Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of an address that Associate Professor of English Sarah J. Heidt ’97 gave at the 2015 Founders’ Day Convocation. Video of the address is available here. Read more about Founders’ Day traditions here.
“Beginning Again, All Over Again”
Welcome, again, to Founders’ Day, this annual ceremony, often held on the most beautiful day of the entire autumn, at which first-year students discover that they haven’t officially become Kenyon students yet. What were we all these months? you might well wonder. And why did we have to wait so long to matriculate?
I don’t have official answers to these questions. But I do have a sense of the opportunity this ceremony affords us every year: just as we reach the moment in the semester when it might be feeling as though we will all be working forever, never coming to the end of our labors — just as we reach the moment when the startlingly intense pace of activity on this Hill might be coming to feel routine or normal — we very deliberately call a halt to nearly everything, gather in Rosse Hall, and pause to contemplate this place, and our place in it, in a longer view than we’re able to do in the midst of our daily lives. You’re now at the point, first-years, where your initial feelings of overwhelming confusion have probably cleared a bit. They may have given way to a second wave of overwhelming confusion — but you may also now have a sense that you are finally here, that your life is now taking place at Kenyon and in Gambier. And so now you’re better poised than you would have been in, say, August to reflect on what it means to commit yourself formally to being a member of the Kenyon community, both as it exists now, on this day and in this place, and as it extends throughout our history — past and future.
For a long time, I assumed — because I didn’t think about it much — that Kenyon College really was founded here, in Gambier, in 1824. What I knew of our origin story is, I’d bet, what most of us in this hall know: the first of Kenyon’s goodly race / was that great man Philander Chase: / he climbed the Hill and said a prayer / and founded Kenyon College there. You know the rest: he said “This will do,” did some digging of stones and chopping down of trees, sailed to England, hurried homeward with the stuff, smoked the ham, taught the classes, rang the bell, spanked the naughty freshmen well. And now, nearly 200 years later, our heart still holds a place / Of love for Old Philander Chase. Now obviously, the song “Philander Chase” offers us a hyperbolic account of Chase’s labors to bring Kenyon into being. Why would it not? I’m not going to fault a school song for not offering a meticulous account of historical facts. But since the Founders’ Memorial exhorts us to remember Bishop Philander Chase, I thought it might behoove us to dwell for a few minutes on some of the details our myths leave out. And I’m going to lay out these details in part because they speak to the way that beginnings can feel as though they take an impossibly long time. As though the work of getting started will never, ever end. As though we will always be beginning, and beginning again, all over again.
Some years ago, something made me stop and actually read the Ohio historical marker that stands on the south side of Wiggin Street, not too far from the marker (in Wiggin Street itself) that commemorates Kenyon’s first well. Denoting us a “Pioneer in Higher Education,” the marker goes on to reveal that Kenyon was founded in Worthington in 1824, then moved up to Gambier in 1828. “Whaaa?” I thought. I’d had no idea. But then I went striding off to the next thing I needed to do.
It wasn’t until this fall, and the occasion of being asked to give this talk, that I decided to do something about the confusion and curiosity that that historical marker had stoked in me.
Philander Chase had been named the first Bishop of Ohio when the Episcopal Church established the Diocese of Ohio in 1818. The idea of founding a theological seminary somewhere in Ohio dawned on him in summer 1823, when he was 47. He needed more clergymen here on the Western frontier, and his solution was to found a seminary to educate “our pious young men,” or “the sons of the soil,” nearer to home than the Eastern schools. He wrote to his fellow bishops in July 1823, “Men must begin as they have means; splendour and prosperity must be the result of previous privations; and he that will not for a time be content with a cabin, shall never have a palace. … I will endeavour to institute a humble school, to receive and prepare such materials as we have among us. These we will polish under our own eye, to the best of our power.”
Chase made his much-celebrated fundraising journey to England in late 1823, on a ship called Orbit; the trip there took the whole month of October 1823, the trip back even longer (from mid-July to late August 1824). When the General Assembly of Ohio formally established this institution on Dec. 29, 1824, it was still known as “the Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Ohio”, and its base of operations, at least for the time being, was Philander Chase’s own farmhouse in Worthington.
