Forever Young

This week, the TJ Society, a gathering of U.Va. alumni who graduated 50 or more years ago, returned to the Grounds for their reunion. My remarks to them reflect on how the University and its people – much like Mick Jagger, Madonna and other modern “amortals” – evolve and change over time, yet remain ageless in their consciousness and aspirations.

 
In 1975, Mick Jagger said that if at 45 he were still singing “Satisfaction,” he would shoot himself. At 67, he is still singing it, and Keith Richards is playing that famous three-note riff. They are slightly ahead of the Baby Boomers, harbingers of what is to come: a generation young in mind and consciousness even if old in body (or supernaturally resilient, like Keith Richards).

Most of you graduated in 1961, a year of great promise, with “The New Frontier,” the Peace Corps, and America at the height of its power. Within two years, John Kennedy was assassinated, the Vietnam War was underway, and the struggle for civil rights was rocking the nation.

If the ’60s in America were an era of terrible dilemmas, they would also come to be seen as an age of “amorality”; to use a tired phrase, a time of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.

You, the Class of 1961, know better. The ’60s were also a time of revolutionary thought, of boundless energy and discovery, when the culture of youth began its ascendancy and never looked back.

It was around this time that an idea crept into our consciousness, the idea that one can live agelessly.

So, it is not surprising that 50 years after you graduated, the notion of “amorality” that once branded you in your youth has been replaced with “amortality,” the aspiration to keep aspiring, in the sense of breathing, to live the same way and enjoy the same things, perhaps not at the same pace, from your late teens to the day you die.

According to Time magazine, the people of the amortal era “rarely ask themselves if their behavior is age-appropriate, because that concept has little meaning for them. They don’t structure their lives around the inevitability of death, because they prefer to ignore it. Instead, they continue to chase aspirations and covet new goods and services. Amortals assume all options are always open.”

Hugh Hefner, whose fame is indelibly linked to the early 1960s and his “Playboy philosophy,” is a classic amortal. He’s preparing to marry a woman 60 years younger and once said that Viagra was invented with him in mind. Woody Allen no longer plays the much-older man wooing the young woman in his films (he was shamed out of it by his critics), but he is married to one. Elton John becomes a first-time dad at age 62. Keith Richards writes a fascinating memoir that sums up the essence of amortality: the spirit lives on while the body caves in. Women, too, like Madonna, challenge our notions of age-appropriate behavior.

These amortals don’t just express the Zeitgeist, they embody the important truth that consciousness changes and evolves at a much different pace than the body does. Amortality characterizes an entire generation, the largest in American history, namely, the Boomers and their precursors. You see the world through 25-year-old eyes, even at 75, and imagine yourself still becoming the person you want to become. Instead of a fixed adult identity, you have instead a constant searching, and a becoming: the years slip by, but you still think of yourself as youthful. Your consciousness is forever young.

Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell had a complicated relationship. But when Ali won the heavyweight championship for the third time, Cosell quoted Bob Dylan’s song, “Forever Young.” I have always liked that piece, especially the last stanza:

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young.

The amortality of consciousness applies also to this university of yours, whose bicentennial we will celebrate in 2019. Most of you went to the College in the late 1950s—a world I glimpse now and then through the writings of my good friend, Ken Ringle, who, by the way, has returned today for his 50th reunion. Ken is a former writer for the Washington Post, and wrote a very funny recollection of William Faulkner’s time at the University in 1958. Ken was stalking him in the hope of better understanding the Biblical allusions in Light in August, or the stained glass imagery in Go Down, Moses. While I don’t know that he got anywhere, I liked his piece so much that I posted it on my blog.

Ken wrote another piece, called “The University in the Late Fifties.” It’s a socio-cultural history, shrewd as it comes, and politically incorrect about a time that was, by today’s standards, politically incorrect. As he tells it, the students “drank bourbon over ice in the stands at football games, scotch and soda while bopping to blues bands in sweaty, smoke-filled fraternity houses, gin and juice and bloody marys on Sunday polo games … and lots of beer with meals.” It was a time when many Virginia students owned firearms and kept them in their rooms—mostly shotguns or rifles for hunting. Ken recalls seeing a deer carcass hanging by its heels from the porch of Sigma Pi. There were WWII and Korean War veterans who would pack their .45 service revolvers on road trips and shoot out the gate lights at Sweet Briar. It was a time when most of the students, whether in-state or imported, had some sort of tie to the land, and before the University saw an avalanche of students from Northern Virginia. Of course, like the TV series “Mad Men,” this still was a man’s world, with little inkling of the gender and racial diversity that would soon inhabit the Grounds.

