“The People in the Balconies”

Thank you, President Wippman. I’m honored to be here.

The search committee for this talk had to look high and low to find a 60-something, bald-headed, white man with glasses [glance at President Wippman] and a goofy sense of humor, but they found me, and here I am.

How you folks all got here is rather more interesting.  For the students, I think it’s pretty simple: Terry Martinez, the Dean of Students, sent you an email, which said “There’s this big event, and we’re giving some prizes, and YOU MAY WANT TO COME. (Wink, wink, nudge, nudge).  So you showed up. That makes sense.

The faculty also got an email, from Dean of Faculty Suzanne Keen. It said, “There’s this big event, and we’re giving some prizes, and IT”S YOUR JOB TO BE THERE.”  So we showed up – although in truth, we also just like being here.

What’s most interesting, though, are all these people up in the balconies [points].  They didn’t get any email; it’s not their job to be here; and they are probably not going to win any prizes. They just want to be here.

Some are your friends, and many are people who’ve worked here for many years.  I see my dear friend Al Kelly, a history professor who retired just last year; he’s been coming for 38 years. And in the back there, there’s Ginny Dosch – many of you know her, she helps students with fellowships; she’s been coming for 21 years.  Over there is Robin Vanderwall from Kirner Johnson; she’s been coming for 18 years.

And then there’s Jay Williams – where’s Jay Williams? [applause] – there he is. Jay Williams in an Emeritus Professor of Religion, retired now.  I understand that Jay Williams has been coming to these events since…1897.

Ok, the true answer is 1950.  Which was three years before I was born; and he’s likely to be the speaker at your 25th reunion.  That’s Jay Williams. 

All these people are here who don’t have to be here, because they want to cheer for you. They show up, they like it, they’re proud of you.  That’s because, basically, you represent the best of what Hamilton College has to offer the world. 

I know, this is getting heavy.

So you’re good at things, and you’re going to win some prizes, and you’re real talented, and accomplished.  Plus I must say, standing here looking, you’re also unusually good-looking.

Wait a minute:  don’t get a big head. I have to tell you, in truth -- you are not (how to say this?) – you are not the single MOST EXCITING group of students I’ve seen at Class and Charter Day in my 38 years.

This event is supposed to be about Hamilton history, so here’s a little history:  Thirty-three years ago, in the spring of 1986, colleges across the country were caught up in an international divestment movement, the purpose of which was to force colleges to divest their holdings in the South African government, practitioner of an apartheid regime.  And Hamilton students were part of that movement. They held rallies, and built “shanties” – shacks – on the college green in solidarity with poor people in South Africa, and marched around the campus. And on Class and Charter Day, they held a protest. (By the way, these protests and other actions actually did seem to make a difference; the apartheid regime fell, which was a grand thing.)

In those days, at Class and Charter Day, when students’ names were called, they would individually walk to the front of this room to receive the prize from the President, a man named J. Martin Carovano.  But in this year, as students walked to the front of the room, they would turn, facing the audience, and loudly proclaim:  “PRESIDENT CAROVANO, WHEN WILL HAMILTON DIVEST?”  and then all the students in the audience would raise their fists in the air and chant, “DIVEST NOW! DIVEST NOW!” 

You see, that is why you aren’t the most exciting group.  (But that’s OK, you can do other things!)

It was very dramatic and moving, quite powerful, really, at least for the first thirty minutes or so of it. And by the end of the ceremony as well. Seriously, it was quite a great moment. 

There were other protests after that, and eventually a dozen students were expelled, then President Carovano was effectively driven from office. His legacy we remember with that long brick walkway that runs the length of the campus:  Martin’s Way, named for Martin Carovano.

So that event was very dramatic and exciting, incredibly big news at Hamilton College. BIG news.

But – and here I must tell you a little secret.  (Please don’t tell President Wippman!). 

That protest was big news at Hamilton, but (stage whisper))  IN THE OUTSIDE WORLD, NO ONE HAS EVER HEARD OF HAMILTON COLLEGE! We’re just a little school, in a little village…

OK, there are some exceptions: the Financial District in New York, the Upper East Side – we’re pretty well-regarded there, maybe some places in Boston and Chicago. But truthfully, most people in the world have never heard of us.

You’ll discover this after you graduate. You’ll be somewhere in Phoenix, Arizona, working on some big project, doing great work, and somebody will say, “You do great work!  Where’d you go to college?”  And you’ll proudly announce “Hamilton.” 

And they’ll just stare. Maybe they’ll say, “Um…is that in Canada?”

They don’t know, most people don’t know, that we here in this room, on this Hill, even exist. We’re not Harvard or Yale. They don’t know Hamilton.

But THEY WILL KNOW YOU.  Which gets us to why all these people are sitting up in the balconies.

And not just them:  There are hundreds of people who work at Hamilton for ten, twenty, even close to fifty years, doing great work, and the outside world never knows about them.

This includes the faculty. There are many amazing, accomplished artists, and scientists, and scholars here, and many are highly regarded in their own professions, but that’s not the same as being truly well-known. I’m reminded here of a student who asked me last year, “Are you a famous sociologist?”  And I thought, then said, “Well, just remember that ‘famous sociologist’ is not the same as ‘famous.’”

Yes, when Maurice Isserman (Professor of History) writes a book it will be reviewed in the New York Times, so he’s sort of famous. But generally speaking, we do our work here, on this hill; and certainly, many staff and administrators here have good lives beyond the college, are leaders in their communities; but their work lives are here, at Hamilton.  

And most of us who work here will never be known beyond this hill. And that’s OK, because the truth is, YOU ARE OUR LIFE’S WORK.

I’ll give you an example.  Diane Brady is an astonishingly competent woman who works in the Registrar’s Office. The faculty all know her, but most students have no idea who she is. Diane manages course scheduling, preregistration, enrollment limits and such, all sorts of really complicated stuff that I have never been able to fathom. It’s important, crucial really, to the quality of classes that you can get into and take.  Diane has worked at Hamilton for 45 years, and she’s retiring this summer.

Off the hill, I suspect almost no one has heard of Diane Brady’s work here, even though she’s phenomenally good at a really important job. Let me put it this way:  I think DIANE BRADY IS GOD’S GIFT TO COLLEGE ADMINISTRATION [big round of applause]. 

And you know what else?  SHE’S NOT THE ONLY ONE.  There are lots of people, whose life work is being here, trying to help you.  And the rest of the world doesn’t know that.

BUT THEY WILL KNOW YOU.  And so that’s why these people are sitting in the balconies. When you go out in the world, and do whatever you do, you’re representing them.  YOU ARE, TO THE PEOPLE YOU’LL MEET, YOU ARE HAMILTON COLLEGE.

So when you stand up at the end of today’s ceremony, the folks here in this room, and up in the balconies will applaud for you. That’s why they’re here.

And when, in a few weeks or a couple of years, you graduate from Hamilton, there will be nearly 10,000 people in the field house, there to see you people graduate.  There will be all your family and friends, but also huge numbers of Hamilton employees – not just the faculty and administrators, but security guards, custodians, folks who work in the gym and on the grounds crews.  And when you’ve crossed that stage and been handed your diploma, everyone in that arena will STAND UP AND CHEER, FOR YOU.  Because YOU are our life’s work.

And for the rest of your lives – now, you won’t hear it, but it’ll be happening – wherever you go, whenever you do the good that you do for the world, WE WILL BE CHEERING FOR YOU.


So congratulations, good luck, and Godspeed. 

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