Within months, the seminary needed a bigger, better site. Though a number of candidates were suggested — we could have ended up in Zanesville or Chillicothe — Chase gravitated toward a remote site, a place in the “wilderness,” an idea many of his contemporaries scorned. “To build up a literary institution from the stump, in the woods, [is] a chimerical project, and [will] surely fail, and become an object of ridicule,” insisted a detractor who hoped that Bishop Chase would change his mind and move the seminary to Franklinton, now a neighborhood of Columbus.
But on July 22, 1825 — three years after having had the idea for the seminary — Chase, “in company with a number of gentlemen,” rode eastward from Mount Vernon. One of those gentlemen, the young lawyer Henry B. Curtis, would later recount for the Collegian that fateful expedition, which has so shaped our collective lives. Leaving the rest of their party behind (somewhere around where our maintenance buildings now stand, I imagine), Chase and Curtis set off on horseback up the south side of this hill, through an oak undergrowth and a tangle of grape vines. Finally, they decided to dismount and finish the climb on foot. They reached the top of the hill near where Old Kenyon now stands, discovering that most of the trees on the hilltop had fallen, probably in storms, so that, as Curtis recalled it, “the place on top was comparatively open and free from obstruction to view.” The men walked northward, observing “the whole panorama of the beautiful valleys” and hills and river, “a scene and landscape of unsurpassed loveliness and beauty.” And then came the climactic moment:
Standing upon the trunk of an old fallen oak, and permitting his eye to pass round the horizon and take in the whole prospect, [the Bishop] expressed his delight and satisfaction in the brief but significant exclamation: “Well, this will do!” He then pointed out the varied beauties of the spot, its extensive views, and the advantages that would be obtained by opening some parts of the contiguous forest — improving the prospect in certain directions.
Now, as yet, Chase still had no actual money with which he could try to buy this piece of land that so impressed him: the English money had been pledged but not yet paid, and there were no corresponding American funds. Moreover, his trustees and prospective donors were aghast at the idea of locating the seminary in Knox County. “None but a madman … would place it away up there!” exclaimed one person Chase asked for money. Several members of his Board resigned in protest, “predict[ing] the ruin of the institution if placed on Owl creek.”
Undeterred, Chase continued to work toward realizing his vision. By the end of January 1826, the Theological Seminary had become part of a newly incorporated and empowered Kenyon College. By March 1826, Chase was in contract to buy the Knox County land from its owner; by June, the lands had been purchased and Chase was in residence in Gambier, in a rough wood house he had helped to build. As he told the Diocese of Ohio that month, “I … unite my destiny with that of our seminary and college. With this institution of religion and learning, I am willing to rise or fall, to suffer or prosper.” The cornerstone of the building we know as Old Kenyon was laid on June 9, 1827; the masonry work began the next month. Students — who had, since 1825, been studying down in Worthington — moved into temporary buildings on Wiggin Street in summer 1828. Only in fall 1829 was Old Kenyon finally at least partly ready to be occupied and used for, among other things, the college’s first Commencement that September.
And then, only two years later, after significant (and seemingly insurmountable) conflicts arose between him and his faculty, Chase left the institution he had spent the better part of a decade establishing — and that was still very much in the process of coming into being. Chase resigned in September 1831, left Gambier only a few days later, and departed from Ohio itself in summer 1832.
These early struggles can usefully complicate our sense of “that great man Philander Chase” — a great man certainly in the sense of having enough clarity of vision and pugnacity to push onward in founding this improbable place despite the significant obstacles that might have felled him, but also a man whose hold on that vision, whose desire to realize this place as what he thought it could and should be, seems to have contributed powerfully to undoing him here.
From another angle, if we’re worrying about what we’re going to accomplish with our lives, Chase’s achievement in founding this college can remind us that our most important work in the world might not come about until after we’ve been preparing for it, in manifold ways and possibly even without our knowledge, for decades. Chase was 49 when he first climbed this hill, and nothing I’ve seen suggests that he went off to Dartmouth College in 1791, when he was not yet 16, thinking, “Someday, I’m going to found a College out west.” He did his work, and further, greater work appeared before him to be done. And the earlier work was what made it possible for Chase to begin again, again and again, by doing the subsequent work.
