President, Middlebury College
August 17, 2012
Mead Memorial Chapel
Good evening, I am Ron Liebowitz, president of Middlebury College, and it is a pleasure to welcome you to the 2012 Commencement ceremony of the Middlebury Language Schools.
One of the College’s most important symbols is Gamaliel Painter's cane. At commencement seven years ago we added a new tradition in the Language Schools—a tradition that we began in the undergraduate college in 1996: granting each graduate a replica of Gamaliel Painter’s cane. As each of you leaves the platform, Vice President for College Advancement Jim Keyes and Acting Dean of International Programs Paul Monod will present you with a replica of Gamaliel Painter's cane. In presenting the cane to you, we signify your passage into the distinguished alumni body of Middlebury College, and commemorate the beginning of a new and lifelong relationship between you and Middlebury. A few words about the cane and the person who left this symbol and a great legacy to our College
Gamaliel Painter was born in New Haven, Conn., in 1742. As the youngest son of a Connecticut Yankee family, he sought independence and greater opportunity, and moved his family to what was then the wilds of Vermont during the 1770s. A true entrepreneur at heart, he delved into a number activities and businesses, some successful, others less so.
In the closing years of the 18th century, Painter led a group of townspeople who, like Painter, believed that if the town of Middlebury were to prosper, and if the larger Champlain Valley were to flourish, it needed an institution of higher learning. After two failed attempts, Painter and his fellow townsmen secured a charter from the State of Vermont, so that, on November 4, 1800, Middlebury College opened its doors.
Painter and his mostly Yale educated Puritan co-founders, who together donated $4,150 to construct the first college building, knew they were undertaking a bold "experiment" in higher education. Yet they persevered.
For 19 years after the College’s founding, Painter walked the streets of the growing town and carried with him his walking stick, the cane, a replica of which each of you will receive later this evening. At his death in 1819, Gamaliel Painter left a bequest of more than $13,000, which secured the College's future.
I tell you this story because what has brought us to the present has been the vision of Gamaliel Painter, and the elaboration of that vision by generation upon generation of his successors. Those successors also knew, instinctively, that if they got the big picture right, the smaller details would follow, and that the College would grow and prosper, thanks to the confidence, courage, commitment, and wisdom that several latter-day Painters exemplified.
One of those latter-day Painters was Lilian Stroebe. Stroebe was the founder of the German School, the first Language School at Middlebury, which opened in 1915. Looking back after its founding, Stroebe praised Middlebury’s unusual willingness to experiment and innovate when she said, “No college at the time would have been willing to open its summer session to ideas that were absolutely new and had not proved their value . . .”
Stroebe got her inspiration about Middlebury’s perfect location for an immersion program from a Vassar College colleague, Marian Whitney. Looking from her window of a Rutland Railroad coach while traveling through Vermont, Whitney noticed new buildings under construction on a hilltop, obviously part of a college; a fellow passenger across the aisle informed her she was looking at Middlebury College and the new foundations of what would become Hepburn Hall and Mead Chapel, the very building we are in this evening. Seeing those buildings she concluded she had found the ideal site for the German School, for which Professor Stroebe had been searching for three years.
Over the next 98 years, this "ideal site" has proven the wisdom of Marian Whitney’s recommendation and Lilian Stroebe's vision.
As we observe and celebrate the accomplishments of our graduates this evening, and the traditional rites associated with our commencement exercise, we remind ourselves that the sustained pursuit of foreign language study and culture, and an awareness of the fact that, through such study we break down multiple barriers and increase inter-cultural understanding, has become a great distinguishing characteristic of this institution. The Language Schools have been a large part of this special claim, which we treasure and honor.
The spirit of Gamaliel Painter and Lillian Stroebe, and those who inspired and supported them, was carried on at Middlebury by the late Stephen Freeman, professor of French for 38 years, and director of the Language Schools for 24 years; and lives on now in Betty Ashbury Jones, graduate of the French School, emeritus member of the board of trustees, and unparalleled supporter of scholarships to the Language Schools; and in Kathryn Wasserman Davis, our 105-year-old benefactor and ardent champion of language learning in the name of advancing international peace, for whom the Kathryn Wasserman Davis School of Russian is named.
And each of you is now a part of this special tradition. You go forth with our blessings and our best wishes, bearing the mark of this College and the high expectations of you that come from being a graduate of Middlebury. Your new alma mater welcomes you to the family this evening. Congratulations.