Founders Day Convocation: Milton Reigelman

The following remarks were given by Milton Reigelman, Cowan Professor of English, Emeritus, on Jan. 16, 2019 during Centre College’s Founders Day Celebration, marking the College’s 200th anniversary.

[VIDEO] View the entire ceremony here.

About 200 years ago in his ominous poem “Ulalume,” Edgar Allan Poe referred to his “most immemorial year.” Poe didn’t specify what year he meant, but surely he meant 1819, the year that proud William & Mary graduate Thomas Jefferson founded that other school where Poe exited prematurely after declaring a self-designed major in gambling and alcohol. 1819 was certainly a most immemorial year across the pond in London, where the 23-year-old John Keats sat under a plum tree and composed the four most immemorable odes ever written in English. 1819 was similarly immemorial on these shores, where both Walt Whitman and Herman Melville were born a few miles apart in New York.

Closer to home: on Jan. 21, 1819 the Kentucky legislature granted a charter to Centre College of Kentucky whose Board then met in Elizabeth Davenport’s tavern (where the Bluegrass Pizza & Pub now stands) and dreamed of the College whose founding we mark and celebrate this morning.

Now skip 100 years, to 1919, when the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote in “The Second Coming”
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

So that we don’t drown in our own self-congratulatory juices this morning, let’s pause to recognize Yeats fears of falling apart have occasionally been true, even at this now-hearty and robust institution.

Things fell apart financially almost as soon as we were founded. The University of Chicago and Stanford were founded with great splashes of guilt money from oil and railroad robber barons, but this College was founded by flinty Scots-Irish Presbyterians whose rewards, according to John Calvin and John Knox, were to come only later. Had the Presbyterian Synod not showered down about a half-million dollars of manna onto Centre in 1824, our infant institution might have starved, shriveled up, and died before it was six. In 1873, Mother Centre’s cupboard became almost bare after a huge chunk of our endowment disappeared when a bank in Louisville was robbed. Happily, Centre didn’t fall apart the, because our loyal alumni and friends gathered up more money than we’d lost. Never forget that heartwarming story, you alumni, future alumni, and friends!

Most of the hundreds of American colleges founded in the 19th century did fall apart, but at this place, the center held—in spite of our most modest beginnings with a President who taught classes (as President Roush does today) and a grand total of two faculty members. We now boast of an inspiring faculty of 142—but things have not been universally so peachy, faculty-wise.

Indulge me one example. In the late 60s a Centre professor sadly got off his meds, organized (in his mind) the Centre Ski Club, and ordered a bus to take his club skiing—somewhere. Early one cold January morning, the bus driver pounded on the front door of Craik House, Catharine Spragens (the Susie Roush of the time), realizing something was seriously amiss, called the gendarmes. They arrived, put the professor in a straight-jacket, and carried him off—but not before he bit one of them on the ankle. It later came to light that there was a ten-year gap in his resume; he claimed to have fought in one war, when it was actually an earlier war. Rest assured: Centre today does a much better job of vetting its faculty.

Two hundred years ago, Centre’s idealistic founders managed to round up five local students; we opened this fall with 1,450 highly accomplished and hard-working students from across the country and around the world. This quality and earnestness has not, however, always been universally true. The 70s at Centre was a little looser, more laid-back era, particularly for a few students. During one Dutch-uncle conference back then, a student who had missed three of his first four classes hemmed and hawed and finally admitted, “Well to tell you the truth, professor… I’m not really into classes.” “You prefer not to attend?” “Yeah…I guess that’s it.” “Well, I prefer to flunk you unless you read Melville’s ‘Bartley’ and show up at tomorrow’s class with a 500-word essay on the consequences of personal preferences”—which that young Centre Scrivener did. The ending to that story? He eventually became centered, graduated in four years, and today leads a fine life—perhaps selling lightning rods? In the 70s things at Centre did not fall apart, and the laissez-faire haze of the 60s (for a few) ended here about 1978. Recall Mark Twain’s plan, if the world was going to come to an end,he’d come to Kentucky, since everything arrives here a decade late.

