Sunday, May 26, 2019
Back to Ceremony
By Steve Hankins ’85, P’13, ’17, President of the Alumnae/i Association of Vassar College (AAVC)
Thank you, President Bradley. Good morning, Board of Trustee, faculty, Mr. Jones, Vassar families and friends, and graduates.
A giant acorn, or rather a sculpture of a giant acorn, marks the grave site of Matthew Vassar located just a few miles away from where we sit. During his lifetime, Vassar told students that his legacy, this college, was like the acorn from which the mighty oak tree would grow. Bold words from a man who created the first college for women on the eve of this country’s civil war.
Ever since, bold actions have characterized Vassar and her graduates, a group that will have at the end of today, over 40,000 living members spread across the globe. The Alumnae/i Association is proud of you and excited to see what each of you will bring to this tradition.
Will you work against the establishment to discover something as great as dark matter in the universe?
Will you play professional sports? Will you start a company that pioneers in artificial intelligence? Will you run a hedge fund or manage a law firm? Will you bring clean water to 800 rural Chinese villages?
Will you compose music, write poetry, create art that hangs in museums, will you dance, act or sing, will you win Tony, Emmy, Academy, Pulitzer, and/or Macarthur awards? Will you fight for our country in wars?
Will you educate, will you become a judge, lawyer, or advocate for the underserved, for the imprisoned, for the oppressed, for victims of violence or discrimination?
Will you build the first broadcast television network for children into a billion dollar company? Will you then create a network for women, call it Oxygen, and build that into a billion dollar business? That’s just what my fellow alum, parent and trustee Gerry Laybourne class of 1969 did.
We do things like that. You will too.
But none of us have done them alone. And each of us will tell you our fair share of failures that paved the paths of our lives both during and after Vassar. For example, I was told by a prospective employer in my first job interview after Vassar, in the summer of 1985: “You should consider wearing socks to job interviews”. I am happy to share with any of you another time perhaps, how miserably I planned for what I thought was life after Vassar. How I pivoted from an econ major to an art history major. How I pivoted again from a career in art to a career in law. How I failed, struggled, and discovered that to be bold, I also had to be vulnerable. And to ask for help.
My interview apparel problem in the summer of 1985—the sock crisis—doesn’t really compare to the obstacles that Matthew Vassar faced. At age 14, he was “committed” by his parents to be an apprentice in a tannery. He ran away, crossing the Hudson River by boat, to work as a store clerk. He returned a few years later, to work in the new family beer business. Within a year, the brewery burned to the ground, killing Vassar’s brother and devastating his father. Then, 18 years old, Vassar collected some pots, pans, and a tub, and began brewing beer again in his brother-in-law’s warehouse. He eventually hired his two nephews, who became known as the Vassar Brothers.
This college presented many challenges to Vassar. In 1865, after four years of hard work, Vassar wrote in his diary: “Sick and tired of College business. No one to help me except Doc Raymond and Swan.” The early president and trustee were Vassar’s original posse. This diary entry followed one in April 1865, where Vassar reports learning of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Three years later, Matthew Vassar died, at a College Board of Trustees meeting. That board was left to cultivate and nurture the fledgling college.
My point here is this: Matthew Vassar was not alone in his successes or failures. I was not alone in my successes or failures. And, neither will be any of you. After today, you are part of the AAVC, a vast network of Vassar alums that is as strong, diverse, and interdependent as a forest of trees. Remember, no tree stands alone. Remember, Matthew Vassar’s acorn. Remember, in your first job interview, wear socks! Grow with us as the lucky Vassar grads who have each other as well as the DNA and the courage to be bold, to be vulnerable, to fail, to help one another, and to succeed. Perhaps pushing the tree metaphor, Vassar is your tap root. It will always be yours. And you will always be Vassar.