posted May 7, 2000

Remembering Why You Came

by Dr. C. Baars Bultman '71
Associate Professor of Education

Members of the Board of Trustees, President Bultman, Provost Nyenhuis, faculty, parents, guests, and members of the graduating class, year 2000. Let me begin by thanking you, the graduates, for the privilege of speaking with you today. I count it an an unexpected and very, very important recognition, and I accept it humbly.

You do realize that it was a bold and somewhat dangerous decision to have put two Bultmans on the same stage, at the same time. I noticed during the processional that you also invited our sister Judy and strategically placed her just to my right should things get out of hand with the two of us. She's been an able mediator for many, many years. I applaud your risk taking in doing this, however, and will share with you that it is indeed gratifying to be here on this occasion, in this way, with my brother, your president, who just eight months ago officially became Hope's favorite son, though, presumably, not his mother's favorite son! I'm not looking now to see if she's nodding.

In a related matter, when I first came to work at Hope in 1987, in my vanity, I was so eager to see my own name at the top of the class roster. My expected elation was diminished when I saw: Instructor - "None." N-O-N-E But I was able to shrug it off and looked with much anticipation to the next semester, when it said: Instructor - "Staff." Finally, a year later, I did find that my name was attached to Instructor. And so things had been getting better for me and I in fact felt pretty good about myself, until last week when one of the major Holland newspapers announced on its front page: "Commencement Speaker is president's brother." The inference is that I could now be found in that gray area somewhere between "None" and "Staff." At any rate, I have now returned to my original anonymity and have to start all over again!

And I am willing to accept your judgment here today, even as I take great comfort in knowing that while your criticism is before me, in a few minutes it will be behind me!

This month, on campuses all over the country, commencement speakers will be exhorting students, much like you, to go out and save the world from itself. They will raise the anxiety level of their listeners by presenting the many daunting challenges of the new century; of the new millennium, and your responsibilty in meeting all of them. Can you hear the lines in the distance now? "Go forth... use your talents... to whom much is given... make it better... we are expecting great things..." On and on and on and on. All good and well, of course, but the message will be as generic as it is intimidating. I am going to get more specific than that today. In fact, you might say that my remarks are "Hope specific."

Three years ago, my family began in earnest to find just the right college for our daughter, Marta. Picture, if you will, my wife Margo, our son Peter, Marta and me, as we drove around the country visiting numerous colleges and universities. Now picture us passing judgment by rating each school, first as individual assessors, but culminating in a composite family score. Those of you who know me the best are having absolutely no difficulty imagining this activity.

Some of the characteristics under our gaze at each stop were: academic reputation, commitment to the liberal arts, location, co-curricular opportunities, scholarship availability, faculty distinction, avenues for spiritual growth, student attitudes, and more. Even the tour guides, if I recall correctly, did not escape our scrutiny!

Relative to the known quantity that was Hope College, some of those colleges, admittedly, were up a tier, or two, in the rather imprecise national rankings by the popular press and ubiquitous college guides. And some were aesthetically more pleasing, to the point that we wondered whether the students' minds were getting as much attention as the physical plant. And some were even architecturally uniform: same style buildings, same color bricks. Some had tougher entrance requirements. Others, better tennis courts. Some drew faculty with degrees largely from coastal universities. Some highlighted their historic roots; others seemed to be running from theirs. Some were quaintly isolated, perched on hilltops affording breathtaking views, while a few were excitingly close to amenities of urban life.

Following repeated excursions, which included overnighters and classroom visits, our daughter seemed to lean not toward Hope, but elsewhere. And so we began to imagine that college's sticker on the back of the automobile window, the colors of that college flying over the front door on game days, mugs and sweatshirts that screamed "...College Dad" and "...College Mom." In our planners we penciled homecoming, parents' weekend, sibling's weekend. In short, we prepared to send our daughter, Peter's sister, quite literally, "off to school."

Then, in April of her senior year, she appeared at the breakfast table to announce that she intended to enroll at Hope College. Was this a change of the mind? Most certainly, but more than that, this was a change of the heart. Her reason for choosing Hope? "It's the people, Dad. It's the people," she said.

Please know that this was not a decision based solely on the ever-present Hope College smile, through which every visitor senses that we are deeply committed to winning the "I'm nicer than you contest." Much, much deeper than that, this was a climate issue. Hope people cared. Professors were welcoming, understanding and competent. But isn't that true of many colleges? Perhaps and probably. Still, what happens here, in the way that it does, is so unique that it seems utterly inexplicable even to those of us who share the experience.

Isn't that why you came here too? Sure, you were drawn by academic programs, by church affiliation, by dreams of athletic participation, and, yes, to escape your parents.

Regardless of why, exactly, you came here, you quickly found that you were a participant in a story much larger than you ever could have imagined; the amazing story begun in 1866. Like those who came before you, and those yet to come, you affected that story, with your own knowledge of hope and disappointment, with your own experiences here of love and loss, and with your own need to laugh and to cry, and with great pride in your many accomplishments, even as you now see their limits.

With that knowledge, with those experiences, having met those needs, having found just the right blend of pride and humility, what will be your remembrance of things past? Without identifying one class in particular, the fact is you will probably not recall much of what you think you've committed to memory, and even less of what you half-committed to memory!

Allow me to guess at what will be unforgettable about your experiences here. You will remember the people with whom you had late-night conversations; you will remember who sang next to you at Vespers; you will remember who sat next to you on the bench at the Civic (a situation, frankly, with which I had more experience than I wanted); you will remember the magic of the registrar who enabled you to get out of here in the four-to-seven years; and, yes, you will remember professors, not necessarily because of what they taught, but because of who they were: their humanity, their compassion, their concern for both your intellect and your spirit. And you will remember how you helped one another to grow; how you found faith, or how you rebuilt it, or how you discovered that you were not the only one holding the chalice of faith with trembling hands; even recognizing that it was not your own faith, but the faith of others that got you through the day.

All of this sounds so nostalgic, so unbearably sentimental. And I hope that is how you take it. The fact is that your time here at Hope is short. As Adlai Stevenson told Princeton University graduates nearly fifty years ago: "this is the last of your springs here, and now in this place where you have traveled the depths of truth and felt the hem of heaven, when you leave, don't forget why you came."

I can tell from some of the looks on your faces that levity is in order. Let me share this with you. As a speaker, perhaps a commencement speaker, droned on, a listener harked: "This is madness. Can he truly believe what he says?" The second listener chimed in: "Do you see how some of the citizens are becoming restless?" The first: "And bewildered too." The second: "It's almost finished. The next session, according to custom, will be his last." To which the first concluded: "Yes, and I will be truly thankful."

Well, that's the way it is for me. It is almost finished. May I just remind you today that in the last analysis, this imperfect institution called Hope College has borne you, and she has loved the burden. For your part, I trust that you may agree with Robert Frost that "if you have to love something, you could do worse than give your heart to a college."

Hope will always be you, and you will always be Hope. As God blesses you, God blesses this college, for you are one and the same. You are moving on, not from Hope, but with her. Hold her close. Do not be afraid to look back for fear that your resolve about the future might somehow be weakened. It is okay to look back. And if it's a blur, don't worry. It doesn't have to be any clearer than it is right now. I urge you to shake hands firmly today. Hug tightly. And when you leave, don't forget why you came. Thank you very much.