The Colgate Scene
November 2001

'After the final no there comes a yes'
 

I have spoken to this community before about the nation's, the world's, tragedy, reading on a gloriously sunlit September 11 from Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom," his tribute to an assassinated Lincoln, to whom he sends a sprig of lilac, and reading the next day at the candlelight vigil from another great American poet, Wallace Stevens, in a poem that includes the lines, "After the final no there comes a yes, and on that yes the future world depends." I am, like many of you, a person who goes first to language for consolation and understanding -- "In a dark time, the eye begins to see." And I have, of course, gone to the voices I know best -- those poets and prose writers whose words cannot subtract from a sense of the world's understanding.

Over the last ten days have come other words, most dramatically what technology has brought us for the first time in human history: the words of people using cell phones to describe what neither they nor technology has the power to change, an impending death before which most sent astonishingly composed messages of love and consolation, of generosity -- I love you, live your life to the fullest and know what you do will be all right with me.

On campus we worked to meet and talk with one another, to send words, messages, as we did last week to our alumni community. And from that community I have received reams of responses -- most hellos and thank-yous, many descriptions of their circumstances. They have offered to help, to come to talk to students, to plan a scholarship for a lost neighbor's child, to take in students for the Thanksgiving holiday.

I read to you from that community now, asking you to hear those voices -- from a wide array of ages, and points of views. From people who want to write home, to this home, about themselves.

They include people in complicated political places, like Tom Dine '62, head of Radio Free Europe, who writes as he departs for Prague from Washington of his need to keep his worldwide 2,200 employees well informed; they include Captain Bob Shore '69, presently chief pilot in New York for American Airlines, who took time out to tell of his pride in Colgate. And Ed McGuinn '73, who writes: "I lost a brother, three life-long friends, along with 31 people that had worked with or for me during my 20 years on Wall Street. I was very comforted by the response of the students and faculty to this national crisis."

They include Haleh Tavakol Wolfe '88, who writes: "As an Iranian-American alumna, I urge you to talk to the students about backlash against Muslims, Arabs, and people who `appear' Middle Eastern. My sister and I both attended Colgate, as did my husband. Colgate was a refuge for me while my parents were stuck in Iran (and being bombed by Iraq)." They include Jack Butterworth '63's memories of how he and his fraternity brothers "stood on the sidewalk for hours to see for ourselves, to participate" in John F. Kennedy's funeral 38 years ago; they include Oliver Caspers '93's, words to us, sent from Germany where he writes of a nationwide mourning and moment of silence, saying, "I'm beginning to have hope in the human race. If we deal with this delicate situation tenderly and with regard for the future and the future of our children . . ." They include Buzz Buse '64, retired colonel, who writes of his service in Vietnam and of returning to campus 35 years later for the wonderful experience of discussing varying opinions on that war with alumni, and of his hope for students now.

They include Rob Cleveland '95, who writes from New York. I can only read a portion of his most moving letter, which begins, "Dear President Pinchin, since I graduated from Colgate six years ago, I have been working in my family business, H.O. Penn. We are a Caterpillar dealer covering Connecticut and Southern New York that supports the construction and power generation industries. Normally we are involved in the creation of things like roads, buildings and homes. That all changed September 11, 2001 when we were thrust into the recovery effort in lower Manhattan.

"Like everyone else, I had seen the images of the destruction on TV and I felt confident that I could handle it in person. It may be a cliché now, but the images on TV are nothing compared to the sight from Ground Zero. What you see on TV is a G-rated preview to an X-rated horror show. The size and magnitude of the destruction, and the feelings one has upon seeing it are impossible to completely convey . . . I will never forget the burning sensation in my eyes from the smoke that still rises today.

"When I first arrived at Ground Zero I was struck at how everything, for blocks and blocks, was covered in concrete dust. People had used their fingers to write in that dust the names of loved ones missing, of firefighters lost, and of promises never to forget. These images are a scar etched into my memory and soul for the rest of my life.

"There is something else forever etched into my memory: the incredible unity and patriotism I have seen. The dedication of people working beyond exhaustion is unbelievable. Right behind these people are waves of volunteers, helping the workers with a warm sandwich or a homemade cup of soup. My heart swells with pride at these sights.

"The old image of New York is a thing of the past. The cars drive slower and their infamous horns have fallen silent. People all over the city are asking each other what they can do to help. The emails and phone calls from my Colgate classmates have been incredible in their number and reassuring to say the least. Just the other day, a Middle Eastern man stopped me in the street. He asked me if I was working on the World Trade Center. I told him I was. As he shook my hand with both of his, a lump began to grow in his throat. `Thank You' was all he could manage to say. It was all I needed to hear.

"I was born here, grew up nearby and now live here. Never until now though could I say with absolute certitude, that this is the greatest city in the world. We are one now. We have a tremendous task ahead, but there is no doubt in my mind that we will triumph."

The voices continue to come forward -- even as we know Nestor Cintron '96's, Scott Coleman '94's, Edward Porter Felt '81's, Aaron Jacobs '96, David Retik '90's, Todd Pelino '89's will not, even as Sharon Balkcom '80 remains missing. Even as we know of Brian Lemek '03's sister, and Bill Edwards '52 son and Joe Burkett '03 and Ana Calle '05's cousin, as we mourn Christina Cruikshank '91's father and Ed McGuinn '73's brother, as we mourn with Sandra Valdez Felt '81, Megan Pezzutti Pelino '89, Susan Zalesne Retik '90 and Julia Wilcox Rathkey '84 -- all of whom lost husbands.

There will be a time for studied reflection, for debate and particularly for a deep acquaintance with world history and ranging perspectives -- all of which is the duty and responsibility of the university in a serious democracy. It is what we do best. Now is the time for memory, for a sense of the heroism we see in these letters, for the "terrible beauty" that Yeats saw born in Ireland's crisis in 1916, taking normal men and women out of their ordinary roles. That we see now. Now is the time that we hold tight to our students, including those like Gifford Foley '03, who is a corporal in the USMC reserves. And time when we think of both our own Colgate community, here and in the world at large and, as "America the Beautiful" reminds us, of the brotherhood of man.


Remarks made at the Family Weekend Memorial Service
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