‘A Study in Resilience and Courage’

May 24, 2021

Professor of Philosophy Roderic Owen speaking at the Commencement ceremony for undergraduate programs on May 16

Over the course of his teaching career at Mary Baldwin, Professor of Philosophy Roderic Owen has led courses on subjects ranging from introductory philosophy, advanced ethics, ethics and education, world religions, science and religion, community service, peacemaking and conflict resolution, and more. His areas of research and professional interest include character education, interdisciplinary approaches to the teaching of ethics, and the interfaith dialogue.

Retiring at the end of the 2020–21 academic year, Owen received the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award at the 179th Commencement ceremony, recognizing his “fine spiritual qualities, nobility of character, and unselfish service to the broad community.”

Professor of Philosophy Roderic Owen speaking at the Commencement ceremony for undergraduate programs on May 16

It is my honor to address all of you today, and I give my heartfelt thanks to MBU’s extended community: not only to President Fox and our Board members but also to university leaders, campus staff,  and all of my faculty colleagues. Above all, however, I am using this opportunity to recognize all of you: our graduating seniors, class of 2021. 

So, how many graduation ceremonies have you attended? How many commencement talks have you endured?  For our graduates being honored today that number may be around two or three,  perhaps four for those of you with several siblings. For some in your family, parents and grandparents, that number may be  probably closer to 10 or 12. 

Well, I take no pride whatsoever in telling you that — as a professor, husband, father, and uncle — this is my 60th commencement ceremony — with the  same number of speeches!

Some of those talks were remarkably like lectures, and I’m guessing that most of you have had enough lectures — whether in-person, virtual, synchronous or asynchronous. A few were self-laudatory, and commencement provided an opportunity for those speakers to brag about their achievements. One or two seemed to me to be political campaign appeals from aspiring governors or senators. Many were  viewed as an opportunity to impart wisdom from an experienced  elder, and I will always remember one outstanding  speaker reaching behind the podium, pulling out his guitar, and serenading the senior class with his rendition of  “I’ll Do It My Way!” This year, I have no doubt that some speakers are drawing upon Camus’ existential classic, The Plague, to help their audience understand and make connections between a deadly, naturally occurring virus with a myriad of all-too-human social and political ills.

Today, you’ll be relieved to hear that my closing remarks will be brief,  and I will refrain from lecturing, singing, campaigning, pontificating about Albert Camus, boasting about my own modest accomplishments, or imparting pearls of wisdom.  

“I simply want to honor you: you, who have not only completed challenging academic work but also have spent the past year living through a pandemic, struggling with issues of isolation and loneliness, and constantly adapting to evolving safety rules and guidelines.”

Instead I simply want to honor you: you, who have not only completed challenging academic work but also have spent the past year living through a pandemic, struggling with issues of isolation and loneliness, and constantly adapting to evolving safety rules and guidelines. And, as if this were not enough, you have experienced a regular diet of harsh, often violent news about hate crimes, mass shootings, police brutality, structural racism, and rampant disinformation.  

And, yet, here you are today … graduating with a degree from MBU.  

Each of you has been so very resilient during this challenging year of a news stream of both viral and violent death. And although this campus and the surrounding area have been largely spared the ravages of a broad-based COVID infection, and we have not directly experienced the violence that accompanies systemic racism or hate-filled killing, we are all affected and shaped by the traumatic events of the past 14 months.

Some of you took the time and effort over the past few weeks  to share with me how you have prevailed during this past difficult year, so I hope you will forgive me for focusing on just one story even while acknowledging that every one of you sitting here today is a study in resilience and courage for making it through the past 14 months. 

Today I am sharing the story of just one young woman. She never knew her father: he died when she was a baby, and her mother was overwhelmed with grief. She was raised by her maternal grandparents right here in Staunton, and after her mother remarried, this young woman became a member of the first class of about 60 girls at a local area school for girls. This was despite the fact that she had suffered debilitating high fevers as a young child, and this condition had permanently paralyzed the left side of her face. Indeed,  M.J. was so self-conscious that she never married, and (frankly) she probably never had a romantic, intimate relationship; indeed, she would not even permit a photograph or portrait to be made of her. Nevertheless she persevered and after four years of study she graduated at the top of her class.

Given her time period it is significant to note that this student taught Sunday school for teenage girls in her church as well as a class for African American children. Her journals and records seem to indicate that while she had been restricted to teaching only girls and women, she was driven to educate all. By now, of course, many of you will recognize the life of Mary Julia Baldwin: her life story is well worth retelling. 

