Weaving quotations from writers Walker Percy, Marilynne Robinson and C.S. Lewis with references to Robert E. Lee, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, the Rev. Dr. Christoph Keller III gave a moving, often personal Baccalaureate address to Washington and Lee University’s Class of 2012 on Wednesday, May 23.
The traditional service, held on the historic Front Lawn between Lee Chapel and Washington Hall, began the two days of celebration for the slightly more than 400 seniors who will receive bachelor's degrees on the same spot on Thursday, May 24, at 10 a.m.
The director of the Institute for Theological Studies at St. Margaret's in Little Rock, Ark., Keller is the son of one W&L alumnus, the late Rt. Rev. Christoph Keller Jr., of the Class of 1939, and the father of another, Mary Olive Keller, a member of the Class of 2012. The senior Keller also was a member of W&L’s Board of Trustees.
Keller began by quoting from Percy’s 1971 novel “Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World”; its protagonist, Dr. Thomas More, is a graduate of W&L. Musing on how Percy, through his character, grappled with the sometimes controversial notion of “American exceptionalism” and the divisions in the U.S. between rural and urban, right and left, religious and secular, Keller counseled optimism.
“Then we remember Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King,” he said. “Were it not for Lincoln’s insistence on American exceptionalism, this morning we would be gathered under a different flag. Had King not preached the promise of America as his beacon for a peaceful revolution, then outwardly and inwardly, we would be a very different group of people.”
Referring to the “tens of thousands of people” like King and Lincoln “whom none of us has heard of,” he said that “they were the glory of their times. Let that be you.”
Keller also advised the graduates to look back upon their exceptional experience at W&L. Turning to novelist Marilynne Robinson, he quoted her on Western civilization’s “serene sort of courage” and “great mutual courtesy.”
“If ever there was a college that meant to weave this deep-seated mutual courtesy into the educational fabric,” he said, “it was Washington and Lee.” He nodded to President Lee’s “insistence on civility and courtesy following defeat” and acknowledged that while he, an Arkansan, enjoyed his own education in Massachusetts, at Amherst College, “something deep in my Southern heart was glad” when his son attended Sewanee, and his daughter picked W&L.
“It has seemed to me that this place has given you the same quality and kind of education, in warm contact with the same quality and kind of teacher, as I received at Amherst,” he said, “but with a different under-layer. It is the old difference between Cavalier and Yankee.”
Keller also paid tribute to W&L’s “deep-seated mutual courtesy,” which was woven into the education fabric by President Robert E. Lee’s insistence on civility. “You did learn that here,” said Keller. “If you trespassed that rule, you felt guilt. If another trespassed, you felt dismay. From now on, this belongs to who you are.”
Speaking as the parent of a W&L graduate, Keller evoked writer C.S. Lewis, who named the four loves: eros (romantic), philia (friendship), storge (friends and family) and agape (divine). “All four loves are with us here this morning,” he said, “but the love that has filled your hearts this final week is storge. For four years, it was quietly growing . . . The other loves will travel with you as you spread out across the planet, but your storge can’t leave the Shenandoah Valley.”
Keller concluded with a tribute to his father. During a visit to the W&L Admissions Office several years ago, Keller remembered, he read a reprint of the 2003 Baccalaureate address by Thomas Litzenburg ’57, which mentioned, but did not name, an ill and elderly speaker at a long-ago Baccalaureate. That speaker had paused for a long time before beginning his speech. When he did, he said, “God, I love this place.” That speaker was his father, Christoph Keller Jr. ’39.
“The fear in that long moment of hesitation . . . was that his memory had failed him. He had forgotten where he was and what he had to say,” said Keller. “When he spoke, they found out the opposite was true. His memory had filled his heart.”
Among the reasons the elder Keller had loved W&L, said his son, were “this mix of old and new: genteel, thoughtful, tradition-mindedness, joined with liberal, scholarly engagement with new ideas, and readiness for progress.” An advocate of coeducation as a trustee, he’d also loved “his sweetheart,” whom he met while at W&L, a woman from Mary Baldwin College who became his wife of more than fifty years.
“Of love, we are promised that it never ends,” concluded Keller. “Childhood ends. Then college. Still so many miles from perfect—and yet so beautiful, so memorable, so good.”
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs