Seeking Inspiration from Centre’s Past: 2019 Centre College Commencement Address

Stuart W. Sanders is a 1995 Centre graduate and is the author of four books, including the forthcoming The Ohio Belle Murder, which looks at interpersonal violence, Southern honor culture, and vigilante justice through the lens of the steamboat Ohio Belle, which will be published by the University Press of Kentucky in March 2020. He now serves as the History Advocate for the Kentucky Historical Society.

Dr. Roush, parents, faculty, guests, and graduates, it is an honor to be here today. I am very appreciative of Dr. and Mrs. Roush, Stan Campbell, Dr. Lori Hartmann, Yvonne Morley, and Dr. Bruce Johnson for inviting me to speak.

Before I begin my remarks, I first want to recognize the parents of today’s graduates. Having my own child in college—he just finished his freshman year—I am aware of the sacrifices that the parents and grandparents in the audience have made in order to get these graduates across this stage. Therefore, please join me in thanking all of the proud parents, grandparents, and guardians who are here today.

In honor of Centre’s Bicentennial, I am here to speak about past Centre graduates and how they can inspire us for the future.

I need to note, however, that my first draft of this speech was titled, “If Centre Professors Were Game of Thrones Characters.” But, I had to scrap that topic when I realized that there would be too many arguments about who got to be John Snow or Arya Stark. I was also afraid that Dr. Beau Weston would start calling Crounse Hall “Winterfell.” Therefore, I will instead delve into a bit of college history.

I have learned a great deal while researching Centre’s two hundred year past. I have discovered that, for two centuries, Centre graduates have been leaders; they have been engaged citizens; they have had the confidence to forge their own unique paths; and, they have worked to make their communities better places. They also care about each other and mentor one another. Because of this, we can draw inspiration from their lives, their careers, their choices, and even their failures.

It will surprise no one that today’s graduates, the class of 2019, are drastically different from the first students who attended Centre 200 years ago. The 332 women and men who are graduating today hail from twenty-nine states and five foreign countries. This is in stark contrast to Centre’s first graduates, who were two white men from Kentucky who both became ministers. Yes, Centre’s first class was comprised of two graduates, and please don’t be jealous that it was a much faster commencement ceremony.

Centre’s first graduates never studied molecular biology. They never fretted about their convo credits. And, to depress the parents in the audience, tuition was about forty bucks a year. However, we can look to these first graduates—Centre’s student pioneers—for inspiration. In fact, one of those students, who dedicated his life to the college, sacrificed himself to help others.

Lewis Warner Green was Centre’s first graduate. A Danville native, he also attended Princeton, Yale, and schools in Europe before becoming a Presbyterian minister and a college president. During much of the nineteenth century, Green was regarded as Kentucky’s preeminent intellectual. He became Centre’s president in 1857, and, during the Civil War, he was a Unionist who worked to keep the school open as enrollment and funding declined.

On October 8, 1862, Kentucky’s largest Civil War battle raged less than ten miles from campus at Perryville. More than 7,500 men were killed and wounded in the five-hour fight, and every home, church, barn, stable, and business in Perryville became makeshift field hospitals for wounded soldiers. Because Perryville was a small village of three hundred inhabitants, surrounding towns also became full of the sick and wounded.

Danville was no exception. More than 3,500 sick Union soldiers were left here in churches, businesses, homes, and public buildings. Because Danville had about 4,000 residents at the time, the population of town nearly doubled from all of the patients. As soldiers and civilians died from illnesses, Elizabeth Patterson, the wife of a Centre mathematics professor, wrote, “Not a day passed without one or more funerals.”

Buildings on Centre’s campus quickly became crammed with sick troops. This included Old Centre, what is now the school’s main administrative building. Many soldiers died in that structure, and the southern wing of Old Centre, located on the Walnut Street side of the building, was used for either post mortem examinations or as an embalming room.

As students left campus amid the chaos, President Lewis Green refused to be overwhelmed. He did not wring his hands and step aside. Instead, he immediately jumped into action, helping sick soldiers while working to keep the college open. Sadly, Green’s service to others ultimately cost him his life. While nursing the sick, he caught an illness—probably typhoid—and died. Upon his death, the Centre faculty minutes said, “Centre College has lost one of its oldest and warmest friends.”

Although this is a tragic story, we can learn from it. Green’s dedication to this community, his willingness to risk himself to help others, and his proactive leadership in times of turmoil—including taking responsibility and working at the front lines instead of directing others—are traits that we should all emulate.

