The Dedication of The Wireman Chapel

Friday, May 18, 2007, 4:15 PM

"We were going to save the world. I mean, we were going to save it by noon tomorrow, and there was just no turning back.
Billy O. Wireman

This Billy O. Wireman quotation, printed in the program for this dedication, captures the perfect synergy between Billy's indefatigable personality and the hopeful, upstart, under-funded but undaunted school, Florida Presbyterian College, he loved and served and saved. A more rational, less stubborn, more realistic, less kinetic leader would have failed where Billy charmed, cajoled, insisted and succeeded.

"Do something!" he would say; "Do anything!" "Salute it, paint it, raise it, kick it . . . whatever . . . make something happen!"

One of Billy's vice presidents at Queens College described Billy as always in the front of the speedboat, going as fast as possible, hellbent-for-leather, urging greater and greater speeds, shouting "damn the torpedoes!" and ignoring the huge disorganized wake and stirred up water he left behind for others to worry about. Human dynamos are like that.

Billy had higher aspirations for everything he touched. Higher, better, faster, quicker; sooner, sooner, sooner, sooner. Everything he touched.

Rich Miller, the superb basketball star who graduated in Florida Presbyterian's first class of 1964, tells a great story illustrating Billy's high ambitions and huge disappointments at even temporary failure:

During the first year, I learned that he had been an assistant coach under the legendary basketball coach at the University of Kentucky, Adolph Rupp. So, a few of us went to him and asked him to help us start a basketball team. He met us on the outdoor court of the Old Campus, watched us play for a few minutes and reluctantly agreed to schedule some games.

At halftime of a game in our second year, we were substantially behind, and he was pacing the locker room head down and silent. But you could tell he was mad. When he was mad, he seldom said much. So, we knew. And we knew we stunk up the place in the first half and deserved a lecture. Silently, and dreadfully, we waited. Finally, just before we were to leave the locker room for the second half, he looked up at us and said, "If Naismith had known it would be played like this, he never would have invented it!"

But we can be sure that the natural exuberance that characterized his daily approach to saving the world by noon soon returned.

His constant buoyancy, his ability to keep on being positive in a world of challenge, was what Condorcet celebrated in Benjamin Franklin when he said in his eulogy for him, "He pardoned the present for the sake of the future."

On another occasion, Billy watched the basketball team lose rather badly. Afterward, he told them, "You win some; you lose some, and some are rained out. Too bad it didn't rain today."

When I called him at Queens College to ask him about taking on the presidency of Eckerd College, he encouraged me to do it, saying, "I know all about you ? and you're just the man for the job!" Actually, I don't believe he knew anything about me, except perhaps that I had the good sense to ask him his opinion! When I mentioned to him ? remember, this is over the telephone ? that my wife had attended Queens, he said, "I knew there was something special about you!"

Think about that. I have thought about it a lot, not only because it makes me smile every time I think about it, but because in that burst of Wireman humor and personality and predisposition to find good wherever he turned, I can see faith. Not the pious, abstract, other-worldly faith that focuses on transcendence and the next world, but the kind of faith that says, "Against the odds, we can do this;" faith that says, "this is worth devoting our hearts and our lives to; this is going to work, somehow, because it is too important, too valuable not to work." It is the kind of faith that believes we can save the world by noon tomorrow.

It was that kind of faith that made Wireman and Florida Presbyterian College and Eckerd College mutually indispensable; that kind of faith that made believable the crusade to turn a sandy strip of palmetto and fire ants and fiddler crabs into one of America's great liberal arts colleges.

Billy Wireman wasn't the only one who had that kind of faith, but he has come to represent all of those who did, and to be a symbol of cheerful, determined labor in this special, beautiful, fragile vineyard.

"I sing because I'm happy," goes the old spiritual, "I sing because I'm free/His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he's watching me."

In his cheerful faithfulness, in his determination to find and to see God's goodness and purpose in the life of the mind, Billy Wireman was a faithful follower of John Calvin, and of John Knox, of the Presbyterian tradition of founding schools as often as, and often right beside, churches: He shared the quintessential conviction of the Reformed tradition that the church and school were to honor in word and deed three communities: Jerusalem, with its example of a redemptive faith based on love; Athens, with its love of reason and the pursuit of truth; and the "America covenanted commonwealth, a free society in which women as well as men would be equipped to serve the common good" (I am indebted for this construction to a sermon by Wallace M. Alston, Jr., given at the Decatur Presbyterian Church). Love; reason; freedom. It is a powerful combination, and Billy's affection for it was affecting, inspiring, unforgettable.

We gladly dedicate this Chapel, this locus and symbol of the life of the spirit in the center of the life of the mind, in the center of the College he served as a leader in his youth and loved for the rest of his life, to Billy O. Wireman, in the sure and certain hope that his faith and his enthusiastic example will inspire and sustain all who worship and learn in this place.

"Do not be conformed to this world," says St. Paul, in Romans 12;
"But be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God? What is good and acceptable and perfect."


Donald R. Eastman III