Having even this slightly expanded sense of the college’s early history has helped me to appreciate better the line Chase reportedly uttered at the top of the hill on that bright day in July 1825, before Kenyon even had its name: “Well, this will do!” I’ve always found this a bit underwhelming as a founding utterance; its understatement has always hit my ear as a settling for less than perfection. Today, less convinced than ever about the value of perfection, moral or otherwise, I’m instead sensing the opportunities Chase’s line offers us here and now. By summer 1825, Chase had an expanding, complicating vision for the institution he had been working to found. Relocating to a better place than his farmhouse was, he well knew, only the first step toward realizing that overall vision. It was important to find a good place, a right place, on which to found his institution permanently. But I imagine that he must have known it would be neither wise nor even possible to find a perfect place. What he found was land that would do — a beautiful, workable site on which things could start to be done. It was not everything he or this institution would ever need. It was, simply, enough to get started.
And he was right: this hill has done. It is a site that is still doing — still holding us as an institution, still holding those of us who venture to begin the world again here. It has not ever been perfect. It has not ever been paradise. We have had some catastrophic moments, even moments when the college came close to going under. But we’re still here, because of the vision and the commitment and the labors both of people whose names we use every day — think of William Foster Peirce — and of even more people whose names and tireless efforts have gone unrecorded.
I have a question for all of us this morning — both for you who are about to enroll yourselves formally in this community by participating in the Rite of Matriculation and signing the Matriculation Book; and for the rest of us who have, over the years, found our ways to this hilltop. In the Founders’ Day Memorial we heard a few minutes ago, we were asked to “recall that long unbroken line of professors and students, who continued the creation of this College while teaching, learning and living at Kenyon.”
What is the College that we are now, today, continuing to create through our teaching, learning and living on this hill?
What is the College each of us is actually bringing into being, actually creating, with each thing we do on each day that we’re here?
Does it resemble the one we want to create, the one we would make if we were working and living as the best, healthiest, most generous and capable versions of ourselves?
At a conference I attended this summer, one speaker asked us to write for a few minutes about what we hoped to offer our students through our work as teachers. Then, he asked us to write about the world we hoped to help bring into being. Finally, he asked us to reflect on how — or even whether — our responses to that second prompt made contact with what we’d written for the first one. It was a revelatory exercise, one that eventually returned me to a devastatingly simple line I love, from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”
How do we, at Kenyon and as Kenyon, spend our days? How are we spending our individual lives and this institution’s ongoing, constantly developing life?
How, with this hour, and that one, are we continuing this place’s creation?
To try to think about this institution’s life and direction right now may feel a bit staggering; I know that it’s usually at exactly this point in the semester that I start to lose sight of my own life’s bigger picture. I get invested in trying to finish the things I need to finish each hour, each day, each week. I spend my days, one after the next, and forget to remember that, in spending my days, I’m spending my life.
I’d venture to guess that something similar happens to us collectively right about now, too — and that that’s part of the reason we hold the Founders’ Day convocation when we do.
When I remember to make use of it, one of my antidotes to this exhausting and exhausted state of being is touching back to any of a number of literary works I cherish for their power to remind me to look up and around, to think bigger and better, to attend to and love the world around me well and more widely. The poem “Corsons Inlet,” by 20th-century American writer A.R. Ammons, is one of those works, and I’m going to give you part of it now, in case you too have been feeling ungrounded of late. It’s a poem about a long walk, a ramble undertaken regularly for the sake of observing as much as possible, and here’s how it ends:
I see narrow orders, limited tightness, but will
not run to that easy victory:
still around the looser, wider forces work:
I will try
to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder, widening
scope, but enjoying the freedom that
Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of vision,
that I have perceived nothing completely,
that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.
Writing this address, I’ve realized that it’s been a terribly long time since I last allowed myself the kind of walk Ammons recreates in his poem. And that, in turn, means that it’s been a terribly long time since I last offered this place — this place where I not only work but also live — the gift of myself as a person who claims time to restore herself by seeking whatever is out there to be sought, and seen.
Fortunately, tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.
For that matter: today a new walk is a new walk.
This will do, and may even do well.
Let’s begin again.