I noticed on the Events calendar that today, on the anniversary of 9/11, Wait Chapel will be open all day for quiet reflection and remembrance.  The Chapel bells will toll at 8:46 am, when the first plane hit.

It’s hard for me to imagine that many of the students here now were only in grade school when 9-11 happened.  We have a good deal of students (now as in 2001) from the greater New York and DC areas, perhaps less so from the area in Pennsyvlania at the third site of violence.  Still, everyone was affected in some way, small or large.

I felt especially bad for the freshmen in 2001 – of which my niece was one – because they had just started school, had barely said goodbye to their families after Move-In, and were still getting their bearings.  What I observed in the aftermath was something I have come to expect at Wake Forest whenever there is a tragedy: we support each other.  There were multiple departments and offices across campus who worked tirelessly to offer support, counseling (both pastoral and traditional), comfort, and solace.

One of my lasting memories of 9/11 on campus was that our president at the time, the late Thomas K. Hearn, Jr., rose to the occasion with a wonderful speech at a campus memorial service.  Dr. Hearn always seemed serious to me, though when you got to know him he was genuinely kind.  I think on some level he knew that he was the ‘ranking grown up’ on campus, an older man, perhaps a substitute parent – and that he needed to say something to our students to help them.

I loved his speech then and I still love it now.  Here it is.

May peace – and peace of mind – be in the hearts and minds of the Wake Forest family on this somber anniversary.



Wait Chapel
September 11, 2001

Dr. Thomas K. Hearn, Jr.
President, Wake Forest University

Contrary to what you learn from the clock and calendar, our lives do not unfold hour-by-hour, day-by-day. Our lives rather are marked by events—of celebration and crisis—which are communal and create the common memories that make of us a people, a nation.

The most gripping of these life-marking events are tragic. For all too human reasons, we resist and deny the lessons of the darkness of the soul. The sundial on the old campus spoke for all when it read, “I count only the sunny hours.” It takes a catastrophe to overcome our reluctance to accept the lessons of human hate.

Pearl Harbor was that event for my parents’ generation. It changed their world, and it changed them, forever. They never forgot the moment when the news reached them. For my generation, growing up in the sunshine and optimism of the post-war world, there was the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the assassinations of Kennedy and King. Each of these events broke my heart and my spirit. My heart and spirit healed, but there are scars which forever remain.

Now, my dear young friends, you have your generation’s moment—as Roosevelt said in that immortal phrase—“a date which will live in infamy.” To your life, experience has added a bitter, yet inevitable lesson: there is evil and hatred in the human heart. That lesson will make you sadder. That lesson might also make you wiser.

But the kingdom of the human heart is large. In addition to hate, it contains courage and resolve. In response to the outrage of Pearl Harbor, my father’s generation waged and won a great war, then came home to establish a new and more prosperous and just America. You and I inherited the benefits of their courage and their goodness. The ordeal was great and the sacrifice incalculable—visit someday the hallowed beaches and graveyards of Normandy—but prevail they did.

We must now experience shock, grief, disbelief, and anger. It may seem that routine and normal life is out of reach and out of place. But remembering whose children and grandchildren we are, it is time for us to exhibit the character we inherit and resolve to protect and defend the blessings we inherit in this new millennium. Our forbearers did not turn aside, and we must not flinch.

It is likely true that life will now be different and, in many respects, more difficult. The world and travel in it now seems less commonplace, more dangerous. A new kind of war, not fought warrior-against-warrior, but in offices, airports and apartments, has begun. It is a chilling prospect. But you are America’s future. You will not see your promise diminished.

We must pray for President Bush and our national leaders in the making of the grave decisions that are ahead. The welfare of many tribes and kingdoms will depend upon what a few men and women come to believe and decide.

We must be aware also, not only of what terrorism does to America, but what we do to America out of fear of terrorism. If we are to be America—free, open, equal under God—we must bear the risks that freedom imposes. We must not, out of fear, become less than the nation whose noble ideals summon our honor and loyalty.

There were moments of epiphany in my undergraduate years, when I acquired lessons never lost. I want to share one such moment with you.

Our Shakespeare class was two semesters long. In the first, we studied the comedies, the tragedies in the second. The professor was a man I knew well, having taken several of his courses. In the first session of the second term, he remarked, in an off-hand way, that Shakespeare’s tragedies were generally regarded as superior works of art to the comedies.

“Why is that?” I asked at once. Mr. Ownby started to reply, but then paused. That pause lengthened into one of those compelling silences, louder than shouts, which seem to last an eternity. The room was utterly still.

Mr. Ownby paced the floor and looked out the window. Finally, he turned to me with an expression on his face which revealed that these were words from his heart and soul: “Because, Mr. Hearn, life is more tragic than comic.” There was another pause before the class continued. It was a moment I shall never forget.

It is important that you rightly hear what Mr. Ownby told me from his heart. For many years I mistook his message. He did not say that life is tragic rather than comic. He said life is more tragic than otherwise.

Now older and perhaps wiser, I know what he meant. We are the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. Somehow each generation must learn and re-learn the terrible lessons of cruelty, vengeance and hate.

You will encounter the realities of good and evil, achievement and failure, faith and despair. The world’s story is told in both comedy and tragedy, in laughter and tears. But you must not yourselves be overcome by evil lest you become its agent.

We must recover, and we will.

We must resolve to see the triumph of justice, and we will.

We must overcome evil and hate with goodness and love, and—pray God—we will.

Categories: campus life


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