden of his house, 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, gradually began to change people’s minds.  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. 

After the Civil War concluded, he realized that the newly freed slaves were landless, largely illiterate, and unprepared to support themselves or to participate in a democracy.  Long a strong supporter of education and a Trustee of Washington College, he made a large gift to found 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 Citizens Library and was so devoted to it that he cataloged many of its first books.  And, at W&J, he endowed two professorships, the LeMoyne Professorship of Biology and the Lemoyne Professorship of Applied Mathematics.  Today, these professorships are held by Dr. Alice Lee and Dr. Roman Wong.  Please stand and be recognized.

Toward the end of his life, when his rheumatism curtailed his practice as a physician, LeMoyne continued to work for public health 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 not entirely enthusiastic 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 went on to collect law and engineering degrees before he was appointed by President Polk as postmaster in San Francisco.  Traveling from Pittsburgh to San Francisco was considerably more difficult than the trip over the Alleghenies to Philadelphia.  Geary and his young wife took a boat to what is now Panama, then canoed and walked over the Isthmus, often sleeping in the canoe, and then took another boat up the California coast, a trip that took more than 3 months.

When Geary arrived in San Francisco in 1849, the Gold rush was in full swing, and there was no law and order.  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.  And so 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 in San Francisco was named in his honor.

When his wife became ill, Geary returned to Pennsylvania, but she never recovered.  It was not long until his country called on him again, this time President Pierce asking him to serve as governor of Kansas and lead it through the early phases of statehood.  When he arrived in 1856, Kansas, just newly separated from Nebraska, was in the process of determining if it would be a slave state or free. This was not an orderly process.  Previous governors had lasted only a few months.  About Kansas, Geary wrote, “Desolation and ruin reigned on every hand; homes and firesides were deserted; the smoke of burning dwellings darkened the atmosphere; women and children, driven from their habitations, wandered over the prairies and among the woodlands.”  (bio p. 63)  The army was powerless, the judges corrupt, and chaos reigned.  Outside agitators from pro-slavery Missouri and anti-slavery Nebraska continually stirred up the population. Geary was equal-handed in his dealings with both slave-owners and abolitionists.  This was new for the state and not especially appreciated—previous governors had all been pro-slavery.  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.  He probably would have spent the rest of his days farming, but when the Civil War broke out, he could not remain idle and formed the Twenty-Eighth Pennsylvania Regiment, fighting throughout the South as well as at Gettysburg and Chancellorsville, where a cannonball almost killed him, leaving him unable to speak above a whisper for weeks.  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 the black man, managed the growth of railroads, added programs to ensure the welfare of Civil war veterans, reduced taxes to attract business to the area, increased the number of public schools by 1000, and oversaw the writing of the state constitution that remains the basis for today’s constitution.

Our most famous Republican statesman, however, was James G. Blaine, who served as Speaker of the House, a U.S. Senator, and twice as Secretary of State, under presidents Garfield and Harrison.  As Secretary of State, he is 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.  His most ambitious project, however, was to create a Pan-American Conference, the first of its kind, to encourage trade between the United States and Latin America and ensure peace in the Western Hemisphere.  It is little wonder that a powerful politician like James G. Blaine would be a likely presidential candidate—and Blaine was considered for the republican ticket at two different party conventions before he became the republic candidate for the presidency in 1884, running against 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.  Blaine was, however, one of the most influential Republicans in the period leading up to the Civil War and the reconstruction period following it.  He was a strong supporter of Lincoln’s, and was invited to join the committee that traveled to Springfield, IL to tell Mr. Lincoln that he had received the Republican nomination for the presidency.  (In those days, potential candidates did not attend the national conventions, but waited at home to learn if they had been called to service by their parties.)  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, he was such a strong speaker, that several times, crowds asked him to speak longer!

It is worth remembering that while Blaine was working alongside President Lincoln to hold the Union together, the Civil War was having a serious impact on the Washington and Jefferson Colleges.  With young men from this region going off to fight on both sides of the war, there were not enough students to keep both colleges financially solvent, and the two decided 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.  In this environment, students who had had one another in their gun sights only months earlier found themselves as roommates and classmates. 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.

Thank you.