Huntingdon Tomorrow Gala Celebration
"So Great a Cloud of Witnesses"
Remarks by J. Cameron West, President of the College, to the Board of Trustees and friends of the College at the inauguration of the Huntingdon Tomorrow Campaign
May 12, 2011
There is no more tradition-filled time of the year on a college campus than the time we have just celebrated—Commencement—and I have added my own personal tradition to the many I inherited when I came to Huntingdon. Actually, I borrowed this tradition from my college president father, who—when the last graduating senior's car filled with boxes drove away from campus—would take a walk around his college and soak in the peace, the quiet, the emptiness of a place that eight or nine months out of the year was anything but peaceful, quiet, empty. "It's the loneliest few hours of the year on a college campus," Dad used to say; my dad who fed off the energy that a bustling campus brought to his life.
Since we do not finish Commencement exercises with our Adult Degree Completion Program until almost dusk, I wait until the next day— Sunday afternoon or early evening—to take that walk. The first time I took that walk on the horseshoe around the Green, I did it expecting to feel lonely. I did not feel lonely. Instead, I felt in the midst of the peace ... the quiet ... the emptiness ... a real presence. In the words of The Epistle to the Hebrews, I was surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses.” Their presence was ethereal, trancelike on that hot, hazy, breezy day—the spring equivalent to the kind of day you experience in the early fall in the North Carolina mountains.
"October had come again ...," Thomas Wolfe wrote in his novel, Of Time and the River, "and that year ... and often, there was warmth by day, an ancient drowsy light, a golden warmth and pollinated haze in afternoon, but over all the earth there was the premonitory breath of frost, an exultancy for all the men who were returning, and haunting sorrow for the buried men, and for all those who were gone and would not come again."
So great a cloud of witnesses. As I have continued to take that walk, year after year—most recently this past Sunday afternoon—the witnesses have gradually, over time, revealed themselves to me. Predecessors in the presidency; visionary, courageous philanthropic trustees; wise, faithful, generous friends who love the City of Montgomery, who love the United Methodist Church, who love the liberal arts, who most of all and most especially (in the words of our late Trustee colleague, Jimmy Loeb) love Huntingdon. They are all there. They all have something to say to me and, I believe, to you in this pivotal moment of the College's life as we inaugurate the Huntingdon Tomorrow Campaign.
One of these witnesses, one of these voices is that of the College's 10th president, Dr. Walter D. Agnew, who served 16 years from 1922 – 1938. A number of presidents are better known and more revered than Walter Agnew—certainly Andrew Adgate Lipscomb, John Massey, and especially Hubert Searcy, who moved the College into a long period of financial stability and academic excellence from 1938–1968 and who built or started the building of Ligon Hall, the President's Home, Russell Dining Hall, and the structure now known as the Catherine Dixon Roland Student Center. But no one in the history of Huntingdon College, in my view, more effectively served at a more pivotal moment in redefining the College for a new era than Walter Agnew.
Without denying the College's history or traditions, President Agnew and the Trustees who served around him took a sleepy institution which, in many ways, was a finishing school for refined young ladies, and made it a college for the 20th century. The academic program was strengthened and the institution accepted into full membership of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools; the buildings to serve that program and its students and faculty were built—Bellingrath Hall; Houghton Library; Jackson Home; Hanson Hall; the YWCA Hut—so that the College was equipped with the infrastructure to triple its enrollment by the late 1920s from the time it moved to Montgomery in 1909. The Montgomery community was made fully a partner in the life of Huntingdon; a financially supportive Board of Trustees was built; and, when the Great Depression hit, the College was protected from closing when 17 other Methodist schools were folding and when SACS put the College on probation for financial issues. It was President Agnew and his Board of Trustees who positioned President Searcy for his phenomenal success as a master financial manager and fundraiser and as the builder of an even stronger academic program that carried the College from the end of the Great Depression through the tumult of the 1960s that has continued to shape the world even until today.
As I read the history of Huntingdon College, and as I listen to the voices of the past who speak into the present as guides for Huntingdon Tomorrow, it is Walter Agnew's voice that speaks most clearly, most directly, most convincingly at this pivotal moment when we are summoned to bring the College into the 21st century as a fully sustainable academic community of excellence. The Huntingdon Tomorrow Campaign constructed over the last year, approved by our Board of Trustees this afternoon, and kicked off Saturday when we see the first pile of dirt moved around at Charles Lee Field, will provide the facilities to generate and support enrollment growth and to accommodate the growth of academic and co-curricular programs for years to come. We begin this campaign in an era of good feelings between the Montgomery community and the College, in an era of generous financial support from Trustees and friends, in an era where we have weathered the ravages of a severe recession while maintaining the confidence of our accrediting body—all the while being continually vigilant to build upon positive town-gown relations and support from our donors.
The temptation, at a tradition-filled institution, in a tradition-filled city, in a tradition-filled region of the country—where, as the character in one of William Faulkner's novels said about the South: "The past isn't dead; it isn't even past"—the temptation for all of us is to live in the past, which seems glorious, or to stay stuck in the present, which seems comfortable. That's why our campaign is called Huntingdon Tomorrow. Only as we hear the witnesses of the past ... guiding us today ... into a 21st century tomorrow will this College grow, and become better, and serve the students of a new generation in the manner required for them to become responsible citizens. Our new tennis complex, our prescription turf athletic field, our track and field facility, our academic dance facility, our academic theater facility, our renovated Hanson Hall and renovated Pratt Hall, our natatorium, the deferred maintenance improvements on our old buildings—these are our gifts to 21st century Huntingdon that President Agnew, and his Trustees, and their friends made to 20th century Huntingdon (actually, Woman’s College) when they built a science facility, a library, an infirmary, a residence hall, a student activities building. That was their time; their witness set Huntingdon on a course that has never been reversed, through Depression, and wars, and co-education, and changing hairstyles, and whatever the slings and arrows of history have brought. Today is our time, our witness, our opportunity to set Huntingdon on a course tomorrow that will not be reversed.
I close by paraphrasing a prayer that has come to inspire me in my work as the president of a college of the Church. One of the traditions at The University of the South, where Elizabeth's and my daughter, Grace, has just completed her freshman year, is the University Prayer. This prayer, which I will alter tonight for our purposes, reminds me, first, that Huntingdon was called into being in the past by God through God's servants, and lives today as it has in the past under God's guidance. This prayer reminds me, secondly, that we in the present age bear the responsibility for the well-being of Huntingdon's tomorrow in a future age.
Let us pray: Almighty God, we your servants implore your blessings upon this College. Grant Wisdom to all those to whom you have given the authority of teaching and governance. Let our students grow in grace day by day; enlighten their minds, purify their hearts, set them apart for service to you and to the world you have created. Bless all those who have contributed in any way to this institution; and raise up to the College, we humbly pray, a never-failing succession of benefactors. In your holy name: Amen.