May 20, 2018

2018 Commencement Address by David McCullough ’18Hon.

President Shanley, members of the Board of Trustees, members of the faculty, proud parents, and above all, you of the graduating class of 2018. May I say, first of all, thank you, for the true honor of speaking at this extremely important, highly celebrant occasion, the One Hundredth Providence College Commencement.

Think how lucky we are, every one of us, and it is luck that I want to talk about today. The continuing desire for good luck in our lives and the lives of those we love is part of human nature. We are all desirers of it. We are all known to knock on wood or cross our fingers when the need arises. We blow into cupped hands before a throw of the dice, keep our eyes out for four leaf clover, we thank our lucky stars, we nail a horseshoe over the door. Brilliant Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who had a horseshoe over his door, was asked once by a skeptical colleague whether he believed in such nonsense. ‘Oh no’, Bohr said, ‘But I’m told that it works even if you don’t believe it.’ We take luck to heart and we should, because luck, good luck and bad luck, play an important, an immensely important, part in life, and so, it does in history. Primarily, because history is human.

Scanning over the catalog of courses offered by Providence College, I see no mention of the word luck, nor among the more than 500 courses in History offered at one of our premier universities, does the word appear. I’ve long thought it would make a fascinating course. Certainly, there would be no shortage of material with which to work. Luck in its various forms has been recognized as a fact of life by many of History’s prominent figures. Franklin Roosevelt was known to have carried a rabbit’s foot with him during the 1932 election. Winston Churchill, when praised for his courage, famously said, “The nation had the lion’s heart, I had the luck to give the roar.”

If there ever was a momentous stroke of luck favoring the American cause, it was what happened at Brooklyn in the final days of August 1776. The American army under the command of George Washington had been outsmarted and outfought by the British in the Battle of Brooklyn, the first great battle of the Revolutionary War, and for the Americans, it was a crushing defeat.

On the morning of August 28th, the situation was critical. Washington and the Army, some 9,000 troops, were trapped on Brooklyn Heights in an area about 3 miles around, their backs to the East River, which could serve as an escape route to Manhattan, only if the wind cooperated.  Until then, a northeast wind had been blowing with sufficient force to keep the British from bringing warships up into the East River and shut off any hope of escape. American rifleman on the outermost defenses were ordered to keep up steady fire at the enemy and the British fired back on into the afternoon when the clouds opened and a cold drenching rain, the start of a nor’easter storm, had brought still more misery to the defeated army.

The storm continued through the night and into the following morning. At 4 o’clock that afternoon, Washington called a meeting with his generals at a mansion on the brow of the Heights, overlooking the river. A decision whether to retreat had to be made on the grounds that ammunition had been spoiled by the heavy rains, the miseries of the exhausted troops, the enemy’s strength, and the looming threat of the British fleet suddenly in command of the river.

The decision was unanimous. So, the night of August 29th, 1776, escape began. As one officer would later write, putting himself in Washington’s place, ‘To move so large a body of troops, with all their necessary appendages, across a river a full mile wide, with a rapid current, in the face of a victorious, well-disciplined army, nearly three times as numerous as his own men, and a fleet capable of stopping the navigation so that not one boat could have passed over, seemed to present the most formidable obstacles.’

The northeast wind was blowing still as the first of the troops began moving in silence through the dark of night down to the ferry landing. At about 11:00, as if by design, the northeast wind died down. Then the wind shifted to the southwest, and the small armada of boats, manned by Massachusetts sailors and fishermen, started over the river from New York. They crossed back and forth all through the night, the boats so loaded with troops and supplies, horses and cannon, that the water was often only inches below the gunnels. All in the pitch dark with no running lights. The men coming to the ferry landing moved through the night like specters.

But the exodus was not moving fast enough. Though nearly morning, a large part of the army still waited to embark, and without the curtain of night to conceal them, escape was doomed. Incredibly, yet again, luck. The hand of God, it would also be called, intervened on a grand scale. Just at daybreak a heavy fog settled in over the whole of Brooklyn, concealing everything no less than had the night. It was a fog so thick, that one could scarcely discern a man six yards distant. Even with the sun up, the fog remained as dense as ever, while over on the New York side of the river, there was no fog at all.

At about 7:00 in the morning, the last of the escaping army had safely landed in New York and in less than an hour the fog disappeared and the enemy could be seen gathered on the opposite shore. In a single night, 9,000 troops had miraculously escaped across the river, not a life was lost. Had the northeast winds stopped earlier and the British brought their warships up the river, had there been no thick fog the morning after, it is likely the war would have been over right then and there and history would have been greatly changed there and then.