While Green’s service to Centre is overshadowed by others, including President John C. Young, there are additional early graduates who also need to be remembered and commemorated. This includes Centre’s first woman graduate, who, like Green, also had an amazing career in higher education.

When Leila McKee began taking classes at Centre around 1880, she was not actually the first woman to study at the school. Forty years earlier, four of President John C. Young’s daughters completed their studies at Centre but did not receive degrees. That precedent changed with Lila McKee. The daughter of Centre’s vice president, McKee and Margaret Randolph, the child of a mathematics professor, took classes alongside of male students. In 1883, the board of trustees noted that, “The two ladies of the class, who have completed the course with great credit to themselves, are specially and strongly recommended for the degree . . . with the conviction that no harm will result to the institution.”

McKee certainly brought no harm to the college. Instead, as one who defied expectations and challenged convention, she stands as a great example for us today. Upon receiving her degree, McKee taught at the Caldwell Female Institute in Danville. She then became president of the Western College for Women in Ohio, where she spent most of her career. McKee became a national leader in education—according to the Centre library’s college encyclopedia, “McKee was not only a leader, but an effective creator of new standards during an important transitional period of higher education for women.”

By the 1890s, Centre finally began recognizing the first women who attended the school. In 1891, the college awarded degrees to John C. Young’s daughters, who had paved the way for Lila McKee and thousands of other women graduates. Then, a year later, Centre gave McKee an honorary doctorate, making her the first woman to be honored by the college in this way.

More, however, needs to be done to honor her legacy. Today, I challenge Centre’s administration, that if a new statue is considered or if a building like the former McReynolds Hall needs a new name, to honor Lila McKee. McKee Hall has a great ring to it, I think, and she is certainly deserving of this honor for being the first woman to graduate and for her lifelong dedication to higher education.

Like Green and Leila McKee, there is another lifelong educator—equally important to the college history—who broke barriers at Centre. Although the first black graduate here was Timothy Kusi, a native of Ghana who finished Centre in 1965, we also owe a debt of gratitude to Helen Fisher Frye. She was a local teacher who, as Dr. Beau Weston writes in his history of the college, “took summer school courses in 1963 as part of her collaboration with presidents Groves and Spragens to break the color barrier at Centre.”

Born in Danville in 1918, Helen Fisher Frye attended segregated schools and was once forced off a sidewalk in downtown Danville because of her race. Her mother, who only finished the sixth grade, taught her the value of an education. In addition to taking classes at Centre, she studied at Kentucky State University, Indiana University, Ohio State, and became the first African American woman to receive an MA in library science from the University of Kentucky. Sadly, she faced discrimination at every turn, yet she ultimately earned two master’s degrees.

Helen Frye taught in Danville for decades, first in segregated schools. She also became active in the Civil Rights movement. In one interview, she described her work organizing young African Americans who desegregated local lunch counters. “I organized the young people who made efforts at sitting in at public lunch counters here in Danville and I was teaching at Bate School then,” she said. “And I was called in and chastised for doing that, but I told them that [it] was part of my citizenship rights and my obligation as a Christian and I was not going to stop.”

Helen Frye also became president of the Danville chapter of the NAACP. As we sit in this beautiful performing arts center, it is also crucial that we recognize that she was the driving force behind integrating performances here at the college. Thanks to her efforts, the first integrated performance at Centre was “Porgy and Bess,” starring Danville native R. Todd Duncan. That performance—which happened because Frye “was not going to stop”—integrated all Centre performances from that point forward. This just scratches the surface of what Helen Fisher Frye accomplished—she also integrated public housing here, was the first president of the local human rights commission, and served on the Kentucky African American Heritage Commission until she passed away in 2014.

Just last week I heard a story that summarizes her spirit, drive, and determination. Several decades ago, the road in her neighborhood—which was an underserved African American neighborhood—was in terrible shape. So, Mrs. Frye went to a local official and told him that the road needed to be fixed. “Yes, Mrs. Frye,” the official said, “We’ll get on it. We’ll fix that road.” Mrs. Frye waited several weeks. The road still wasn’t fixed, so she went back to the official a second time and again asked him to repair the road. “Yes, yes, Mrs. Frye,” he repeated, “We’ll fix that road.” Again, Mrs. Frye waited another month. The road still wasn’t fixed, so she went back to the courthouse for a third time. When the official saw her coming, he said, “Well, Mrs. Frye, I guess that road of yours still isn’t fixed?” She looked him in the eye. “Well, you ought to know,” she said, “because I see you driving on that road every Sunday night coming back from the bootlegger.”

