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Photo caption: President David L. Coppola pictured with a quilt that was hand-made for him by his dear great-grandmother when she was 99 years old.

Founder’s Day Celebration

In May 1897, the great American humorist, novelist and social critic, Mark Twain, was in London. It was one of the stops on a round-the-world speaking tour he had begun in 1895. He had hoped to use the fees from speaking engagements to pay off the considerable debts he owed in the United States, due to a series of unsuccessful investments and publishing ventures. While he was in London, someone started a rumor that he was gravely ill and he had died. According to a widely repeated story, an American newspaper actually printed his obituary and, when Twain was told about this by another reporter, he apparently quipped: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Clearly affected by the false reports of his demise, he wrote in his book later that year, Following the Equator, published in November 1897: “It is my belief that nearly any invented quotation, played with confidence, stands a good chance to deceive.”

I suspect we are feeling a range of emotions today, since this place and community has felt like home for each of us throughout the years. On the other hand, perhaps some of you may have simply come to make sure my body is lowered into the ground! 🙂 I hope you are proud of the amazing witness of generosity from our colleagues and I hope you are happy that we have transformed so many young lives through education and mentoring.

Higher education transformed my life — most recently as a teacher and leader — but before that as a student. Neither of my parents completed college, but they emphasized the importance of education and persistence. It is because of their support and encouragement that I had the opportunity to transform my life, my family’s life, and serve others accordingly.

My great grandmother on my mother’s side of the family, Evelyn McCord, came to live with my family when she was 98 and remained in our care until her passing a week before her 111th birthday. She was clear in her convictions and affections. She made each of her six great-grandchildren a quilt and this one was made for me when she was 99. As a small boy, she taught me the importance of Psalm 103 that “God is kind and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in mercy (v.8) . . . but we are also dust, and “our days are like the grass and flowers of the field” (v.15). As such, I was admonished to make the most of my time and extend kindness each day because every person was struggling with something. Similarly, in Acts 10:34, Grandma reminded me never to get “too big for my britches” because “God shows no partiality,” no favoritism based on culture, social status, or position. Her message was clear that I must make the most of my talents while avoiding the pull of pride.

As an introvert, I am not adroit at spontaneous public speaking, and yet the roles I have been called to fulfill have pushed me to be extroverted and overtly ambitious to accomplish success for others, especially for Keystone College. Whenever something came up along my journey of life, I would happily volunteer or get involved. There was never really a grand plan, but as I look back, there was a general direction. My father once said to me that I would be able to do great things if I did not worry about getting the credit. Such has been the way I have tried to live my life.

In the 1970s, I became acquainted with a Trappist monk who recorded albums in Weston, Vermont. The words to one of his songs were taken from the Song of Ruth in the Jewish Scriptures. They read:

“Wherever you go, I shall go. Wherever you live, so shall I live. Your people will be my people. And your God will be my God too. (1:16)

In classic 1970s style, a time when we often experimented with liturgical music that we called “folk music,” at the end of the song, Brother Gregory speaks on the record and says words that I think are fitting today:

I want to say something to all of you who have become a part of the fabric of my life.
The color and texture which you have brought into my being have become a song.…
When the time of our particular sunset comes,
Our accomplishments won’t really matter a great deal.
But the clarity and care with which we have loved others
Will speak with vitality of the great gift of life we have been for each other.

When I refer to the transformative power of education, I am drawing from my experience as a college leader, but also from the perspective of a young boy living in a small town in northern New Jersey. Keystone is a special place with amazing people and an instinctive spirit to improve the world. Leading this remarkable institution for the past five years has been a privilege and I am grateful to you for believing in our mission and working together to help us to grow and improve every day.

I’ll always be proud to have been a part of this community with great colleagues every step of the journey; most of you are here today. In particular, to my remarkable team for five years – and for some of you, much longer–I’ve drawn from your experience and vitality and tried to reflect back what you revealed every day: intelligence, character, virtue, and hope for the future. Together we have transformed the world for the better, in small ways and in large, one student at a time. I am confident that wherever I go, you shall go with me in my heart and memories.

I have been blessed with many amazing teachers and mentors in my life. And I have mentored several of you, to try to keep you from making the same mistakes I have made, and I hope you have found my counsel helpful. And to the younger and newer members of this community, you are wonderful. That is why when I leave in July, I leave with great optimism about this College. I know our work has empowered many students and their families to be forces for good in the world.

