Furman President Gives Macon Address
May 11, 2004

Sonal Patel
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Macon-- Dr. David E. Shi, president of Furman University, addressed nearly 500 graduates at the Macon commencement for the College of Liberal Arts, Eugene W. Stetson School of Business and Economics, School of Engineering, Tift College of Education and College of Continuing and Professional Studies, held May 9.
 
Shi has served as president of Furman University since 1994. He is widely recognized for his leadership abilities as a college president and has been awarded a Presidential Leadership Award grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as well as a Presidential Leadership grant form the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. He has written several books, two of which were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
 
His address to the graduates follows:
 
President Godsey, distinguished guests, members of the faculty, parents, grandparents, friends, and graduates: It is wonderful to be part of this glorious ceremony. I am enormously honored to be your speaker and even more proud to be receiving a Mercer degree today.
 
Several unique circumstances make my being here especially fulfilling. This is, of course, Mother's Day, and my mother is with us today. In addition, my father grew up in Macon, attended Lanier High School, and graduated from Mercer in 1938. Until his death a few weeks ago, he always expressed great affection for this college, and I am privileged to represent him here today. Of course, there is some risk to having outsiders speak at graduations. I am reminded of the politician several years ago who said how much she enjoyed being the Commencement speaker at Wellesley only to realize that she was at Wesleyan.
 
I'll never forget my own college graduation-in the air, you could feel the sense of accomplishment, excitement, and the most chilling feeling of all -- the absolute fear that the graduation speaker would never stop. Some of you may soon be having similar fears. As folks at Furman emphasize, you may not be a great deal wiser after one of my speeches, but you will be a great deal older. In fact, my reputation for long-windedness has taken on certain mythic proportions. A few weeks ago, I visited the men's room in the administration building at Furman and saw that someone had taken the time and effort to etch into the push plate of the blow dryer: "Press here for a word from our president!"
 
As I scan this attractive audience, I see many beaming mothers and fathers. The evident ecstasy of your outlook betrays more than parental pride; it also suggests your delight in realizing there are no more tuition payments to Mercer University. Free at last! I also see arrayed before me a diverse group of graduates who are bright but not infallible, talented but not yet perfect, uncannily perceptive in some ways, but blank as a rock in others.
 
A few of you are graduating with honors, some of you are graduating with mercy. I will not name names. The rest of you are like the children at Lake Wobegon-all above average. This reminds me of the story about a prospective applicant who visited Furman from Charleston, South Carolina several years ago. During an interview with the Dean of Admissions, he spoke freely and enthusiastically about his various high school activities and professed his deeply felt desire to attend Furman. But he studiously avoided discussing his high school academic standing. Finally, in an effort to draw him out, the Dean asked if he stood in the upper half of his high school class. The young man paused, sat upright, and then replied with great Charlestonian dignity: "Sir, I am one of those who make the upper half possible."
 
Whether you are in the upper or lower half, I share your joy in what this day represents, and I cherish your potential, for you are our future, our hope, our promise. And if you still have any doubts about your abilities or your worthiness, just ask your mothers. Some of you graduates undoubtedly wish you could stay in the Mercer Bubble a while longer because you know there are many pleasurable activities that will end today as you enter the world of work and adulthood.
 
Graduation means the end of delicious dining hall meals, relentless campus construction, plentiful parking spaces, and free trolley rides into Macon. No more wearing pajamas all day; no more baseball caps hiding bad hair. You'll trade your flip-flops for dress shoes, your backpacks for briefcases, your Playstations for Palm Pilots.
 
But you are not only going to have give things up and leave things behind; you are also going to begin doing some exciting new things as you start the next chapter in your life story. One of the stranger facts of life is that that we spend most of our lives negotiating transitions. Starting over. Beginning again. We all have to do it; we all want to do it.
 
The story is told of Adam and Eve that when they were expelled from the garden and headed east of Eden, Adam turned to Eve and said, "My dear, we are living in an age of transition." And so they were; and so are you. As you think about this moment of transition, please consider two questions: What do you take with you? What do you leave behind? As you are thinking about those questions, I want to tell you a story, a modern-day parable that ends with an unexpected twist. So pay attention-this is your final assignment.
 
The setting was serene: an open-air chapel built of stone and wood, nestled in a shaded vale in the mountains of western North Carolina. The minister centered the sermon on a captivating story about the virtuoso violinist, Itzhak Perlman. In 1995, the minister explained, Perlman performed at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City's Lincoln Center.
 
Stricken with polio as a child, Perlman walks only with the aid of leg braces and crutches. "To see him walk across the stage one step at a time, painfully and slowly," the minister explained, "is an awesome sight." Once seated on the stage at Avery Fisher Hall, Perlman very deliberately put his crutches on the floor, unlocked the clasps on his leg braces, settled into his chair, picked up his violin, tucked it under his chin, and nodded to the conductor that he was ready to begin.
 
