Winter Convocation speaker promotes gratitude


Photo by Matt Hembree

By Ryan Tillman

Staff Writer

All Saints’ Chapel welcomed students, faculty, and parents Friday evening in joyous celebration as many were formally inducted into the Order of the Gownsmen for their academic distinction.

The emotions swarming among the rows of chairs were contagious: smiles, hugs, and applause filled the room when the nearly one hundred new members received their gowns.  A sense of success was recognized by Callie Kirkland (C’18) as she proudly exclaimed, “I wanted to get gowned before my mom,” who also attended Sewanee (C’83) and received the honor as a second semester senior.  Kirkland, a second semester junior, reached her goal and gave her mother the honor of gowning her.

Tradition surrounding the gowning commemoration reaches beyond family legacies and even Sewanee itself.  University Marshal Dr. Pamela Macfie recalled the British universities of Oxford and Cambridge from which many of Sewanee’s rituals derive.  Macfie esteems the tradition steeped within Convocation, saying the conference of honorary degrees is “still relevant in this moment” as “we all find our place in this celebration of achievement and inquiry.”

Certainly, this was the case when Peter Crane was awarded honorary Doctorate of Science by the University and addressed the crowd in a most pertinent and applicable manner.  The renowned botanist, who was knighted in the U.K. and served as Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, refrained from speaking of his many accomplishments or passion for plants and shifted to discuss a matter heavy on every American’s mind: the presidential inauguration.

A native of Europe, he linked the public reaction of the political transition occurring in the United States to similar situations abroad, such as the Brexit decision, where countries have become more inclined to split rather than come together.  Crane’s response in the face of such times is simple and powerful: to express gratitude.

“Grateful people are statistically healthier and happier,” Crane argued, because the mindset of thankfulness “detoxifies negativity.”  Crane’s emphasis on practicing this spirit of gratitude in the most common and basic areas of life is his hidden key to remaining humble.  His wife, children, and parents are three elements of his life for which he continually and intentionally gives thanks.  Despite his impressive resume, he understands the absolute need to rely upon the help of peers and loved ones.  “Humility, not hubris, is the best way forward,” Crane said.

As the students sat in silence awaiting to be acknowledged for their personal achievement, Crane urged everyone to “ground [themselves]” by avoiding to “speculate on what the future may bring,” and prudently express gratitude for the opportunities and privileges each had been given.  “Grateful people find good in the worst of circumstances,” Crane said with conviction.    

Family and professors alike were radiant with cheer–and rightfully so.  The gown does not merely represent a highly-respected symbol of scholarly achievement but one of “leadership” as Vice Chancellor John McCardell noted during the ceremony.  McCardell spoke not only of the necessity to continue diligently in pursuit of intellectual excellence within the classroom but also of a more profound “responsibility of moral…leadership” now bestowed upon the new Gownsmen.