May 30, 2000
It has been several weeks since I first learned that I would have the honor of speaking here today. After the initial euphoric rush of joy and gratitude, only one emotion remained: panic. This was not the fear of speaking in front of a crowd; after four years at Princeton, I have mastered the delicate art of embarrassing myself. No, the root of this panic was far more sinister; I began to realize that a dangerous precedent had been set at last year's Commencement, and that I had mere weeks to decide to whom I would propose here today. After a few frantic phone calls and some intense deliberation, I am sorry to inform you all that this not-so-deep-seeded tradition has come to an end. Unless. . . never mind.
Now is the time for one last look around this beautiful campus before we march out FitzRandolph Gate. All around us are giant majestic trees, which seem to have significance only to those who have witnessed their beauty or sat under their shade. However, they also represent events happening beyond the edges of campus at the time they were planted. Two of the oldest trees on campus are located behind MacLean House within sight of where you are seated. They were planted to commemorate the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766. And the giant elm near Stanhope Hall, also within sight, was planted during the Great Depression. Many of these inexpensive trees were planted during that period, both on and off campus. Although at times we shelter ourselves from the world around us, the Princeton name is not a shield. Princeton's campus, and its students, must celebrate and suffer with everyone else.
While these trees do have historical significance, they also bear the stories and memories of generations of Princeton students who have learned, loved and laughed underneath their branches. A few years ago, while removing a dying tree, the grounds crew found a woman's wallet that had been lost and buried under years of dirt and foliage. Inside was a student ID from a member of the class of 1974. Jim Consolloy, the university's grounds manager, tracked her down, now a lawyer working in the World Trade Center, and told her, "You're not going to believe this, but we recently found a wallet that you lost twenty years ago. It has your old student ID and driver's license, but no cash- do you want us to send it to you?" She asked if there was a change purse in the wallet. After peeling away layers of decrepit leather, Jim found the change purse, and inside, a pair of diamond earrings. These were a family heirloom, passed down from the alum's grandmother.
Another alum called the grounds department upon hearing that the giant beech tree near Fine tower would be removed. This was the tree beneath which he had gotten engaged, and he did not want to lose it. Jim told him that it would cost about $30,000 to move, but if he was willing to donate the money, they would try to move the tree to another part of campus. The alum, after a bit of reminiscing, replied, "That's OK- I've got pictures."
There is a Greek proverb, quoted by our classmate Dan Russell in this year's Herald: "A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they will never sit." We celebrate today underneath the boughs of great trees; those who planted them only felt an imaginary shade as they toiled with small branches. Maintaining all of the trees on this campus is an arduous task; Princeton currently employs 20 grounds workers and two-full time arborists. I personally was curious what happens during droughts.
The university clearly can't water every single tree; do they rank them? Do they have the "list of important trees" that get watered, while the others are forced to straggle? Fortunately, the answer is no. The university knows that older trees have deep enough roots that they can draw water from well below the dry surface. It is the young trees that are nurtured by this university. We all have benefited from this practice; the university and everyone around us have nurtured us until our roots grew deep enough for us to sustain ourselves.
But sustenance is not enough.
We must ask, what trees are we planting now that will give shade in a hundred years? On campus, the answer is easy. The university plants 200 - 250 trees a year; the recently planted ring of trees around the new stadium is expected to be enormous in years to come. For us, the answer is much less certain. It is only natural for all of us to have our own personal goals and ambitions. However, having had the privileges necessary to achieve these ambitions, we have also been given a responsibility to think beyond ourselves and even beyond our generation. Whatever we do, whether we make a great scientific breakthrough, delight people with our music, or raise a loving family, I would encourage all of us not to spend our entire lives lounging in our ancestors' shade, but to venture out in the sun ourselves, ensuring a well-shaded future for the comfort of those to come.
With all that we have been given, now is the time to rise and give of ourselves. It is only fitting at our moment of glory to thank all those who have watered us for our whole lives. God, through whom all things are possible; our parents, for their endless love and inspiration; our professors, for their willingness to cultivate our minds; each other, for close friendships and shared dreams; and Jim Consolloy, the grounds crew, and everyone else who has worked hard to keep our time here at Princeton in the shade, where we have little else to do but pursue our passions. It is with great honor that we march out FitzRandolph Gate and stand tall with them in the world.