I think for those of us born “with chalk dust on the sleeves of our soul,” in John Updike’s memorable turn-of-phrase, taking leave of one’s school is a difficult thing to contemplate. The first time I ever experienced such an emotional moment in my life was when my kid brother Jeff literally had to pull me out of the Capitol View Elementary School in 1959, 55 years ago, when we were leaving there to go to Georgia Military Academy, where he and I were to spend our formative years. We wandered up and down the empty halls, peering into the classrooms and the library, while Forrest the janitor mopped the floors after all the children had left school at the end of the year. I wanted to freeze everything in my mind: the teachers finishing cleaning out their classrooms, those demi-gods who seemed to encapsulate all wisdom and knowledge to my young mind, the smell of the books in the
library I had so come to love, the playing fields that had once been the sites of us children at play. And nothing has ever changed for me all these decades, all of which have now swept by me, disappearing, as only Villon perhaps could have phrased it, along with the “snows of yesteryear” into the past of my life. I felt the same sense of profound personal loss when years later it came time for me to leave the campus of Georgia Military
Academy as I made my way to the grounds of the University of Virginia, from there to Emory, from there to the Sorbonne and then to Columbia, and then to Washington University, to SMU, to Kalamazoo, and finally to end my career at Trinity, where my office overlooks Burges’s stunning Long Walk buildings and Frohman’s magisterial Chapel.
Schools are sanctuaries where transformations take place: hallowed sites where teachers impart their wisdom to those who are forever young, where relationships that last a lifetime
are forged. When I close my office doors for the last time on June 30, I shall walk over to the Chapel alone and try to freeze all my memories of our decade at Trinity: all those
faculty and staff members who have been my colleagues here, all those students whose faces I shall always hold deep inside, their voices and their messages of one kind or the other, the treks to Everest and Annapurna, to the top of Kala Patthar, the highest trekking peak in the world, to the barren wastes of Tibet, to the summit of Kilimanjaro, across the glaciers to the top of the volcano in Iceland, all those days and nights with the Trinity students on Quest in Killarney Provincial Park in Ontario and then on the Appalachian Trail, all those Monday afternoons spent with my seminar students in the Goodwin Lounge on campus, all those greetings along the Long Walk, all those lunches in Mather, all those musicals in Austin Arts Center and in our living room, all those athletic contests on our playing fields, all those visits with alumni and parents around the world.
Our years at Trinity have been filled with wonderful achievements by our faculty and students, buildings restored and quads refashioned, books and articles published, students being named in record numbers as Fulbrights and Goldwaters, generosity beyond measure from our benefactors, stunning leadership by our Trustees and Fellows, Parent Directors, and members of the National Alumni Association Executive Committee. We have tried to meet our challenges with honesty and integrity, and the College is now poised for a new chapter in its long history, with Cornie Thornburgh ’80, the first woman to chair our Board of Trustees, and with Joanne Berger-Sweeney, a distinguished scientist, as the first woman and the first African American to be appointed President of the College. No one could be more proud of this appointment than I, for every President always hopes to leave one’s College in the hands of an able, devoted successor.
John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” has filled my consciousness time and again as I have contemplated taking my final leave of our College, especially the immortal line that describes that mourning that accompanies one’s taking final leave of a treasured place as being the “profanation of our joys.” I shall always be grateful to Paul E. Raether ’68, P’93, ’96, ’01, the longest serving Chair of the Board in Trinity’s history, for his support, unbridled generosity, and utter dedication to his beloved alma mater, as I shall always be grateful to the faculty and staff who have been so supportive and kind to Jan and me all these years. But most especially, I shall always treasure those students whose paths we have crossed in this place.
Ten short years ago this October, which seems to me now only as far back as last week or so, on the morning of my inauguration as your President here at Trinity, our house on campus was filled with family and friends from across the country. I wanted to freeze, somehow, the sounds of all those beloved voices in my mind. Amidst all the happy voices of those whom I so cherish, our oldest child Jennifer asked if she, her two brothers, and Jan could speak to me privately for a moment in my study. She closed the door, and then she gave me a present from the four most treasured people in my life; it was carefully wrapped. I knew it was a book, but I had no idea it was this book, a first edition of James Hilton’s 1934 masterpiece Goodbye, Mr. Chips. To others, the book might just be a novel, a famous one that was turned into an award-winning movie later in the decade, but to me the novel has always been an articulation of a key to a magic kingdom, the magic kingdom of school. I was so entranced by the book as a young boy, then only 10, that Inamed my cocker spaniel puppy Mr. Chips after the hero of Hilton’s novel.
The students at the English boarding school called their somewhat eccentric Latin master (sound vaguely familiar?), whose real name was Mr. Chipping, Mr. Chips. Teaching them Virgil, and Ovid, and Cicero, he had his students in for tea in his chambers on campus, he ate lunch with them daily in the refectory, he followed their lives, attended their marriages and with the slaughter that accompanied the First World War, their funerals; he was present for the baptisms of their children as an invited guest. They came to visit as often as they could in their adult lives. He wrote letters to his former pupils in response to the hundreds of messages he received from them over the years. He hiked high peaks in
the Alps. At the close of the book, in one of the most celebrated scenes in 20th-century cinematography, he is near the end of his life. His rooms are crowded with his colleagues and former students, the present students at the school standing vigil outside the building holding candles. He moves in and out of consciousness when he hears a voice say sadly, “Isn’t it a shame that Chips never had children of his own?” Chips comes to and abruptly responds, “Oh, but I did, and they were all boys, scores and scores of them.” Certainly not all my adopted students have been male, but there are, in good Mr. Chips’s fashion, scores and scores of them. While I am far more fortunate than Mr. Chips, whose
wife died in childbirth along with their child, since Jan and I have three wonderful children and now six grandchildren, I share with Mr. Chips the inestimable love of the idea of
school, and like Mr. Chips, my own life has been immensely blessed in that I shall carry the faces and the voices of all my students with me for the rest of my days. And now, as
my career ends at Trinity, the majority of them are from this noble College.
Perhaps when any of you are next in Williams Memorial Hall calling upon President Berger-Sweeney, you might notice on the mantle in her office an old clock. Our first
year at Trinity, I received a call from an antiquarian in Tennessee who told me that he had just bought a strange clock made in Waterbury before the Civil War, with a painted face on which there were three white buildings on a green hill over a river upon which a man was poling a small boat. The inscription on the face read “Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut.” The face is a depiction of Trinity’s first campus on the site of the State Capitol before the river was covered with the concrete street. I bought the clock for my collection of antique timepieces, and it has sat proudly on the mantle in the President’s Office all these years as the decade swept by me. With my family’s unanimous approval,
it will remain with President Berger-Sweeney as a testimony to the endurance of Trinity, in short order to be 200 years old. You see, schools are at the end of the day not merely places, no matter how stunningly beautiful they may be: they are sites of mind, treasured ideals hallowed over time by the dedication of loyal teachers, that noblest of words in any language after mother, father, and child. Trinity may well have once changed places in a geographic sense, but Trinity remains Trinity in the hearts and minds of all of us who have
been blessed in our lives to have passed this way.
God bless this College in the years to come. My memories of this place and of our time here together will forever grace my days, in gratitude to thousands of you to whom I shall always be in inestimable debt.
Back to Hilton’s novel, while his students always leave by saying goodbye to him, Mr. Chips never utters the word to them in response because he simply cannot do so. And
such is the case with me as I take my final leave of this ennobled College.
Very truly yours,
James F. Jones, Jr.
President and Trinity College
Professor in the Humanities