Duke University Alumni Magazine

Making and taking Memories

by Nannerl O. Keohane
President, Duke University
Baccalaureate Address

    would like the ask the graduates to think for a moment about what Duke Chapel has meant to you, and to generations of people who care about Duke.

         Few if any other major universities are so clearly built around a religious structure. This was not accidental. James Buchanan Duke--whose statue, with his omnipresent cigar in hand, has welcomed you and provided a great space for hanging out, just outside this chapel, since your earliest days at Duke--was quite deliberate in wanting a great towering church that would compel attention and cause all who look upon it to reflect on grander things.

         Since then, a great many people have come to look upon his chapel, and although we cannot guarantee that they have all been led to reflect upon grander things, they have surely been moved, awed, amazed by what they found. Modeled upon the great cathedrals of England, Duke Chapel boasts not only intricate stonework, beautiful proportions, a mystical interplay of light and shadow, magnificent instruments for making music, but also one of the most harmonious sets of traditional stained glass still remaining in the world. Stained glass does not stand up well to battles or bombs; thus, most of the great cathedrals of Europe, after incessant centuries of war, have poor modern substitute glass in many windows, like a mouth whose smile is ruined by missing or artificial teeth. But here, amid the red clay soils and pine trees of piedmont North Carolina, is one of the most impressive and fully intact Gothic cathedrals in the world.

         It is not surprising, then, that this chapel is the durable symbol not only of our university but of the city, the region, sometimes even the state of North Carolina, on postcards, calendars, tschotckes of all kind.

         We talk a lot these days about Duke becoming more international while we remain faithful to our regional location and traditions. Perhaps nothing fits this dual role so well as this chapel, bringing visitors to our city from all over the world. Most of the stone was quarried very nearby in a special Duke quarry in Hillsborough--but it was cut by master stone workers who learned their craft in Europe. The figures on the front of the chapel are at first glance like any of the saints at the doors of a French cathedral--but if you look more closely, you'll see Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee alongside John Wesley and other saints rarely found on any cathedral in Europe.

         The stained glass around you tells stories of the trials and tribulations, victories and heroic accomplishments of saints, prophets, and kings. This form of communication was designed for a preliterate society where worshipers learned their Bible from the glass; now it is here, still communicating, in the heart of a university dedicated to the most profound and sophisticated learning in every mode, printed and electronic, as modern as we can make it.

         As cathedrals have been for centuries, this is a destination for pilgrims from throughout the world--and yet these pilgrims are likely to be laughing schoolchildren pouring from a local school bus, or families from many different faiths.

         The chapel has from the beginning housed a living religious community; it has never been just a monument in stone. Many university chapels began with required services that all students and faculty had to attend. Over time, as habits and constituencies changed, the requirement was eroded and then abandoned, and with it, the chapel itself. Thus, on many campuses today, the chapel is a lifeless place. At Duke, services were never required in this chapel, but they have always been well attended--a good testimonial to Duke's staunch belief in freedom of choice, which is not limited to food services.

         For you as students, even if you never attended a service here between convocation and baccalaureate--even if you never stopped by the chapel just to walk into its cool mysteries on a hot and bothered day--even if your most vivid memories of Duke will be of other sacred structures such as Cameron Indoor Stadium or Perkins Library or Gross Chem--this chapel nonetheless has, I am quite sure, worked its way into your mental terrain in a fashion that may be hard for you ever to sort out.

         Thus it is most fitting that your Commencement begins with a gathering in this chapel. And it is also true that leaving the chapel in some ways symbolizes leaving Duke, leaving behind you those multifaceted, crowded, dearly familiar years to chart an unknown future, leaving friends and classmates to enter a new world. Yet, although it will be wrenching to leave familiar scenes and locations, in a very real sense, you are not leaving Duke behind you. For a university is not, after all, only a location--however beautiful and memorable the place may be; not a terrain or a set of structures or a point on the map. A university--and surely this university--is, above all, the people who make it up: the generations of students, faculty, staff, employees, and alumni who create and sustain this university every day.

         Even though you will not be here physically, you take Duke with you in your memories, and in the shaping of your mind and spirit that has occurred here. In this sense, Duke will be with you wherever you may go, for the rest of your lives, just as the alma mater says.

         And just as you take a part of Duke with you wherever you go, something of you remains here as well, in the ways you have contributed to and shaped the life of this university during your active years on campus. You have made a difference to Duke, and the university's character and fortunes have been directed partly by your own vision and energies at this stage of our history, and thus forever.

         And finally, Duke will always be where you are, because from this point forward you will represent Duke, speak for Duke, as an alumnus or alumna, more often than you might ever guess. This university will be judged by your accomplishments and your character--by your well-known deeds, of course, but just as much by how you handle the smaller and less visible parts of life. You will carry forward Duke into the world, and those who become part of your own life in the future will, when they think of Duke, think first of you.

         You go with our admiration, our affection, our gratitude, our encouragement, and our confidence in your ability to shape our future.

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