The audience listened intently as Perlman displayed his extraordinary prowess. Yet only a few minutes into his performance, there was a loud POP! One of the violin strings had broken. The orchestra immediately stopped playing, as did Perlman. A murmur rippled through the audience as people realized what had happened. What would he do? Would someone intervene? Or would he have to laboriously reattach his braces, grab his crutches, and hobble off stage to find a new string or another violin?
 
Before people had time to assess such options, Perlman paused, closed his eyes in reflection, and after a minute or so alerted the conductor that he was ready to begin again-with only three strings. Perlman, the minister explained, then played the entire symphony with unparalleled concentration and force, transcribing the notes as he played to accommodate the lost string. The scene was riveting, the sound enchanting. When Perlman finished, the audience sat awestruck. Then they rose and cheered wildly. They had witnessed a miracle.
 
Perlman patiently acknowledged the adulation of his fans. He wiped the sweat from this brow, raised his bow to quiet the audience, and said, "You know, sometimes you must make music with what you have left." What a profound message that is. Indeed, I thought as the minister continued his remarks, what a compelling example of fortitude and resilience for all of us to mimic. Perlman, after all, had prepared his whole life to make beautiful music on a violin of four strings.
 
Then, all of a sudden, in the middle of a concert, he found himself with only three strings. Rather than quitting, however, he chose to use three strings to make music more beautiful, more sacred, more memorable, than any he had made before. Perhaps it is our task in this frenetic, fast-changing, bewildering world of unexpected transitions to make music, at first with all that we have, and then, when that is no longer possible, to make music with what we have left.
 
As Perlman demonstrated, music, like faith, does not simply add something beautiful to our lives; it excites something magical and powerful within us. As I drove home from the chapel that day, I could not stop thinking about inspiring story and its powerful message. Eager to learn more about Perlman's miraculous performance, I did some research.
 
Curiously, I discovered, the New York newspapers that reviewed the Perlman concert in 1995 made no mention of a string breaking. Surely, I thought, the music critics would have highlighted such an unusual occurrence. Something seemed fishy to me. I finally decided to call Perlman's assistant, and she confirmed my suspicions: the violinist has never performed with only three strings.
 
How deflating it was to learn that someone had fabricated the story-and that dozens of ministers and rabbis around the country have innocently used the story in their sermons. The parable of the broken violin string is indeed an enchanting moral fable. But should moral lessons be built around a lie, however plausible?
 
Like a myth, the Perlman story stretches truth in order to inspire and console: it teaches valuable lessons by seizing our interest and arousing our empathy. Yet those same lessons could have been conveyed by the simple and true story of Perlman himself, the disabled virtuoso, who inspires our own determination to persevere. That a man with polio can play the violin with such unequaled power and brio is sufficient reason to capture our attention and provoke reflection about our own daily challenges.
 
Perlman's tenacious creativity in the face of adversity provides a compelling example for us to make music with the tools we are given and to surmount the challenges we confront. The moral of the story about the broken string thus transcends its veracity. And what does it have to do with you? As you begin to navigate this transition in your lives, take solace in the fact that Mercer has helped hone your ability to adapt to the unexpected, the unwanted, and the unexplainable. Such wisdom, in other words, endows us with a sense of confidence and commitment in the absence of stability, just as faith gives us confidence and courage in the absence of certainty.
 
You overly active,overly-achieving graduates are going to do great things, but you're also going to encounter accidents, setbacks, and failures. How you respond will define your character and shape the quality of your life. My wish for you is that you will summon up the spiritual fellowship, mental toughness, and creative resilience that Mercer has helped nurture in you. For as the old gospel song assures us, "God did not bring you this far, just to leave you."
 
Regardless of our defects or weaknesses or limitations, God expects us to persevere: to do our best and trust God for the rest. To make music at first with all that we have and then when that is no longer possible . . . to make music with what we have left. So having told my story, let me conclude by reverting to the questions I posed earlier: what do you leave behind? Each of you has a different set of answers. But I suspect that all of you will leave a legacy of laughter, resilience, hope, and love-love for each other and for this special community of learning.
 
What do you take with you? Along with your CDs, clothes, and student loans, I hope you will take with you a sturdy compass to help navigate an increasingly unstable world. We live in extraordinary times. Violence and insecurity shape our days. We all need a mental and spiritual gyroscope to maintain our balance. As the months and years pass, often without your even realizing it, the Mercer spirit will travel with you in your transitions. It will help you care more than others might think is wise. It will help you to dream more than others think is practical, and to expect more than others think possible.
 
Whether you know it or not, Mercer is going to be a part of you forever. Mercer has helped set you free, but it by no means has cast you adrift. For the rest of your lives, this college will serve as elder, as friend, as landmark and touchstone, as point of origin and return, as haven and sanctuary, anchor and mooring. And yes, at times Mercer will even keep you from being lonely by providing a steady stream of mail and phone calls from your class agents. So, my friends, hang on to each other this afternoon. Hang on to your families and classmates and professors. And then let the music of your new lives begin-and never let it stop. God bless you!
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