A love letter to a liberal arts education

The_columns_at_Westminster_College 

At Westminster College my intellect was challenged, my imagination was freed, and my passions were set ablaze. Here I made lifelong friendships that have sustained me. Here I thrived in the glow of mentors who sparked confidence and convictions.

–       This is my quote as it appeared in the Westminster College Alumni Awards Convocation program, April 26, 2014. It’s only a portion of what I submitted and does not tell the whole story.

 

walking on the grass at westminster

April 26, 2014 was a typical springtime Missouri morning – cool, crisp, sunny, and I was my typical running late self. Not to worry, a shortcut across the lawn and I should make it to the ceremony with at least thirty seconds to spare. Just behind me, I noticed a smartly attired lady who had chosen the same trajectory as me. Assuming we were going to the same place, I tried to be cute:

“Back when I went to this school they would fine you for cutting across the grass.”

She was cuter:

“Don’t worry. I know someone.”

That someone was her husband and Westminster College President, Dr. George B. Forsythe. Jane and I were going to be fine. She had her connections and I had a half-minute cushion. It was just like old times.

church inside

Twenty minutes later, standing at the business end of the center aisle in that iconic Christopher Wren church, came my singular three-minute opportunity to channel my inner Winston Churchill and somehow explain what this Lifetime Achievement Award means to me. As best I can remember, this is what this English major said…

*

at podium smiling

President Forsythe, distinguished guests, faculty, friends, students, and fellow award recipients, I am deeply honored by this recognition. If I am truly the person you described in that gracious introduction, then Westminster College deserves much credit.

I want to first thank my wife, Adele, and my son, Kellen, who are here to in share this experience. You didn’t know me while I was at Westminster, but this place helped make me the person you now know.

And I must thank my mom and dad for the foresight, vision, sacrifice and love it took to provide me this opportunity. My dad was a city fireman and my mom worked her way from our school lunchroom to registered nurse. I was their first-born and the first in our family to go to a four-year college. Sending me away was tough on them economically and emotionally. I can clearly remember Mom’s tearful goodbye as they drove away from the steps of Marquess Hall. Dad said Mom cried all the way to St. Louis. But they were very proud to send their son to Westminster College. And they would have loved being here today, but due to health issues couldn’t make the trip. This is their award too.

I also want to mention and thank the late Charles King McClure, a successful Louisville entrepreneur, who lived in my dad’s fire district. Mr. McClure was a Westminster alum and trustee. When he learned of my dad’s bright son, he convinced us to look at Westminster. But it really didn’t take much convincing. After one visit I knew this was the place for me.

There’s something about this small midwestern liberal arts college. I still can’t put my finger on it, but it might be akin to Kentucky’s unique nurturing of horses.

kentucky horses

The Bluegrass State has gently rolling hills for building strong muscles, nutritious grass for grazing, and abundant limestone in the soil to provide calcium for strong bones. There foals become colts, then competitors, then champions. Likewise, Westminster provides the essential ingredients to nurture thoroughbred students who become champions.

route z screenshot

Driving to Fulton this Thursday I longingly scanned the horizon for the exit onto route Z; my first opportunity to get off I-70 and into the countryside. Like the college, there’s something about the locale – an historic small town in central Missouri.

fulton the setting

This idyllic environment lends itself perfectly as the setting for a coming-of-age story.

Not to diminish the importance of academics, but driving on route Z through Calwood, the self-proclaimed “Crossroads of the World”…

welcome to calwood screen shot

…past farms, over creeks, to finally arrive in Fulton, my only thoughts were of my classmates, friends, professors, and fraternity brothers. Our four-year odyssey began trudging uphill through the Westminster columns as freshmen and ended downhill, as graduates, through those same columns on a misty day in May of ’81.

westminster columns sunny

These relationships were forged in a pivotal time – riding the last waves of adolescence; on the cusp of adulthood – and wove the calico fabric of who I would become.

At Westminster, “who I would become” seemed always to be in a state of flux. But contrary to popular belief, my decision to apply to medical school was not a last minute afterthought. I came to Westminster with that goal in mind. The problem was that I loved poetry more than chemistry. However, my faculty mentors – some of whom have honored me with their presence here today – advised me I could major in my first love and still take advantage of the breadth of educational opportunities encompassed by a liberal arts curriculum. I always felt a bit like their little experiment. But the experiment worked – and their Westminster English major got early acceptance to medical school.

I may not have been sure of my destination, but I never doubted the vital role Westminster played in my journey.

Our Town - filmstill

In Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Emily asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?”

