The University of the South celebrated Founder’s Day during a beautiful fall afternoon in Sewanee. Founders’ Day Convocation featured an address by former Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., and the dedication of the Second Founding Cross. The event coincided with both the annual meeting of the Board of Trustees and the beginning of Family Weekend, and All Saints’ Chapel was full to overflowing.
Provost John Swallow announced student awards and honors, including those for academic excellence, for leadership, and for community service. See the full list.
During the Convocation, honorary degrees were conferred upon Riley; Diana Dillenberger Frade, founder of Our Little Roses Ministries in San Pedro Sula, Honduras; American novelist William Timothy “Tim” O'Brien; and the Rt. Rev. Canon George Sumner, bishop of the Diocese of Dallas. About 250 new members were inducted into the Order of Gownsmen during the ceremony. Learn more about the honorary degree recipients.
Joe Riley retired in January 2016 after 40 years in office as mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, making him one of the country’s longest-serving mayors. His tenure as mayor saw the transformation of downtown Charleston from a decaying urban center to a top cultural destination. Known as a bridge-builder, Riley first gained national attention in 1989 following Hurricane Hugo, and was again in the spotlight last year when a racially-motivated gunman killed nine people at the Emanuel AME Church. (Watch the video of Convocation; Riley's honorary degree presentation and remarks begin at the 1-hour mark.)
Riley said that he first came to know Sewanee through reading William Alexander Percy’s memoir Lanterns on the Levee, and he never forgot the poet’s paean to the University. He shared an appreciation for the University’s founders, noting that those who create institutions deserve more attention and challenging students to seize the opportunities they will have to be creators. Riley said mayors create institutions like parks and museums, but they do not do that alone; the effort takes willing and engaged citizens.
He recalled being a young man watching Martin Luther King Jr. give his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, calling it a day that changed his life. Twelve years later, Riley ran for mayor of Charleston as a unity candidate, urged on by a coalition of both black and white citizens. He said that his administration was able to advance the cause of racial justice, “not by taking anyone away from the table, but by adding more chairs.”
He continued to serve as mayor, saying there was always “one more project to finish.” And so as mayor, he received the phone call in June 2015 telling him that there had been a shooting at the Emanuel AME Church. The killer had wanted to “start a race war,” but the now-familiar pattern of violence never erupted in Charleston. Instead, members of the community responded with love. Riley had learned that disasters accelerate trends already in place. The trend in Charleston had been toward respect and togetherness, and that trend was indeed enhanced by the terrible shootings.
Riley concluded by returning to Percy and to King, leaving students with these hopes and expectations: that they will find their own ways to express their praise to Sewanee, and that they will do their best to bend the arc of history toward justice. He urged students to keep a room in their hearts, decorated with memories of Sewanee. Those memories—and the education received here—will encourage students to “push hard” against the arc of history. “Bend towards justice!” he concluded. “Sewanee would expect nothing less."
Riley’s address was received with warm applause, and was followed by brief remarks by Vice-Chancellor John McCardell. McCardell noted that this Founders’ Day marks the 150th anniversary of the first Board of Trustees meeting after the Civil War. These “second founders” created the possibility that the University today could transcend the original vision of the founders. He concluded with “Ecce Quam Bonum” before Bishop John Howard, chancellor of the University, dedicated the Second Founding Cross.
The Second Founding Cross was designed by Professor Gerald Smith and built by University carpenters using timbers extracted from historic Rebel’s Rest, which burned in July 2014. It was first used last March in a ceremony to commemorate the original “second founding” service that took place in March 1866. The Second Founding Cross will be used at special services in All Saints’ Chapel.
Before reading the names of the newest members of the Order of Gownsmen, OG President Sarah Reeves, C’17, reminded them of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s list of influences in the education of the scholar: nature, books, and action. Noting that there is no shortage of nature, or of books, at Sewanee, Reeves challenged the gownsmen to become active scholars, who think creatively and act innovatively to move their communities forward.
Students accepted their gowns to applause from families and faculty, and the Convocation ended with the singing of the Alma Mater.