I’ve heard tell that Centre currently has a carefully run study-abroad program centered in Centre’s Center for Global Citizenship. This has not always been the case, alas! Before President Michael Adams arrived in 1988, study abroad at Centre was a fledgling, tiny animal of unknown species that occasionally fell apart. For example, in 1975 (when all Centre professors taught two of their required eight courses during the six-week CentreTerm) one feckless young professor took a group of students to study finance in Europe—a part of the world he had perhaps once read about. After some aimless wandering around in Paris, he called his students together and told them, “Okay, it’s now Thursday. I’ll meet you in the town square in Brussels on Tuesday around noon.” Luckily, Centre French Professor Charles Vahlkamp happened to be in Paris at the time, gave direction to the startled, rudderless group, and the feckless professor was directed to seek employment elsewhere. Centre has come a long way since that time: this time next January, about 260 Centre students will be studying with true faculty experts in El Salvador, Ireland, Finland, Germany, the Czech Republic, South Africa, Israel, Japan, Thailand, Myanmar, New Zealand—even Fiji.

Yeats wrote “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” during Ireland’s bloody war with England. In our own bloody Civil War, the center of Centre, Old Centre, held—but only tenuously: before the Battle of Perryville, the building was taken over by Confederate soldiers; after the battle, it was used as a hospital and functioning morgue for some of the 3,500 Union soldiers that remained in tiny Danville for several months.

At the end of Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,” he imagines a new gyre, a new era, a new order of things. In 1862, Centre President Lewis Green must have had the vision of a new beginning as he and a skeletal staff soldiered on holding classes, inspired by an individual that his College, this College, had been doubly responsible for: that is, President Abraham Lincoln. The reality is that if Centre not been founded in 1819, Lincoln would not have been President and the United States of America might have fallen apart.

How is this? Let’s start with 1826 Centre graduate John Todd Stuart, who talked Lincoln, his unschooled friend, into reading the law and lent him his lawbooks—introducing the blacksmith to Blackstone, the very book our young Lincoln still carries with him in front of Doherty. After practicing law together, John Todd Stuart visited Lincoln and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, Stuart’s own cousin, in the White House.

But it took 1838 Centre graduate John C. Breckinridge, the 14th U.S. Vice President, the youngest ever elected, to ensure Lincoln’s election in 1860. Breckinridge’s Democrats had largely controlled the White House for 30 years, since Andrew Jackson. In 1860 Vice-President Breckinridge’s pro-slavery stance splintered his party, Breckinridge ran as a third-party candidate, carrying nine Southern States—allowing the more united, new Republican Party of the upstart blacksmith Lincoln to win the White House.

Thus: if Centre hadn’t been founded in 1819, John Todd Stuart wouldn’t have graduated in 1826 nor John C. Breckinridge in 1835, and Abraham Lincoln would have become a really fine, shoe salesman for horses. Ipso facto: The United States owes its survival and existence today to Centre College, Q.E.D., logic being part of the trivium taught here 200 years ago.

On February 12, the historian Jon Meacham will deliver Centre’s next Press Distinguished Lecture from this podium. In his recent Pulitzer-prizewinning book, “The Soul of America,” Meacham wrote that our fragile country has always survived—in Faulkner’s terms prevailed—because leaders like Lincoln have been able to summon their better angels when the center has not held, when things were falling apart. The graduates of this little College made it possible for Lincoln to become president when we most needed him. Our country may soon need another Lincoln. When I look out at the young women and men in this audience, I think I know where she or he will come from.

When things were falling part in Kentucky a few years ago, it was a 1974 Centre graduate who held things together with such extraordinary finesse that she was and is admired throughout Kentucky. It’s our great fortune this morning that she, Crit Luallen, is our speaker.

by Milton Reigelman, Cowan Professor of English, Emeritus
January 17, 2019

By |2019-01-24T14:41:33+00:00January 17th, 2019|Bicentennial, News|