It is often said we can make good luck happen and in the lives of many of those I have written about in my books this is clear. Take the astonishing example of Wilbur Wright. In his youth, he had excelled at just about everything, he had been a star athlete and an outstanding student. In his last year of high school in Dayton, Ohio, he scored in the 90s in Algebra, Botany, Chemistry, English Composition, Geology, Geometry, and Latin. That he was bound for college seemed certain, but all such plans ended when in a pick-up hockey game on a frozen neighborhood lake he was smashed in the face with a hockey stick, knocking out most of his upper front teeth. For weeks, he suffered excruciating pain in his face and jaw, then had to be fitted with false teeth. Spells of depression followed and grew longer. He withdrew from society and remained a self-imposed recluse for nearly three years.

For his family, it was the most worrisome time they had known. The Wright’s lived in a small house with no running water, no indoor plumbing, no electricity, no central heat, no telephone, but it was a house full of books. Great literature, history, biography, works on ornithology and theology, all as provided by their father, an itinerant preacher who believed in a liberal arts education at home. It was there and then in his isolation, that Wilbur set to reading as never before. Books of all kinds, and articles, including one on the German glider enthusiast, Otto Lilienthal, which led to numerous books on birds. One of these stressed that the way of an eagle in the air must remain a mystery until the structure and use of wings were understood. Like the inspiring lectures of a great professor, the book opened his eyes and started him thinking in ways he never had. Thus, the worst thing that had ever happened to him was transformed, by him, into the best thing in that it gave him a mission; a sense of purpose in life that sustained his efforts his entire life. Working with his brother, Orville, they changed the world.

At last, I have come into a dreamland of Harriet Beecher Stowe. In 1853, after the stupendous response to her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, both here at home and in England, she had had the immense good luck to wind up for a rest in Paris. She wanted her presence in the city kept as quiet as possible. Rather than stay at a fancy hotel, she moved into the home of a friend. Pausing for an ice cream at a garden café at the Palais-Royale one day, she was delighted to find so many others doing the same. No one recognized the plain little American or paid any attention, just as she wished. ‘What was the mysterious allure of Paris,’ she wondered, ‘what was its hold on the heart and the imagination.’ It was when she stood gazing upward inside the Cathedral of Notre Dame that she felt a sublimity she found impossible to analyze or express, it was one of the great moments of her entire life.

I myself have benefitted immensely, immeasurably from much good luck over the years. It was the discovery of a collection of photographs, quite by chance, in the Library of Congress, that led to my book on the Johnstown Flood. It was the chance remarks of two friends at lunch one day that led to my telling the story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. Lucky finds and collections of great libraries and archival collections have happened for me again and again.

The greatest of all strokes of luck in my life was the arrival on the scene of a princess from afar, Rosalee Ingram Barnes, my wife of 63 years, my editor-in-chief, and the star I steer by. We have five children, nineteen grandchildren, and lucky they all are, as they know, that she figures so importantly. Rosalee would you just stand up please.

How lucky we all are to live in this great country, where freedom of speech, the rule of law, and representative government remain the way of life. Where the love of learning holds strong. Where there are public libraries free to the people in virtually every city and town. No less than 1,700 public libraries.

The lessons of history are beyond counting. One is that almost nothing of consequence is ever accomplished alone. It is a joint effort. Nor is there, or was there ever, a foreseeable future. Nor such a thing as a self-made man or woman. We are all the result of the many who have helped along the way, who have taught and encouraged us, seen to our needs, enlarged our horizons, or are there for us in times of need. Parents especially, and teachers. Bless our teachers. We are all benefitted from the best of them. Those enthusiastic, inspiring teachers who change your life. We have serious problems to face as a people, make no mistake and high among them is our public-school system, which in parts of the country are a disgrace. But we will solve that problem, and others, that’s been our way, that’s our history.

I close now with a few thoughts for you, the Class of 2018:

Be generous. Give of yourselves. Count kindness as all important in life. Take interest in those around you. Try to keep in mind that everyone you encounter along the way, no matter their background or station in life, knows something you don’t. Get in the habit of asking people about themselves, their lives, their interests, and listen to them. It’s amazing what you can learn by listening.

Remember that speaking the truth, loyalty, decency, courage, and character all count. All matter greatly still, indeed, count more now than ever. We as a nation are experiencing serious bumps in the road, don’t get discouraged, don’t give up. We’ve known worse times and come through, and we will now if we never forget who we are and what we stand for. The world needs you, you the Class of 2018, there’s work to be done. Let’s never lapse into being spectators only. If you’re going to ring the bell, give that rope one hell of a pull. You’ll be seeing much of the world I have no doubt, and please wherever you go, remember to tip the maid.

Finally, the best of luck to each and every one of you.