Well, Emily, during my four years at Westminster I tried to realize it. And I have proof.

the med school ap

A few weeks ago, while going through some old boxes I came across a copy of my hand-typed medical school application from the summer of 1980. Reading the personal statement section took me back to that late night when, alone in my parents’ basement, my appreciation of my college experience took center stage:

I believe well roundedness is one of the most essential characteristics one can possess. This is one reason why I chose to attend a small liberal arts college. I am so thankful that I have been blessed with the opportunity to attend such an institution as Westminster College. There I have been able to assume leadership roles in honorary, scholastic, administrative, artistic, and social societies. I have experienced music, theatre, dance, creative writing, athletics, as well as the classroom. Also the year and one-half that I served as a dorm counselor and resident advisor allowed me to develop my understanding of human nature. At Westminster I was able to major in English and still pursue a pre-med curriculum. I chose English for two reasons: (a) I think the art of communicating with another human being with clarity, precision, and feeling is one of the most important skills one can possess; and (b) I simply love it. But just as important as anything else, I have made many dear friends at school who will remain with me in my heart as long as I shall live.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting with some current Westminster students.

Ya got trouble Westminster

My goal was to help them understand the value of a liberal arts education. In this day, where jobs are tight and competition is fierce, learning what and how might seem more practical than learning why. However, I stood before them as a testament to how practically perfect a Westminster education in search of why can be. There are many destinations in life, but only one journey. I left Westminster prepared for a journey.

last line screen shot

As I showed the copy of my med school application to the students, I noticed for the first time the last sentence and realized that it illustrates the most valued attribute born of a liberal arts education:

I am confident I could fulfill myself in medicine, but as sure as truth is always changing, should I discover later that it is not right for me, I know I would have the courage to move on in search of that which is.

 award from pres at podium

Today, alongside these other worthy honorees, I gratefully and humbly accept Westminster’s Alumni Lifetime Achievement Award. However, my journey is not over. Each day I feel it has just begun. And I do have the courage to move on in search of the next destination. I hope I have and will continue to prove worthy of this beautiful award. I will cherish it.

the dream of westminster

I leave you now with the full text of the quote I submitted; i.e.: the rest of the story:

At Westminster College my intellect was challenged, my imagination was freed, and my passions were set ablaze. Here I made lifelong friendships that have sustained me. Here I thrived in the glow of mentors who sparked confidence and convictions. My appreciation of those who shaped my collegiate odyssey is only exceeded by the profound gratitude I have for my mother and father. My parents’ love and sacrifice allowed me to realize my Westminster College dream, which has been one of the greatest blessings in my life. 

westminster sign

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3 thoughts on “A love letter to a liberal arts education

  1. Very nice indeed! It resonated within me as it triggered some similarities! First in my family to go to college, I was a creative writing major. I almost went to med school when I went back for my doctorate, but having been a nurse and then an APRN back in 1994 I went over to the med school where they said with your experience in the NICU and having been a nurse since 1981. “You will fly through med school!” I almost did it ! But starting my doctorate in 1994 I thought and thought and remembered the long on call nights I spent with residents – I had a 6 year old at the time and the thing that mattered the most to me then and now was the mother that I am. I knew at that point even though I was bright enough to do med school and become a psychiatrist, I could not give up the time with my daughter and my husband. It was the right decision for me. I appreciate your words and always enjoy the blogs! Your writer is always shining through!
    (Loved your blog on addict vs physiological dependence) and the Music Man metaphor! I could practically hear you singing it! Very refreshing! You have certainly brought a new vitality and synergy to the KMA!
    Thank you for taking the time to write about what matters in a way that I personally enjoy reading! I’ve thought it several times do figured maybe I’ll just tell ya!! Congratulations on your well deserved award!
    Debbie Thomas

  2. REFERENCES AND LINKS

    *
    Westminster College
    http://www.westminster-mo.edu/Pages/default.aspx
    *
    Westminster College Alumni Awards Convocation and weekend, April 26, 2014
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/westminstercollegemo
    *
    The National Churchill Museum (and Church of St. Mary)
    https://www.nationalchurchillmuseum.org
    *
    Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech at Westminster
    http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/churchill-delivers-iron-curtain-speech
    *
    2104 Alumni Award Recipients
    http://www.westminster-mo.edu/alumni/Events/alumniweekend/Pages/2013AlumniAwardRecipients.aspx
    *

    Emily Webb’s goodbye

  3. Pat,

    What a wonderful essay. I have shared it with my high school senior daughter as she embarks on the process of deciding where to go to college.

    Congratulations on your well-deserved award from our alma mater.

    Jim Boeckman
    Austin, Texas

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