The following is abridged from a speech delivered at a Hillsdale College seminar in Rancho Mirage, California, on February 18, 2003.
Among the many reasons I love Hillsdale is that I met my wife of the last 36 years here. Many in our family have followed us, including all three of our daughters, two of their husbands, my youngest brother and his wife—we have our own smallish alumni club. And this grandpa is expecting the number to continue to grow.
Becoming the successor to Don Mossey, the College’s longest serving chairman, is an intimidating thing to do. Don has served all of us very well and we owe him much. I, like Don, was also—once upon a time—a student here. And I think that’s an important fact. It means I have had a longstanding connection to this place—and not only a connection, but also a genuine love of it. I have seen its progress, its trials, its successes, its many sides, the carrying out of its central ideas.
Hillsdale is an intimate community. This year’s graduates will return for Homecoming next year and in the years to come and will find friends here. Your professors know you by name. They know your habits, your interests, your strengths and weaknesses. I well remember late night bridge games Jan and I had at a professor’s home who had become a friend. These things have always happened here and they will continue for as long as this school stands.
But there is more that unites Hillsdale’s alumni than the seal on our diplomas. This college has always stood for freedom, for equality of opportunity, for piety and decency, and for academic achievement. These principles have helped to teach us the lessons of independence, of duty to God, country and family, and have prepared us to enter the world in a variety of professions.
The College has always proclaimed its allegiance to these principles. You are undoubtedly aware of our great support for the Union army during the Civil War. Over 400 of our male students fought on the side of the Union. Aside from the military schools, no other school came close to sending as many of its own to war. The history of the College is one of public action on behalf of such principles.
It is likely that many of the students here today came to Hillsdale because a parent or grandparent has had some connection with the school’s public declaration of these principles through Imprimis. I arrived here because my parents encountered a similar message through a chance meeting with the school’s vice president.
I didn’t even know about Hillsdale until late in my senior year of high school. I had planned to follow my father to Northwestern. But over a dinner with the College’s then-Vice President Larry Taylor and some students, my parents became enthusiastic about Hillsdale. And their enthusiasm proved contagious. I quickly changed my plans and decided to come here sight unseen. Beyond marrying my wife, it has been my best decision.
My years here were filled with an excitement for learning and for life. I grew in my appreciation of the free market and of entrepreneurship. I was quite active as the president of my fraternity, Men’s Council and the Leadership Workshop, and as vice president of Omicron Delta Kappa, the Senior Class, Young Americans for Freedom, the Student Union Board and Inter-Fraternity Council. And of course I met Jan.
My maternal grandfather had been a college professor and I thought that would be a fine life for me as well. I had hoped to attend NYU, where von Mises still taught, earn a doctorate and return to Hillsdale as a professor. But a week before I graduated, President Phillips and Vice President Taylor asked me to consider working for the college. I agreed to stay for two years, working in development, before continuing my advanced degree track. And then I ended up returning to Wisconsin, instead of going to NYU, because of my father’s health. I began working with him, and eventually bought and ran his grocery business for 28 years.
When I was asked to join the Board of Trustees, I eagerly accepted another opportunity to continue giving back to the College through a direct involvement in its operation. When later I was asked to head up the search committee for our current president, I knew what our ideal candidate would have to believe—it’s been spelled out here for nearly 160 years.
Those who came to this convocation today were handed a copy of a speech by a former College president, Edmund Fairfield, delivered on July 4, 1853. That speech gives a wonderful account of the College’s founding, mission and history. I would like to read you a quote from it:
Here, if nowhere else, the mind is the measure of the man. Long genealogies and endless pedigrees are a sorry offset for short memories and shallow brains. Here is valued not so much the crown as the head that wears it. Lace, and ribbons, and purple and fine linens, are a poor compensation for a deficient cranium. Nor does a full purse make amends for an empty head. Gold is not legal tender for College honors. A soft hand is no passport for a soft head. The sun-burnt farmer’s boy, with his inheritance of poverty, hardships and toil, stands side by side with the fair-browed youth who is heir of millions, and who eats the bread of another’s sweat; only that like Saul among his fellows, he is not unfrequently higher than any of the sons of wealth and luxury, from his shoulders and upward.
Hillsdale College takes seriously the liberal arts. Study is undertaken for its own rewards, and in the process we come to see the things in life that are important, and to recognize the things that are eternal. No matter the material success that any of us may acquire, our time here instructs us that it is the intellectual pursuits that help to make a full and complete life. This grocer’s son has certainly found the truth of this.
It was late one night during the winter of my senior year—I can picture it like it happened yesterday—that I walked to the front campus from my apartment on Manning Street. It was snowing steadily and the night was quiet, and I began to think about all I had learned here about the world, myself and others. I came to a stop in front of Central Hall and spent a long while pondering all I had gained here, and the debt I owe to this place. It was one of the most emotional moments of my life.
I am overwhelmed to be able now to serve this school in a new capacity, and I pledge to you to do all I can to ensure that this great school continues to produce proud, loyal alumni who are willing to make a difference in this world, and who are well equipped to do so.