I’m assuming that Helen Frye got that road fixed. And, you now understand why she was one of the first African Americans to break the color barrier here at Centre.

Because of her legacy, Centre owes Helen Fisher Frye a debt of gratitude. We all owe her a debt of gratitude. Just as I have asked the administration to recognize Leila McKee, I also implore the college to appropriately recognize Helen Fisher Frye, this groundbreaking Centre student, local educator, and Civil Rights leader. As a first step—at minimum—we should permanently commemorate her legacy here in the Norton Center for her work integrating performances. While others may have sung in that performance of “Porgy and Bess” those decades ago, it is the voice of Helen Fisher Frye that we truly hear echoing throughout this building.

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Just as we can draw inspiration from individual Centre students like Lewis Warner Green, Lila McKee, and Helen Frye, we can also take lessons—and heed warnings—from entire graduating classes.

Throughout much of Centre’s earlier history, the class of 1855 was considered to be the most prestigious class to ever graduate from the college. The twenty-seven graduates included authors, newspaper editors, members of congress, judges, state legislators, and two governors.  William C. P. Breckinridge, Thomas T. Crittenden, John F. Philips, and Boyd Winchester served in Congress. Winchester also became U. S. consul general to Switzerland. Thomas Crittenden was governor of Missouri, where he worked to capture the outlaw Jesse James, and John Y. Brown became governor of Kentucky. With less than thirty graduates, the class of 1855 certainly made their mark on the nation’s history. Comprised of leaders and influencers, this class is exemplary of graduates’ dedication to public service.

While that statement is true—that the members of the class of 1855 were dedicated to public service—when you dig deeper, one finds that some of those graduates were also deeply flawed.

Because this is a family event, I will not delve into the political career of one member of that class, William C. P. Breckinridge. Let’s just say that Breckinridge’s congressional career was derailed thanks to, ahem, a political scandal. It’s a bit too NC-17 to discuss here, but, new graduates, trust me when I implore you to notemulate Representative Breckinridge. If you follow his footsteps, you’ll find yourself on TMZ rather than on C-SPAN.

Another member of the class of 1855 was Thomas Marshall Green, an attorney who lost his law license before the Civil War for dueling. When his legal career ended, Green became a newspaper editor. Surely that job was peaceful enough, right? No, it wasn’t.

In the early 1880s, Green wrote several articles accusing a Nicholasville politician of voter fraud. A few months later, on the day that the statue of U.S. Vice President, Confederate general, and Centre graduate John C. Breckinridge was dedicated in downtown Lexington, Green and the Nicholasville politician encountered one another on the street. After a sharp argument and some inventive profanity, the two men pulled pistols and began shooting. Green killed his opponent and one bystander was wounded. Thanks to claims of self-defense, authorities never prosecuted Green. He later earned some renown for writing the books The Spanish Conspiracyand Historic Families of Kentucky.

I only bring up the failings of William Breckinridge and the streetfighter Green because we need to examine—and learn from—past transgressions of those once affiliated with the college. When considering nineteenth century history, the largest transgression was, of course, slavery. While several faculty members and graduates were involved in the anti-slavery movement and were prominent emancipationists, others were slave owners.

In 1860, nearly twenty percent of Kentucky’s population was comprised of enslaved African Americans. Here in Boyle County, the overall population was roughly 9,300 people, which included 3,300 slaves. There were about 500 slave owners here, which meant that the typical Boyle County enslaver owned, on average, about six or seven people. Most of them worked on farms that grew hemp, wheat, corn, or cattle.

The Civil War, of course, shattered that institution. As a pro-Union and pro-slavery state, white Kentuckians wrestled with the social, cultural, and political implications of emancipation. In 1864, local residents were shocked when Union authorities began recruiting slaves into the Union army at Camp Nelson, located just fifteen miles away. Enslaved men who joined the military there were immediately given their freedom.

Some students and residents used violence to try to prevent local slaves from enlisting. On May 23, 1864, two hundred and fifty enslaved men gathered in Danville and marched for Camp Nelson and freedom. Thomas Butler, an agent of the U. S. Sanitary Commission, later noted with sarcasm that “some of the citizens and students of [Danville,] that educational and moral center assailed them with stones and the contents of revolvers.” The enslaved men, however, successfully made the trek to Camp Nelson and, therefore, emancipated themselves.

