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Commencement Remarks by W&L Student Body President Richard Cleary

Thank you, President Ruscio, for your introduction and for inviting me to speak today before the assembled members of the Class of 2009, Board of Trustees, Faculty and Staff, and guests.

My name is Richard Cleary, and I have had the honor of serving as the President of the Executive Committee of the Student Body this past year. I would like to welcome all of my classmates, their families and friends convened for this signal and exciting moment.

As you know, at Washington and Lee it is customary for a student, rather than a holder of public office or some other nationally recognized figure, to address his classmates and those gathered to honor the graduates. These speakers of national stature are chosen for the insight, accrued from a successful life, that they might bring to a graduating class, as well as for the prestige that their visit might direct to a particular university.

Here at Washington and Lee, we enjoy a different tradition, leaving me with the daunting task of doing justice to the legion accomplishments of the Class of 2009 during our years in Lexington. The attainments of our class range from the individual to the collective, with recognition coming from the local level to national and international institutions. Our class has thrown itself into extracurricular undertakings with vigor, excelling on the athletic fields, in artistic productions and in leadership positions in a host of clubs. We owe many of the hallmarks of our college experience — Mock Convention, Fancy Dress, Buffalo Creek, the oversight of the Honor System- to the hard work and dedication of our fellow students. As we prepare to go forth from Lexington, the Class of 2009 is acutely aware that many of the most meaningful moments are ones that are intangible. They include climbing House Mountain with friends, shooting the breeze around a campfire on Windfall Hill, floating down the Maury River and lounging on the green sloping hill in front of Lee Chapel. Orientation week freshman year, our first spring term and our last Parents’ Weekend are memories that will stay with us forever.
Our experience in the classroom has prepared us for the world we enter, and underlying our academic success is the dedication of Faculty and staff, who support, encourage and draw out the best in us. Profound concern for students’ success, mastery of, and zeal for, the subject matter characterize faculty at Washington and Lee. Perhaps the most meaningful aspect of our academic experience will be the personal relationships formed with faculty members. Each of us can remember the time we visited a professor’s office with a specific question, only to leave an hour later after talking about everything from points of interest in the subject matter to summer plans and career aspirations. Dinners at professors’ homes and meetings after class to discuss pending papers are commonplace. The empathy of professors in assisting students in the preparation of work and in granting extensions when appropriate is especially appreciated. In the current economic downturn, professors have been willing to help us positioning ourselves for careers.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the Honor System, the central tenet of our time at Washington and Lee, something that has defined and distinguished our college experience. Just as we can recall time spent with professors, so too can we provide examples where we left laptops overnight in the library, backpacks outside of the D-Hall, completed take-home tests, took exams days after our roommates without discussing them, or gave the tough answer to professors or DC’s when asked. The twin aspects of the community of trust — on one side the benefits we enjoy, and, on the other, the rigorous standard to which we hold ourselves — are present in these anecdotes. The transition for many of us from high school to college was marked by awe at the utopian ethos of this place, which appeals to our better angels. This is a place where character is expected, and in the words of James Q. Wilson, where “character counts.”

The Honor System, anomalous in higher education, is essential to the unusual educational model put forward by Washington and Lee. This paradigm accounts for the development of the whole person- producing an alumnus disposed not only to thinking clearly and critically, but also to making ethical decisions. The Honor System, it must be added, is not simply one of self-preservation- present in its core is a regard for others and the impact of one’s choices on those around him or her. The attendant traditions of respect and civility testify to the other-regarding aspect of the Honor System. Returning to Washington and Lee’s educational model, it is one that invokes a seminal concept of the western philosophical tradition, arête loosely translated as virtue. For Aristotle, there were two species of virtue, an intellectual one and a moral one, both cultivated by habit. The members of the philosophy department will forgive me for my rude and incomplete treatment of the subject, but I do think that this concept is useful because of its pertinence to our experience at Washington and Lee, where education is not limited to the simple assimilation of facts and figures, or even the sophisticated evaluation and analysis of the great liberal arts subjects. Education extends to the development of a sense of self, inside and outside of the classroom. And, in true Aristotelian fashion, it is habit-forming. After four years, in addition to the academic requirements enumerated by the registrar, a more profound obligation to the Honor System has been met.

The example of alumni illustrates the lifelong influence of the ethical virtue we adopt during our years in Lexington. In a recent visit to campus, former Senator John Warner, a W & L alumnus, recalled a Senate ethics hearing, the consequence of which, in the case of a finding of misconduct, would be dismissal from this sacred body. The Senator described this moment:
“I remember I was sitting next to one colleague, and I could see the angst in his face and I could feel the sorrow in the faces of all of them when they have to do these duties. And this man uttered ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I’. And I said to myself, I wouldn’t have said that: there but for the grace of God, I will never go, because I am a graduate of Washington and Lee and the Honor System. That system has given me enormous strength throughout my public life… it is an intangible, which is so vital as these young people leave this university and go out into this tumultuous world, a world that is far more complicated and challenging and dangerous than the world that I entered in 1949, when I left this great university.”

We go forth into a world that is, to say the least, uncertain, with crisis at home and abroad. Our completion of the requirements of this institution indicates not only an intellectual capacity to meet these challenges: it also signals that we are men and women of character, that we emerge from Lexington equipped to deal with what President Ruscio has called the complex moral questions of our day.

The values of Washington and Lee are not something to be taken for granted, however. The Honor System relies on the sustained dedication of students, especially those in a position of direct involvement in the judicial branch of the system, as well as the active support of Administration and Faculty. As alumni, we will have a special obligation to this place. Our first responsibility will be the maintenance in our own lives of these habits formed at W & L. Second, as alumni we must work with those on campus to uphold these fundamental values.

Before I come to a close, I would like to thank President Ruscio for his leadership. It is reassuring to know that we are leaving Washington and Lee with President Ruscio at the helm, a person who has, in the tradition of Robert E. Lee, dedicated himself completely to this institution. President Ruscio’s understanding of Washington and Lee, as well as a thoughtfulness, balance and ability to appreciate both the big picture and the smaller components that make it up, make him an exemplary steward for our soon-to-be alma mater.

We also owe a debt of gratitude to our families for all their support, sacrifice and love; which they have provided so that we could enjoy these years at Washington and Lee to the fullest. I would especially like to thank our parents.

Today, like the songwriter of Shenandoah, the song we have heard so many times during our years in Lexington, we will leave this place. Like him, who mourned his separation from this valley, we will guard our memories of this place with zeal. As this writer recognized, departure from Lexington does not mitigate its effect on us; leaving the Shenandoah does not erase the friendships formed here, the values instilled or the intellect harnessed. Whenever we talk to an old friend, email a former professor or display resolve in the face of a world fraught with moral hazard, we will be back. So, let us enjoy today, knowing that we too shall carry with us an indelible and perpetual memory of this place, which has become a part of us.