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Office of the President
4200 54th Avenue South
St. Petersburg, FL 33711
local: (727) 864-8211
toll-free: (800) 456-9009
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Dr. Donald R. Eastman III
May 16, 2009, 5:00 p.m.
"Florida, O Florida"
There is no place on earth like Florida.
Florida emerged from the sea 125,000 years ago, "when the waters of the Caribbean, drained by glaciers to the north, gradually drew back to reveal a vast seabed, table flat beneath its scruff of vegetation. Much of the state is barely above sea level - one reason it's so vulnerable to hurricanes - and shrinking steadily. At the height of the last ice age, it was more than twice its current size. As one biologist put it, 'Florida was under water not too long ago and it will be again soon'" (New Yorker, April 20, 2009, p. 80).
The Everglades, perhaps Florida's most unique and symbolic environmental feature, is only 5,000 years old. There are cities in the Middle East older than that. Our city, St. Petersburg, is barely a hundred years old, and our College turned fifty only last year. Those of you who graduate tomorrow will be only the 46th class of Florida Presbyterian/Eckerd College to do so. In this state, we are all virtual newcomers.
In Florida, the hymn we just sang together, "Morning Has Broken," has more resonance than in any other place I know: "Morning has broken, like the first morning, . . . Like the first dewfall, on the first grass." In Florida, on most mornings - with the air warm and sweet, the palm trees ruffling in the breeze, against the blue sky, the seabirds soaring overhead, the water sparkling in the sun, boats sailing softly by - in Florida we seem to experience 'the first dewfall, on the first grass,' again and again. We live in Dylan Thomas's magical world of "Fern Hill," where "the sun is born over and over . . . "
"And then to awake," says the narrator, remembering his mornings as a child at the Fern Hill farm,
. . . and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On the fields of praise.
Florida is where America goes to be new, to be born over and over, where dreams are the most substantial product we manufacture. It is no coincidence that Ponce de Leon came here in 1513 to find the Fountain of Youth, or that half of Ohio comes here every winter for the same purpose. There is no place, on earth, like Florida.
Many of you, Class of 2009, came to Florida and to Eckerd College propelled by the myths and the dream of the Sunshine State, came at least partly to smell the sweet air, wade through the soft sands and warm waters, savor the ocean breezes, pick the grapefruit right off the trees and watch the waving palm trees from hammocks, with and without companions. The dream of Florida comes, as Wallace Stevens puts it in "O Florida, Venereal Soil":
Swiftly in the nights,
In the porches of Key West,
Behind the bougainvilleas,
After the guitar is asleep
Lasciviously as the wind,
. . . tormenting,
When you might sit,
A scholar of darkness,
Sequestered over the sea . . . .
The dream of Florida, as you know well, is powerful, majestic, and real. But by now you know more. By now you know, as St. Paul said, that we see through a glass darkly.
By now you know that Ponce de Leon was killed with a poison arrow by the natives who lived in the river of grass we call the Everglades. By now you know that Florida has been environmentally and economically and politically ravaged again and again. By now you know what we have done to the Seminoles, to the Everglades, to the sea turtle, to the manatee, to native habitats of sea birds, to the shell fish, to the marshes, to the groundwater. By now you know, as you watched hurricanes blow by our campus in every direction, emblems of the caprice of luck and fate, you know that the scientist is right when he says, "Florida was under water not too long ago and it will be again soon." Eckerd College students know this, in their very marrow.
You understand in your heart of hearts the transience of human affairs, on a frail peninsula inches above an awesome but unpredictable ocean. You remember, as I do, your beautiful classmate, Laura Ann Gorman, whom we mourned at this Chapel three years ago. Your college, and your experience here, taught you, just as we said we would at the Ceremony of Lights nearly four years ago, or in your LLV class, something about what is permanent and what is merely passing; about what is eternal, and what only seems so.
You know that the real measure of learning, the real object of education, is not grades, or awards, fine as those are, not success or even diplomas, excellent as those accomplishments surely are. You know that the true garland of learning, the real object of education is to equip yourself for service to others. You have experienced the great questions of life in "Western Heritage," you have experienced the transformative power of service in "Quest for Meaning," you have seen the life of the spirit at work in Midtown, in Tampa Bay, in Immokalee, in New Mexico, in Honduras, in the villages of Malawi and the townships of South Africa, in Ukraine, in India and South Korea. You have seen the service to others you and your classmates have provided give hope and succor to the poor and homeless and needy. And you have seen your own life and education enriched and extended far beyond the classroom.
And now you, God bless you, go out to Teach for America, work for America, go to graduate school, save the environment, save the blue whale, save the world: Service.
I will see you again. I will see you at alumni receptions, all over the world, and your nametags will say, Education, Environment, Health, Peace. They will say DOE, HHS, NIH, NOAA, FEMA, Fish and Wildlife Commission, United States Coast Guard (USCG), World Health Organization, United Nations. They will say doctor, lawyer, marine biologist, activist, volunteer: They will say, again and again, in many different ways, Service.
I warned you about this, you residential students, I warned you about this on a hot August night nearly four years ago: I warned you that you would learn here, in Florida, this luminous garden so redolent of dreams of paradise, I told you that if you persevered you would learn the difference between things that are transient, and things which are not.
Now that you know the difference, your work here is done. It is time for you to go away, to take the lessons of service and the continuing life of the spirit into the world. Eckerd College changes lives, I told you then, and, Eckerd College graduates, I tell you now, "change the world."
The key, of course, is not that you were transformed by Eckerd College; but that this College provided you with the environment, the encouragement, the support and the tools for you to transform yourself. Your future is, as it always was, in your own hands - and we are confident those hands will help build a better world.
Tomorrow you join the ranks of some 14,000 Eckerd College alumni whose highest goal is to make the world a better place to live.
May you remember your time at this College as the best of days, as a time when you learned how to turn dreams into action, as preparation for a life of service. A life that feels every day, that, morning has broken. Like the first morning. Like the first dewfall. On the first grass.