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President Joseph D. Eggleston

Address to the Graduating Class

Delivered by President J. D. Eggleston on July 2, 1919.

Members of the graduating class, members of the Corps, ladies and gentlemen: I regret, as you do, the enforced absence of ex-Governor Henry C. Stuart, caused by illness. He has always been a sincere friend of this institution, and he sends his best wishes for the Corps and the Institute.

We are honored in having with us the Governor of our great Commonwealth, who has more than once expressed his interest in our welfare and progress. To-day we feel that a special vote of thanks is due him because he has brought with him the gracious lady of the Governor's Mansion.

May I express, too, my very great pleasure, in which I know all of you join, that we have with us the distinguished President Emeritus of this Institute, Dr. J. M. McBryde, and the President Elect, Mr. Julian A. Burruss, who will, I predict, wear so worthily the honors that have been bestowed upon him. We have been personal friends for ten years and I do not have to be a prophet to foretell that he will prove the great leader of a great and growing institution. If I may paraphrase a remark of Mr. Harry M. Smith, Jr., I may say that we have on the platform an ex-president, a president, and a next president. We are glad, too, to have with us Dr. Conway, who was the first surgeon of this College, and whose abiding interest in the Institute brings him back to this community from time to time.

This Commencement has seemed to me a peculiarly beautiful, appropriate, and significant one: Beautiful because of the ideal weather conditions, the excellent programs, the good music, the unusual military display, the wonderful sentiment; appropriate because of the remarkable spirit harmonizing with the new conditions that have arisen; significant because of the large gathering of alumni, and because of the new era upon which this Institute now enters.

What constitutes this new era? How can we distinguish this year from the last, or from the last ten years, for example? The history of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute has always been one of struggle. No one knows this better than our beloved President Emeritus who himself created a new era for this Institute when he gave a new and broad definition of what this College should and could do, and gave to the people of this Commonwealth a new conception of its possibilities for usefulness. No one knows it better than the honored Rector of this Board, who for nearly thirty years, in season and out, with a steadiness of purpose unsurpassed, has encouraged with wise counsel those who have administered the affairs of this College, and has wrought so ably to relieve her of the fetters of poverty.

And, oh, what a pathetic struggle it has been to educate the citizens of this State to grasp this conception and to act upon it for their own good and for the good of their children! What heartbreaking years they have been—for what can be more heartbreaking than to be compelled to use up from sixty to seventy per cent. of one's energies and thoughts to overcome indifference and opposition and sheer inertia, in order to get from thirty to forty per cent. in actual constructive results! Why does humanity fight its own advancement!

To me nothing could be more pathetic than to have witnessed in this struggle for advancement—yea, for the very life of this Institute—the great loss that has come to the people of the Commonwealth because V. P. I. has been denied her opportunities for serving those she desires to help, and could so well help if only unfettered.

But we can thank God and take courage. Two years ago in a talk to this Corps, I said that it seems necessary, before an institution can come into its own, that it shall be baptized in blood shed by her sons in the public service, and that it seems necessary for such a background to be built before its real worth is recognized by the public. That background is here. The response of the alumni and Corps to the clear call of duty in the recent cataclysm of a world war is one upon which we may look with a just pride and a sincere admiration. Alma Mater, the State, the Nation—all are grateful because this response has constituted a record unsurpassed in college annals in this country. Who that has a spark of red blood in him can scan that record; who can read the College Annual just issued—the greatest annual ever issued at this institution—without being thrilled at the spirit of V. P. I., shown in so wonderful a manner!

Nor must we overlook those heroes at home who went throughout the State, day in and day out, tirelessly, faithfully, patriotically, organizing the farmers for greater food production, urging upon them and upon their wives and children, and upon all householders, the necessity for the elimination of waste and the conservation of food.

Can any institution in the State, or in the Nation, show a more wonderful and practical response?

A new era for V. P. I.—and this era made by the sons of V. P. I. Has the training of Alma Mater been in vain? Has the cost in money to the State for the upbuilding and maintenance of this institution been too great for the results obtained? The question answers itself. It is a question that will never again be asked. The verdict is already written, "Well and nobly done."

A new era in another way. For there must needs have come to us a great sorrow in this great joy of service. This institution is lifted to a higher plane of spirituality and of dignity than it has ever had, or ever could have had, before. It is a fine thing that the alumni have determined to do—to erect on this beautiful campus an Alumni Building of worthy proportions, and for a worthy purpose; it is a physical expression of a high spiritual purpose. But the greatest contribution that could have been made by the alumni and Corps is the record to which I have briefly alluded. That record is a spiritual contribution indeed—one that reaches down to the very sources of all that is beautiful and pure and noble in human life. This campus has attained a deeper sacredness for us because of the precious lives bravely given to the great cause of liberty. The men to whom the modest memorial was unveiled on yesterday are our Immortals.

I say to you, young men of the graduating class and members of the Corps, that the cause for which they gave up their lives was, and is, as holy a one as ever quickened a noble impulse in a human breast—the great cause of Liberty. But what was the liberty for which they fought and died? Did they give up their lives to destroy the cruel autocracy of might only to bring in the insane and hellish license of the anarchy we witness in Russia? Is Bolshevism an improvement on autocracy; is the cruel and senseless rule of the mob, spurred on by the basest passions, preferable to the calculated brutality of a kaiser? Is this the liberty for which they died? Did Patrick Henry, the great Virginian and great American, when in an immortal exclamation he said, "Give me liberty or give me death" —did he mean liberty under the constraint of just law, or did he merely mean a liberty which was to degenerate into a license for the basest evils of humanity to take rule over us?

