Fall 2008 Commencement Address, James G. Watson

Monday, December 22, 2008

President Upham, graduates, families and visitors, University administrators, trustees, colleagues and friends: Welcome.

I count it a special privilege to speak to you this morning – to represent my university and yours at a time of such moment to us all. What I have to say is suspiciously "literary," but this after all is an academic convocation, the last some of you will experience and one I know you won’t forget. I won’t. And I won’t keep you long – I know you want to walk where I stand now. So to work.

Etched on the south wall of a tall-windowed second floor study in McFarlin Library are the opening lines of a poem by Emily Dickinson. Perhaps you’ve seen them there: “There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away.”

I am reminded of this because it was a book that brought me here forty year ago from my small New England college on the coast of Maine. I was in the infirmary (not the library) with what I might euphemistically call an "athletic" injury. A painful one. To help pass the time, perhaps as a joke, a good friend brought me William Faulkner’s novel "As I Lay Dying" — some of you will have read it. Or been assigned to read it. It was a book like no other I had read. I was struggling with an attempt to be a “real” doctor that first college spring, and I suppose I was homesick. At least sorry for myself. And I found in that strange book, in that unfamiliar hospital room, lines that seemed to apply to me.

In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I don’t know what I am. I don’t know if I am or not.

The passage concludes, "How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home."

No one could have said then that "As I Lay Dying" would be my “Frigate” to “Lands away” in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Least of all I. But it was, and here it is, inscribed with my name, "Bowdoin College / Spring 1958." How I got there is another book story.

It has been our practice at Spring Commencements to honor high school teachers nominated by graduates. I want to nominate three of my teachers today. Their names are not in the program with mine, but they are here with me as part of who I am and how I came here. If not in name, you may recognize them in the generous services my teachers offered me. George L. Follansbee helped me to my feet when I was a fourteen year old academic washout; Lowell Innes taught me to walk with books like the one I just described and sent me to Bowdoin; at the University of Pittsburgh Robert L. Gale helped me speak about books well enough to qualify for the TU faculty.

Everyone needs such a book and such friends, and it has been the business of your friends on the TU faculty and administration to make them available to you. My colleague Lars Engle may have introduced you to Shakespeare’s "Hamlet," or Holly Laird and Laura Stevens to an issue of "Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature," or Gordon Taylor to the rich, experimental novel "Far Tortuga" – as he so generously did me. But of course your “book” may not have come bound on paper. It may have been a Remington bronze at TU’s Gilcrease Museum; or the paleolithic tool Anthropologist George O’Dell put in your hand; or the section slide of a giant snail in Richard Reeder’s Biology class. It may have been a David Cook theatre production, or a Management Information strategy introduced by Karen Cravens, or one of a thousand other surprises that amaze and inspire at this university every term. And it may very well have come by way a computer chip that burned your eye with its hard, gemlike flame. Emily Dickinson writes in the concluding lines of her poem, "How frugal is the Chariot / That bears the Human soul."

All books involve risk, be aware. No one would censor or burn them if they didn’t. But most passions do. In my book a young man speaks to the excitement and risk of a first love when says, When something is new and hard and bright, there ought to be something a little better for it than just being safe, since the safe things are just the things that folks have been doing so long they have worn the edges off and there’s nothing to the doing of them that leaves a man to say, That was not done before and it cannot be done again.

He could be speaking of the originality of any passionate first commitment.

I said at the outset that this is a time of special moment for us. But all moments are special if we capitalize on them. Our beautiful campus is "new and hard and bright" because of the originality and vision of people like the late Fulton Collins. Forty years ago this Reynolds Center was a suburban neighborhood, as was the space where the new Tucker Drive is now; small houses and apartments stretched east of the stadium to Harvard Avenue, west to Delaware, and North from 11th Street to 8th. The College of Law was downtown. The Engineering College was in North Tulsa and the "South Campus" was dead flat. Where those handsome brick walks are now, a flaking concrete drive called "The U" passed from Delaware Avenue through what is now the McFarlin Library Plaza. Chapman Hall and ACAC were empty fields. The bookstore was in the basement of the library; LaFortune Hall housed only athletes. Some of my classes still met in Old Kendall Hall, a red-brick building with sagging wood floors and steam radiators that stood where new Kendall Hall stands now — it soon to be supplanted in its turn by a new, state of the art performing arts building named for trustees Bob and Roxana Rozsa Lorton. Her father, Bela Rozsa, was my colleague. Our little postage stamp of native soil has become a cosmos.

William Faulkner created a cosmos of his own in original books he designed and built in the workshop of his imagination — and won a Nobel Prize. In every classroom, studio, laboratory and workshop on this campus, creative people are making things "new and hard and bright" for all of us. In the arts, pianist Anna Norberg heads the world famous Tulsa Trio; in the sciences Dale Teeters and his students built a nanobattery that can power a micro-computer through the human vascular system; Professor Ed Rybiki designed the metal casing for space shuttles — and had a NASA computer named for him. Joining the arts to the sciences, Professor Sean Latham is digitalizing the Humanities.

It is you and people like you that we have been building all this time. One final passage in my book addresses the kind of work we have been at together, this time in Faulkner’s Mississippi vernacular. But no less true for that.

Folks seem to get away from the olden right teaching that says to drive the nails down and trim the edges well always like it was for your own use and comfort you were making it. It’s like some folks has the smooth pretty boards to build a courthouse with and others don’t have no more than rough lumber to build a chicken coop. But it’s better to build a tight chicken coop than a shoddy courthouse, and when they both build shoddy or build well, neither because it’s one or tother is going to make a man feel the better nor the worse.
Our pride today is in you – collectively — and what you are prepared to build now, with whatever "smooth pretty boards" or "rough lumber" comes to your hands. We trust that you will keep in mind "the olden right teaching . . . to drive the nails down and trim the edges well always." For it manifestly is "for your own use and comfort" that you will make what you make of yourselves. Who knows what you will make, or where your book will take you? Not I.

But, hey! Get ready! As the bumper sticker says, "Stuff Happens!"

David Hamby