A Summer Report Card

Message from the President

William L. Fox '75

For a number of consecutive years in early August, the late Bernie Lammers, an accomplished constitutional scholar in our government department, faithfully wrote me a letter in longhand on the back of saved exam paper from 30 years prior. It was always dated the Feast Day of St. Lawrence. Even though the University was named for the river, not the saint, the point of the letter was never about titular provenance. And even though the river was once called “big waterways” by the continent’s first peoples, a long way from the place associated with the saint’s Mediterranean homeland, this annual missive insisted on the subliminal connection between the name of the University and the ever-rolling waters nearby. 

The legend of Lawrence, a young Spanish theologian from 1,800 years ago holding high ecclesiastical office, centers on his unequivocal commitment to a first principle. Under tremendous pressure, particularly the threat of an imminent tortured death, Lawrence faced down the demand of Emperor Valerian to surrender all the assets of the Church, which were significantly valuable in land and gold. Instead, Lawrence defied the government of Rome, quickly sold all property and holdings, and then immediately distributed the proceeds to the sick and destitute of the city. 

An entourage of the city’s poor followed him to the imperial court to face the foregone prosecution of capital charges. When confronted by the authorities about his act of conscience, he pointed to the crowd behind him and said, “The poor of Rome are the true wealth of the Church.” And this is the story Bernie Lammers loved to tell, repeated in every one of his yearly letters. He often added, “Remind the campus community, tell the alumni, and emphasize to parents that money is not life’s report card.”

While the dramatic death of St. Lawrence has always overshadowed how he lived and what he did, a university bearing his name, more by happenstance than intent, occasionally ought to consider the potential meaning of his legacy. This legacy is one that we still endeavor to live by—both as a moral example and as a sense of place defined by a sweeping valley named for him. In each instance of meaning there is the implicit sense of proportion, distinguishing so what from why not, recognizing the human ligature holding feeling and thought together.

In comprehending the 200-year-old social history of the North Country, within which our University’s mission is still framed, relatively modest economic values have varied little over time. Some fortunes were certainly made from the land, timber, and manufacturing, but the financial constant of low incomes for a high percentage of families in our valley remains an immoveable fact of life. 

Returning alumni often wonder about the disappearing prosperity of the community they remembered and envied as students—but it never really was secure in its chance to grow and compound wealth as happened in only a few rural college towns and tourist villages. The railroads passed through, taking the money elsewhere, and the highways were often paved remnants of military supply lines, extending overland distances so that many roads were eventually designated scenic byways. Milk prices fluctuated severely in the Great Depression, which turned out to be predictive of other economic activity in the decades following—never too high, always too low. The arrival of box stores and delivery vans in the last decade have forced family-owned shops to reconsider their chances. 

And yet, the strength of the community, the palpable kindness and caring of its people, has never been more reliable. St. Lawrence students from distant places continue to find in this valley a college home to admire, claim, and cherish. They clearly find in their North Country neighbors a sense of proportion, a sense of what matters in order to be happy. Many of their most impressive classmates grew up in the North Country.

St. Lawrence lives in the rarefied company of national liberal arts colleges, but it also never forgets that it lives by another kind of report card. In a massive study by The New York Times on economic diversity and student outcomes in American higher education, the results show that some colleges are economically segregated and some accord with the goal of income mobility. St. Lawrence falls into the latter side of that division. In the overall mobility index, a measure that represents the likelihood of a student at St. Lawrence moving up two or more income quintiles, we are 18th in the nation out of 71 highly selective private colleges. St. Lawrence moves social capital with a comparatively modest endowment like very few can or do. The history and people of our community keep us grounded in matters of proportion.

In different, more immeasurable terms, we are awakened at St. Lawrence to the proportions of a natural landscape that will enrich our lives, while surrounded by unfortunate percentages of poverty. William Wordsworth remembered himself as a boy on a summer’s night. He vividly recounts in the opening lines of “The Prelude” the moment he untied a neighbor’s boat from a willow tree, doing so without permission, and then rowed it out into the middle of the lake. 

Confident and stealthy, he rowed with skill, leaving soft rippling circles in the stern’s wake and he felt a boy’s pleasure of getting away with minor mischief. Suddenly, Wordsworth’s self-delight was interrupted by a mysterious feeling of being watched, maybe pursued by a giant, overwhelming mass of physical being. It was a jagged mountain’s looming shadow upon the water. That moment changed his interior life forever.

When we encounter the utter, beautiful rawness and unchangeable power of nature in the valley named for St. Lawrence, we have found an instant of solidarity (not yet tranquility), with the poet. In his moment of boastful, youthful joy, he also took inescapable, permanent note of “a huge and mighty form” evoking fear and proportion, respect and humility. Later in his life, Wordsworth surveyed such mountains as we may also find them from skiffs or trails in North Country rivers and foothills, observing that “their forms are endlessly diversified, sweeping easily or boldly in simple majesty, abrupt and precipitous, or soft and elegant.” 

In summer reflections about St. Lawrence, the person, the place, the college, we once again remember the other report card in life. —WLF

President William L. Fox '75