Today is Wake Forest’s 178th birthday. On February 3, 1834, Wake Forest Manual Labor Institute opened its doors to its first student, John Crenshaw. Crenshaw, along with the 71 other young men who enrolled within the first year, were schooled in agriculture by day and the Baptist ministry by night.
As the old advertisement goes, “We’ve come a long way, baby!”
We now have 4,750ish students, women as well as men, on a different campus than our original one. But the spirit remains.
There has perhaps been no better representative of Wake Forest than Edwin G. Wilson, provost emeritus and professor of English. In my generation on campus, his were the classes you had to wait and hope and pray you got a good enough registration time slot to get into: British Romantic Poets and Blake, Yeats, and Thomas. I still remember with great joy walking into his classroom before class. He had always written a few lines of poetry on the board – just a nugget to get us all in the proper mood. His fine, strong handwriting, combined with the words of the great poets, cast its own calming, reverent spell.
In 1992, Dr. Wilson was the speaker at Founders’ Day Convocation, which honors Wake Forest’s history. It was the year of my graduation. He was famous for his speeches and his reading of The Velveteen Rabbit in the dorms around Christmastime. Somewhere I have a formal printed copy of the speech (which I cannot locate) but also some excerpts in Word, which I hope were faithfully transcribed. In honor of Wake Forest’s birthday, I want to share some of Dr. Wilson’s words.
“Through the years, I have on occasion tried to identify the special character of Wake Forest: what it is that gives this college, this university, its own identity, unique among the institutions I have known. Today I recall, for insight into the nature of Wake Forest, the famous speech—incomparable in Wake Forest annals—made by President William Louis Poteat to the Baptist State Convention assembled here in Winston-Salem in December 1922. Under attack because of his defense of academic freedom at Wake Forest, he answered his critics with dignity and calm. He is perhaps best remembered for having said, ‘Welcome Truth….And do not stop to calculate the adjustment and revision her fresh coming will necessitate.’ But he also said, ‘Our deepest need is to be good; after that, to be intelligent….What the world needs now as always is the…marriage of goodness and intelligence.’”
For those of us who are Wake Forest alumni, or who have worked here long enough to believe in the ideals of Wake Forest, there is a spirit here that pervades the campus. It is about being intelligent, yes, but as Dr. Wilson suggests, that must be married with goodness. We have a passion for learning – and learning from each other – but also the desire to do more with that knowledge. Wake Foresters have a nobility of spirit. We want to help. Because we have such a close community, we recognize how important it is to make connections – with likeminded spirits on campus, with mentors who can help us think through decisions and guide us wisely, or with someone in a more junior position who seems to need our help (and we give it). The people here matter. Your students matter.
I was in a meeting this week with some very high ranking university officials. Both of these people recounted stories where they took a very personal, active role in helping a student solve a problem, or witnessed the selfless way in which other people were doing the same. I am not sure if at other schools, people of their level would be as hands-on. But they did it, and they did it quietly and without fanfare, because it is in their nature to want to help in any way they can.
And as long as we have folks like that, at every level of the institution, we will be a great place.
Happy birthday, Mother So Dear.