I was particularly impressed with the two splendid addresses delivered by Bishop Collins Denny and Dr. James Southall Wilson on last Sunday, and with the equally fine addresses made on yesterday by Major Tams and Mr. George Bryan. There was a note in each of these addresses that constituted a thread of gold in all the beautiful weaving of their words; and that note was the duty and the beauty of unselfish service, and the accentuated call to duty for the soldiers of peace who are now to face the problems of reconstruction.

There was a danger, and an acute one, that this great country, bountifully blessed of God, should forget her sacred obligations to all mankind, and should sell her soul in the mere exploitation of raw materials and of humanity. This bloodiest of wars has to some extent startled us out of that dulness of vision which had come to us.

"For—you were falling, falling
   Even the best of you,
Falling from your high calling;
   And this, My test of you,
Has been for your souls' redemption
   From the little things of earth."

It is as true to-day as it was in the ancient days, that "where there is no vision the people perish; but he that keepeth the law, happy is he." What law is that which, if kept, will insure the happiness of him who keeps it? The law of love to mankind; the law of joy in service, and in the daily task, whatever it may be; the law of peace, and the desire of encouraging and maintaining it; the law of long-suffering under wrongs until those wrongs can be righted; the law of gentleness under provocation; the law of that goodness which is the salt that saves from corruption; the law of faith in all that is high and noble and pure and beautiful; the law of meekness that boasteth not itself; the law of temperance that causes one to check every tendency to unbridled license—this is the law which "if a man keep, happy is he."

Major Tams said finely on yesterday, quoting Lloyd-George, that we must in a spirit of co-operation make this great country a country fit for heroes to live in; and he said significantly that our opportunities in this difficult but joyous task were not ended by the war, but had just begun. Young men, this is true! Henry Thoreau has said that "the hero is commonly the simplest and obscurest of men." And by that he meant that it did not take a dramatic occasion or a war to create a hero. He meant that in the humble walks of life—in the everyday tasks—were the opportunities for heroism; and that many, many men and women are heroes known only to God. Was York of Tennessee a hero only after he went upon the battle fields of France? Ah, no. He was a hero back home before the clouds of war burst. The war was only the occasion that caused the flashlight to reveal him to his fellow men.

Was our own A. B. Moore a hero only when he went to the front and was struck down on the battle field? It is not necessary to ask that question of those of you who knew that quiet, modest, simple life that he led here on this campus as a student. With a gentle word for everyone; with a kindly smile on his manly face; with his conscientious devotion to duty in all things; with his steady influence for good; with his purity of heart; with his loathing of all that was low, and his love of all that was noble—he was a hero at home in the performance of the simple duties of everyday life. Like Joseph, he dreamed great dreams; and like Joseph, but unlike so many young men, he had Joseph's courage to make those dreams come true. We can all be heroes, if we will. It is not necessary that any of us should look back over a life vainly spent. See to it, young men, that "Joseph's courage in your hearts is born a twin with Joseph's dream."

Henry Thoreau has said another thing worth repeating, that "to enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it." It was this note that we heard from Denny and Wilson and Tams and Bryan. It is a note that is eternally true. Let it be one of your mottoes in the call for service that comes to every human being.

"The time is come when every burden-bearer
Must, in the fixing of his load, be sharer."

Many of you are at the parting of the ways. Which path will you take; which way will you go? A few days ago I saw the face of a young man, a student at this institution. There was in it anger and bitterness. It seemed to me that there was almost murder in it—and I thought of his mother. I have never met her, but I thought of her. She did not bear him for that. And I thought of his old father, broken in health and distressed at heart because of his anxiety concerning his boy. A few days later I saw this young men again, and there was on his face a look that made me think again of his mother. I thought that her prayers must have been answered, and that some divine influence in answer to those prayers must have touched his heart, for his face was lit with a softness and a gentleness that you could hardly have believed possible had you seen his other face that I saw. Which of the impulses back of these looks will control this young man in life; which way will he go? Which way will each of us go?

Oh, when I think of those dear boys who gave their lives for you and for me, I pray God that all of us may choose the right way. The blood of those young men, your comrades, cries out to every member of this Corps to stand for unselfish service; for loyalty to all that is worthy; for that liberty which regards duty first, and rights afterwards; which says to you,

———— From failing hands we throw
The torch. Be yours to lift it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep."

Will you give America's answer, as becomes America's dutiful sons? Will you not say to them:

"The fight that ye so bravely led
We've taken up! And we will keep
True faith with you who lie asleep.
So let your rest be sweet and deep.
Fear not that ye have died for naught,
The torch ye threw to us we caught!
Ten million hands will hold it high,
And Freedom's light shall never die!
We've learned the lesson that you taught."


From the Bulletin of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute -- The State Agricultural and Mechanical College, Commencement Number, Vol. 12, No. 4, August, 1919, pp. 30-35.

Joseph D. Eggleston was the seventh president of Virginia Polytechnic Institute.