“By now, of course, many of you will recognize the life of Mary Julia Baldwin: her life story is well worth retelling. ”

Although Mary Julia did not live through a pandemic, she was a determined, resolute leader throughout the Civil War years. Augusta Female Seminary (MBU’s original name)  faced closure when its principal and his daughters (both teachers) left town and relocated to Texas. The remaining members of the Board of Trustees persuaded Miss Baldwin to assume its leadership as principal in August 1863 — along with her long-time friend Agnes McClung as matron. Mary Julia  Baldwin borrowed furniture, books, and supplies for her pupils. She asked them to pay tuition (and for some, room and board) with vegetables, fruits and grains as well as fuel. They also used various ruses (creative strategies, a diplomatic  way to describe this) to preserve college supplies from various military raiding parties, be they Confederate or Union troops. Thus, unlike the other schools in this area (and most other Southern schools), this female academy remained open during all four years of the conflict.

In the post war years — aided by William Holmes McGuffey, the well known and respected professor of moral philosophy at the University of Virginia — Miss Baldwin improved the school’s curriculum. It came to include rhetoric, composition, higher mathematics, chemistry, and physics, as well as subjects more often taught to women in the 19th century such as music, visual arts, and public speaking (or elocution). I find it fascinating that even then — through her leadership — this college included such practical and hands-on subjects as bookkeeping, nutrition, and exercise and health.

Mary Julia passed away still leading this college at the end of the 19th century — about 20 years before World War I and the ravages of the Spanish flu, the last truly global deadly virus. She also died before the Virginia General Assembly and the Board of Trustees recognized her resilient and courageous life by renaming Augusta Female Seminary as Mary Baldwin Seminary. Mary Julia’s compassionate character has been recognized through the donation of sculptures of her beloved dogs (which, of course, you can see on several campus locations). Perhaps more importantly, during her lifetime, Mary Julia purchased and improved about 10 acres of land, which she left to the college. Her private estate of about $250,000 (which in today’s dollars is over $ 7 million) was divided between the college and her church.

Of course, this year we are all re-examining and looking much deeper and far more critically into our shared legacies and holding ourselves accountable for past sins and failings. There is no doubt that the Mary Baldwin of the 19th century and Mary Julia herself were shaped and affected by the values and accepted discriminatory practices of their day. Moreover, through a new colloquium focused on MBU’s “Shared Historical and Racial  Legacy,” we will soon be learning the compelling stories of other strong girls and women of 19th century-Staunton who were hardly recognized as even being excluded from the annals of history. 

Still, I believe that you can take pride in being part of a story that includes a very determined young woman who often defied the conventions of her day and set the foundation for the incredible changes of the past 40 years. 

“I believe that you can take pride in being part of a story that includes a very determined young woman who often defied the conventions of her day and set the foundation for the incredible changes of the past 40 years.”

As each of you moves ahead in life, I hope that you ask yourself “what have  I learned  this year?” (not only from MBU’s outstanding professors and dedicated staff) but also from living through this pandemic. What have you learned about mass protests, police brutality, law enforcement reform … about how to work for both justice and peace? What have you learned about combating hate and racism … and working to eliminate — or at least reduce — mass shootings? What have you learned about how to judiciously sift through diverse media sources to glean the truth?         

Whether your future includes working as a healthcare manager or provider, a counselor or clinical psychologist, a business owner or leader, an environmental scientist, an astrophysicist, a law enforcement leader or researcher, a school teacher or principal, a mediator or diplomat, or a social worker (to name only a percentage of your collective goals) … I believe that you will seek to embody the spirit of Mary Julia Baldwin … that each one of you will be resilient, strong, and courageous while fighting against all forms of harassment and discrimination and bravely facing the inevitable set-backs and challenges to come. 

You will recognize and affirm the human dimensions of work-life and organizations. You will pay heed to and honor the ethical commitments you have made both in your personal and professional or career life.

In the spirit of your alma mater, you will not only graciously acknowledge and accept help from friends, family, and many others,  but you will also find ways to be compassionate and reach out to those who are vulnerable, hurting, and sorely in need. This too is a part of what it means to  be a Mary Baldwin graduate. 

I know  you will continue to learn and grow beyond your bachelor’s degree because that’s what I’ve seen Mary Baldwin graduates do for the past forty-plus years.   

And, finally — no matter what  your major, career,  or GPA — may you tap into your reservoir of faith, hope, and vision — to peacefully, but persistently — challenge deep-rooted divisions, injustices, and inequities around this world.   

My heartfelt congratulations to each and every one of you …

“No matter what  your major, career,  or GPA, may you tap into your reservoir of faith, hope, and vision — to peacefully, but persistently — challenge deep-rooted divisions, injustices, and inequities around this world.”

— Roderic L. Owen, professor of philosophy in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Mary Baldwin University