Vilas Hall

Second Thoughts

My last semester as president resembles my first semester...


William L. Fox ’75

My last semester as president resembles my first semester as a student. I entered St. Lawrence with the vague aspiration to study some day in a medical school. I now complete my term as president, absorbed daily by pandemic analysis, virology, and variants, recalling my formative years of admiring the heroes of medicine. When a boy, the most appealing museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was in the Smithsonian Castle, entirely dedicated to the triumphs of curing disease. The permanent collection featured curiosities, such as the bullet and skull shards taken from the fatal wound of Abraham Lincoln. In the eighth grade, I had memorized and recited in Miss Alice Black’s English class the Hippocratic Oath—still hearing to this day the echo of giggles in the room when I worked through a vivid passage about female physiology.

 

The years prior to discovering St. Lawrence as a place to dream a life’s dream were defined by two goals—to attend Johns Hopkins University and to play semipro baseball in the Maryland Industrial League. Those twin ambitions were forever put aside in the spring of my St. Lawrence freshman year. There was a specific moment that transferred the image of one possible self to another—a better, more suitable idea of what I wanted to put my mind into.

The warmth of spring sunlight poured into a classroom within Richardson Hall. The conditions had awakened to life a few bees, now groggily bumbling above the seated students. As one of the bees landed on the window sill, the professor ambled closer to this hovering distraction. We all expected a book to be dropped instantly on the bee, but instead, without pausing in the day’s lecture, our teacher cupped the bee in his hand, opened the window, and let it fly away. He turned around and then said, “Shall we talk about the reverence for life?” I suppose that moment stung me into realizing that my mind belonged in the library, not the lab.

The pandemic year of 2020-2021 gives me a particular symmetry with earlier personal impulses planted by the powers of medical science to prevent and cure disease. It has been for us all a year of living in constant danger and disruption. And one notable danger has been the mass scale of COVID-19 infection itself causing a larger numbing indifference about its total effect.

In the last hundred years since the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, in which my grandfather was a frontline U.S. Army doctor, the world has faced staggering death rates from global warfare and the pathological effects of hunger, dislocation, and poverty. These topics are often treated in history courses with clinical detachment. The overwhelming data of a pandemic, like the casualty rates of long wars, will conveniently substitute individual human faces with mere repetitive stick figures plotted on bar graphs.

While my life’s work went in another direction, I never lost a rudimentary understanding of how medicine generally works. Its genius requires holding two ideas at once, a simultaneous kind of thinking, one that explores vertically while it conceptualizes horizontally. The horizontal view allows the integration of seemingly unconnected pieces of information, which creates, in turn, a bigger picture, thus making room for creative solutions. Seeing a problem vertically means going deeper into a topic, probing, experimenting, and developing new knowledge. The liberal arts part of medicine, therefore, is to locate a place of intersection, bringing together the vertical and the horizontal into a moment of significance, such as discovering a vaccine in record time.

Meanwhile, the massive, long-term, and tragic human events of our world reveal—or, using a more current term of the hour, “lay bare”—discrepancies that ultimately conclude in a systemic decline of conscience. Oh, it’s only a bee. Life goes on, doesn’t it? My own work, my calling, may best be summarized as the attempt to rally individuals, institutions, and communities with the imperative of caring. Why should we, dare we, bother with caring…caring about the words we use, the activities we invest in, or the stranger we encounter?

It is the most relevant question of all for a generation of young people defined by the events of the pandemic year. We can easily point out the moral tragedy of this century, and the last, and the one before that. It may give warrant abstractly to the broad resolve and acceptance that life is unfair, followed by “so what?” But, ultimately, can a graduate of St. Lawrence University both pose and answer the question “what is sacred in life?”

Before Albert Schweitzer—who was world-renowned in three careers as a theologian, performing artist, and physician—coined the phrase “reverence for life,” an American college professor writing around 1900 offered pithy sentences that also speak to our moment concisely: “We become more knowing, more clever, more critical, more wary, more skeptical, but we seemingly do not grow more reverent or profound. We find much in the world that engages our curious attention; we find little that is sublime.”

In my mature work in a privileged office and during my preparation for it in a classroom, I never really left an old moment in Richardson Hall that made the world clearer to me, more sublime. I found in that brilliant, hard, mid-morning light shining upon students I sat among, a window cracking open, not to let the misery of the world in to spoil our hopes, but a window to let life out. The bee knows; there is sweet honey in the rock. In my second thoughts, years later, I came to understand St. Lawrence as a shadow of that rock in a weary land.
—WLF