I think it is instructive that the average lifespan of an American business, (S&P 500 index) is about 15-30 years before it is acquired, merged, or dissolved. Contrast that average with Japan where more than 20,000 companies are more than 100 years old, and a handful are more than 1,000 years old! When I studied in Japan, I learned that the word for these long-lived companies is shinise. These Japanese companies have survived for so long because they are small, mostly family-run, and because they are committed to a central belief or credo that is not tied solely to making a profit. In short, they share a mission.

Our Strategic Plan champions a shared mission and a clear path for the next 7-10 years for our community. It will work. In fact, if you have seen our recent numbers, our efforts are already taking root. But the most important factor that assures the success of this College is commitment, a commitment that finds its expression in persistent, ethical, strategic resolve in responsible relationships and community. The vital core of the Strategic Plan is the ability and willingness of all of you to be involved—inch-by-inch and row-by-row—in this amazing garden called Keystone College to continue to grow.

Recently, several people have asked if I had read the book, This I Believe (Allison, J., & Gediman, D., eds., 2007) and if so, what would I write that I believe? As I look back, two primary stories have guided my life and leadership for decades and illustrate what I most believe about people and community. The first story I heard as a teenager from a pastor in New Jersey, Fr. Bill Bausch:

An old man passes a pile of stones in the desert where a scorpion had become unexpectedly trapped. The old man reaches out to free the scorpion only to be stung. Again and again, the old man tries to free the scorpion, only to be repeatedly stung and poisoned more seriously each time. A passerby saw the old man and told him to give up the effort and let the creature die. The old man’s reply was, “What can I do? It is his nature to sting, it is mine to free.”

The second story that illustrates what I believe is from Matthew 13:25-30:

. . . A man sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared, as well. The workers of the householder came to him and said, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?  Where have the weeds come from? Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ He replied, ‘No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, ‘First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.’

I encourage you to always be the people who free others, regardless of how many times you are stung. Stinging always brings about pain and eventually kills one’s soul and others. Of course, reaching out to help others also comes with effort and some pain, but the result is life and freedom. And when we are at our best as an educational community, there will be unity in our diversity, and strength and humility in our adversity, and we can grow and live together to feed our students from the many grains and different gifts we each share.

If someone is going to take the risk to be in community, to be a parent, to be a teacher, or a leader, then inevitably that person will be misunderstood. Most often such misunderstandings can be clarified by the strength of dialogue and veracity of relationships and actions that follow. Perhaps I acted too quickly for some of you, and I probably acted too slowly for others. If there is still some injury or hurt feelings that are unresolved, please know that I am open to healing or reconciliation at any time. And if you sought to harm me, I am unaware and leave here with a clean and positive heart with regard to every one of you.

So after five years of service, I ask you, please continue the rigorous, respectful dialogue so that the best ideas come forward. Remember the importance of persistence and strategic resolve, eschewing resignation or complacency. Commit every day to being open to surprises, thinking critically and creatively, forgiving quickly, and being unafraid to wrestle with impasse or difficult issues. The future of this region is in the authentic pursuit of ethics that is cultivated in small colleges, such as Keystone.

One of my teachers, the American educator and cultural critic, Neil Postman (1931-2003), called children, “the living messages we send to a time we will not see.” Aidan and Thomas have begun to grow up here and have become two amazing young people, smart and handsome, spiritual, thoughtful, and generous of heart. They seemed to have worn the burden of these years in the public eye so easily, thanks to your warm reception and occasional co-parenting. Like every parent, I hope I have not messed them up too much. Of all that I’ve done in my life, I am most proud to be their father.

And finally, I would not have been able to come to work every day without the full support of Delia. The fullest expression of my fulfillment, love, and gratitude is especially reserved for you, Delia, my beloved wife, friend, inspiration, confidant, strength, and true north. I look forward to our next adventure into the heart. On y va! Andiamo!

Friends, Colleagues, Congratulations on your successful efforts this year!
I look forward to returning to celebrate the Sesquicentennial with you.
Thank you for everything you have shared with me, all you do, and all that you are to our students.

-President David L. Coppola, Ph.D.