The other evening on my way outside the perimeter from ITP (that’s where both Oglethorpe University and our home are) my daughter and I were listening to a radio special on Sam Cooke. I was playing chauffeur for the moment, escorting our 16 year old to a friend’s home to study for a final exam. I have to admit this was the first time I recall getting in the car with Lulu and her not reaching out and switching the radio to HER station. I think she was just grateful I was taking an hour to transport her to another home for the night and decided she would let me have my way for once.
Back to Sam Cooke. My formative years were the 60s as I turned 16 in 1969, and Sam Cooke was a favorite of ours. You Send Me, Chain Gang and especially Bring It on Home to Me with Lou Rawls singing back-up vocals. It just didn’t get better than that. The special featured A Change is Gonna Come, the song that became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement well after it was composed and recorded. So here we were on our way from ITP to OTP, in the heart of the home of that movement. After I dropped Lulu off and began my trip back home alone (except for the 10,000 cars whizzing along with me), I had one of those moments that 50-plus-year-old men have from time to time. How did I get here and, more especially, why? I am in my sixth decade of life, a frightful thought to begin with, and in my third year of being president at Oglethorpe University, and that, between you and me, is sometimes a frightful thought as well. I am 800 miles from the city that was home for 50-plus years, separated from family and old friends and my three other mostly grown children. I came south 30 months ago to a place I knew very little about. I had visited Atlanta only twice in my life, once in 1973 to see a high school friend who was attending Emory and once in 1988 to scout a real estate deal. I remember that second trip very well. The agent at the car rental desk offered to upgrade me to a convertible for no extra cost with a mobile phone thrown in; that seemed like a very cool thing. Since it was 1988 the mobile phone was the size of a small refrigerator. I spent the day driving around, talking on the phone enjoying the beautiful weather. When I got the bill, the car cost me something like $15 and the phone, $400.
Atlanta seemed like a reasonable place to move at least compared to some of our other potential options. I won’t reveal specific locations, but here’s one example. I arrived for an interview in this small town in the Midwest, home to a prestigious college, parked the car near what seemed like the center of town (the only place where two streets crossed) and walked into a restaurant to eat a hearty breakfast. Everyone, and I mean everyone, looked up at me liked I had landed from Mars – I was clearly not from this place. After breakfast,I went to look at the president’s house, as my wife Betty has a keen interest in such things. I knew the street it was on, and walked in the direction the home was supposed to be. I passed an undistinguished, one-story, brick 1960s Unitarian church with no windows in the front. Next door on the corner was a beautiful Victorian home with a gaggle of young children playing in the yard. I knew the sitting president’s child-rearing years were far behind him, so the stately Victorian must belong to others. I retraced my steps, passed the church again and still found nothing that looked at all presidential. One more time, I turned and walked up the street, and I stopped in front of the church and saw what seemed like a small sign on the door. I walked over to read the sign. Private Home, it read, Property of So and So College. I just starting laughing, so hard that tears came to my eyes. I called Betty on the cell phone (I now have a plan quite a bit less expensive than the car phone 20 years prior), and I could hardly get a word out. Honey, I said, I might as well get back on the plane and come home. Even I could not ask you to move to this delightful small town and live in a former church. A year later, I actually met this college’s president and his wife and repeated the story to them. The first lady looked at her husband and said, in a none-too-friendly tone, “At least someone had some sense.” I understand they moved on soon after. Anyway, that’s how we ended up in Atlanta – it was a big city, home to a great liberal arts college, and the president’s home wasn’t a former church.
A Change is Gonna Come. Atlanta has proved an amazing place to live. Yes, far from family and old friends, but now home to budding new friends. And there’s something special about the city, different from other big cities I know. People here feel responsible for the future of this place, personally responsible, and they are willing to do something about that. It’s more than just taking pride. After all, Philadelphians are proud of Philly in a perverse sort of way. Booing the mayor, throwing snowballs at Santa. Philadelphians wear those acts proudly on our sleeves. But here in Atlanta we’d never boo the mayor, even if he was being hauled off to serve jail time. It wouldn’t be a good thing for the city, and thus such things are taboo. I think this sense of responsibility and hopefulness is why Atlanta was the home of the Civil Rights Movement, why the mayor at the time was the only southern mayor to support the Civil Rights Act. Being forward thinking was good for the future of the city, even if everyone back then hadn’t yet gotten on board with the idea of equal rights. This striving to be the best remains firmly in place. Today, I am part of a collective effort to continue to reform the public school system. Everyone is on board, whether it is because they believe that providing equal opportunity for all is the right thing to do or because they know that having a quality public education system is essential to the health of the city. To play a small part in this movement means the world to me, and I am thankful to be here for that reason alone. Change is still happening in Atlanta.
Closer to home for me, at Oglethorpe, change is coming as well. I am not sure what I thought being a president would be like. I certainly knew plenty of sitting presidents and respected what they did. I can tell you now that I admire all of them a whole lot more. Almost all of the time, it’s just really hard work. There’s always someplace else I need to be or some other event I should have attended. Every week or so something difficult lands on my desk. This week a student I admire tremendously told me he might have to transfer. That news hit me like someone had punched me in the stomach. We talked for quite a while; I’m now in touch with his parents. A parent will call extremely upset about something that happened with their son or daughter. One of our hundreds of faculty or staff members will need me to address an issue right then and there. I think I manage each one of these issues pretty well, but the accumulation does take a personal tollgatherer has seen some amazing progress in just two years,but just when Ife el like I can take a breath, step back and feel positive, something inevitably happens that makes life hard again. Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week,I feel personally responsible for everything that happens. I want to make life better for every student, every member of our faculty and staff, and I know that I can if I just work hard enough, smart enough and long enough.
I don’t regret coming to Atlanta and Oglethorpe for a minute. It’s been an adventure, and I don’t doubt we will be successful as an institution. As Sam Cooke wrote, the change is gonna come. He never said it would be easy.