Although this is a dark episode, we can learn from this history. Instead of blocking progress, as those students tried to do, we need to embrace tolerance, fight injustice, and correct the wrongs that we see around us. Instead of picking up stones to impede others, let us raise one another up and make our communities better places.

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Although I have spent my time with you today talking about past history, I really find my own inspiration from more recent Centre graduates.

I think of my friends Colonel Kevin Trimble and Colonel Heath Holt. Trimble (my freshman dorm counselor) won the Bronze Star at Fallujah while leading a Marine infantry battalion. Holt, who just took command of his own battalion at Fort Campbell, won the Bronze Star and the “Rescue of the Year Award” for saving soldiers’ lives under fire as a medevac helicopter pilot in Iraq. I also think of my classmate Lieutenant Colonel Joy Dennis, who is now a major figure in Air Force intelligence and anti-terrorism at the Pentagon. Few recent graduates can surpass their service to our nation.

I also think about Centre graduates who serve our broader community. Josh Judah is a leader in the Louisville Metro Police Department. One of my former roommates Erik Olson is an ER doctor in Louisville. Another former roommate of mine serves this community—Dr. John Kinkade, who teaches English here.  Dr. Anna Hoover is a leader in health public policy at the University of Kentucky. Dr. John Barnes leads the flu division at the CDC. Therefore, when you get your flu shot, you have a Centre grad to thank.

The three Centre graduates who inspire me the most happen to be here today. My parents, who met at Centre while performing Romeo and Juliettogether—yes, they were the title characters and it’s dreadfully sweet—are lifelong educators and are wonderful parents. My wife, Jenny, who was in my class at Centre, spent fifteen years as a public defender here in town, providing criminal defense for the indigent, a noble and important calling. She inspires me every second of every day.

Also rest assured that you—the members of the class of 2019—have also inspired me. I’ve followed your achievements and philanthropy, including service at the Perryville battlefield and your work cleaning up abandoned African American cemeteries here, including the Shelby City Cemetery south of town and the Meadow Lane Cemetery just a few miles from campus. I’ve also been inspired by your academic work. For example, I recently attended a student-led presentation about the role of the enslaved on campus, which was part of a class taught by Dr. Tara Strauch. I was proud to see the number of students who attended—it was a full house—and I was amazed by your questions, comments, and your resolve to dig more deeply into this institution’s past.

I also marvel at your individual accomplishments. This includes respect for Liz Chavez, who spent a year researching parents’ interactions with child welfare services; Christina Stoler, who is off to Yale University’s nursing school; John Newton, who is going to teach in Japan; Kate Spencer, who won a Rotary Global Grant Scholarship to study in London; Emily Hagan, Molly Anderson, Kelsey Sutton and others who are becoming teachers; Wesley Jourette, who is going into a career in business; and Ryan Collins and Mitchell Collins who were just named Fulbright Scholars. There are too many of you to mention, of course, but please slow down. You’re making my class look bad by comparison.

It’s important for you to know, as you leave campus, that you should trust and rely upon your fellow graduates—including those from other classes. I have benefited tremendously from what’s only half-jokingly called the “Centre Mafia,” that unofficial network of alumni who aid and assist one another. Members of this network may help you with life lessons, career advice, or jobs—or your interaction may be as simple as a chance meeting and a meaningful conversation. One of my own mentors, David Morgan from the class of 1975, was Kentucky’s chief state historic preservation officer for many years. I have valued his advice and friendship for more than two decades. I encourage you to find Centre graduates to assist you along your own path. And, when you have the chance, do the same for others.

At the beginning of my remarks, I noted what I’ve learned from studying two centuries of Centre graduates. As you—the class of 2019—leave here today, I ask you to recognize their weaknesses yet emulate their strengths. Like Lila McKee and Helen Fisher Frye, defy expectations; flout convention; fight the good fight; and ignore gatekeepers who may stand in your way. Like Frye and Lewis Warner Green, be a leader, yet serve others. And, like countless other graduates, be an engaged citizen; never stop learning; have the courage to create your own path; and work hard to make your community a better place. From here on out, do something you love, care for one another, and continue to inspire others as you have inspired all of us today.

Most important, however, don’t duel—and remember how to fix a road.

Thank you.

by Stuart W. Sanders ’95
May 23, 2019

By |2019-05-23T15:30:05+00:00May 23rd, 2019|Academics, Campus, Commencement, News|