Rob’s Bailiwick

by Richard Tillinghast

A poem for the installation of the 18th vice-chancellor.

A flurry of chalk on a classroom blackboard clouds the air as an equation takes shape. A student tucked away in a quiet nook in Abbo’s Alley, her journal entry made, sits listening to birdsong, conjugating an irregular verb. And here’s a class of science majors up early, piling into a van, chattering, earbuds primed, going on a field trip.

This is Sewanee day by day, enacting the sacrament of learning.

Conversations begun in freshman year at Stirling’s continue through a lifetime—

conversations with people you see maybe once a year,

or who died long ago,

or who never existed.

On Saturday a scrum

of fresh-faced undergraduates from this city on a hill,

flushed-faced alums,

families from the valley, everybody’s children—

surge to the game

through air golden, and fragrant with woodsmoke.

Or through the rain in a confusion of umbrellas.

A run off-tackle and the Tigers score.

Yea Sewanee’s Right! echoes

from Lost Cove to Piney Point.

Sewanee music:

A flute on a dewy summer night

playing Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,

Guitars in a dorm room playing Friend of the Devil.

Motown bass line throbbing through party weekend fog

keeping the old folks next door awake, change-ringing bells from Breslin on a Sunday morning while you shine your cordovans and tie your tie.

The mountain remembers those who came before us:

the fire builders, basket weavers, hunters with arrows and guile,

mountain men and Episcopal idealists, long-bearded sages, builders in pine and stone, serving men, cooks and butlers with families to feed. And the sharp-witted behind-the-scenes women who made damn sure the right thing got done, reminding us that Sewanee’s only right if we know when we’re wrong. The conversation continues.

Now go the bells, a murmur of approbation rises in All Saints’, scholars in many-hued gowns march past, following an elevated cross, and all of us in Rob’s bailiwick— the young and eager, the old and arthritic— turn out to honor our new V-C.

May wisdom and love, and a Sewanee angel with a good head on her shoulders guide him as he dons the ermine robe of office and leads us where we need to go.

(Linecut by Joseph Winkelman, (C ’64). Thanks to many friends for their contributions to this poem, especially Bran Potter and Thomas Lakeman.) 

Leave a Comment Below