Ken remembers classmates whose parents sent them to Virginia because, after Harvard, it was “the only other socially acceptable school.”  After all, what other state university had a polo team? Ken also quoted the late CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt describing a Virginia diploma as “not only scholarly but patrician,” a distinction that had always escaped Chapel Hill where Kuralt went to school. For upwardly-mobile Irish Catholics named Kennedy (as in, Bobby and Ted) Harvard and Virginia were their preferred choices. If there is a consciousness of the University that remains forever young—from the founding of the University through the late 1950s, when so many of you went to school, down to the present day—I think it is this tension between aristocracy and populism:  being a public Ivy, a state university with a polo team, a place that is at once patrician and democratic. To say that such essential tension defines who we are may seem elitist until we remember that this is exactly how Mr. Jefferson would have intended us to grow.

He believed in a naturally occurring aristocracy of talent and virtue, liberally scattered across all segments of the population—including the poor and the uneducated. It was the role of the university to “cull from every condition of our people” this natural aristocracy and provide it with opportunity in the form of education. By marrying this aristocracy of talent to democracy, he signaled that the purpose of his university lies in the exquisite refinement of human sensibility, to serve our democratic citizenry. Only a renaissance man could have defined democratic education in this way.

The University and the College should be as recognizable to you today as it was to you then. It evolves and changes, often in dramatic ways as our contemporary diversity attests, but it retains a spirit and a tradition, instantly recognizable, telling us we could be nowhere else, on no other Grounds, at no other university. It is almost two centuries old, but it has its own amortality: it stays forever young in its consciousness and in its aspiration. It was as recognizable to Mr. Jefferson as it is to you and to me.

So, to Mr. Jefferson, to you, and to today’s students at U.Va., let me raise a toast and recite the “Virginia Creed” (of unknown authorship):

“To be a Virginian, either by Birth, Marriage, Adoption, or even on one’s Mother’s Side, is an Introduction to any State in the Union, a Passport to any Foreign Country, and a Benediction from Above.”

20 Responses to “Forever Young”

  1. Garland P Moore Jr says:

    Well done and well said. All the best–your old grey haired friend in Baltimore-Bo Moore

  2. Cullen Couch says:

    “…I think it is this tension between aristocracy and populism: being a public Ivy, a state university with a polo team, a place that is at once patrician and democratic. To say that such essential tension defines who we are may seem elitist until we remember that this is exactly how Mr. Jefferson would have intended us to grow.”

    Very nicely put.

  3. G Steven McKonly says:

    I have said for at least five years that sixty is the new “middle age”. I reach that marker late this year. In my own effort to turn back the clock, last fall I decreed I would surf each month in 2011. In some parts of this country and others in the world, that boast is no big deal, but try doing it in Stone Harbor NJ. My streak of consecutive months on my long board now stands at 14, from April, 2010, through May 9.
    Thanks once again for a thought provoking, enjoyable essay.

  4. Judge Ronnie A. Yoder says:

    Unfortunately we missed your address; but it touched a familiar chord–my commencement address at Goshen College last year spoke of the immortality of those who create memorial scholarships. I thought you might be interested. It can be found by Googling me or visiting the website of my father at rayyoder.com. (He received his M. Ed. from UVA). Best regards. ry

  5. Tom Darbyshire says:

    “Aristocracy of talent and virtue.” Brilliant. A description of the University that seems at once startling, provocative and true.

  6. Julia Kincaid Hollon says:

    Dean Woo – I absolutely love reading all your blog postings. I’m sure the Class of 1961 enjoyed your comments. My father was the class of 1966 and I was 1991…..exactly 25 years apart. It wasn’t until my 10th reunion that I realized that even though our time at the University was separated by many years, our experiences weren’t necessarily very different. I think this speaks directly toward the “amortality” you write about. Thank you for your insights. I’ll look forward to those to come.

  7. Will Waller says:

    I was an English major, class of ’53, and law graduate, class of ’59, and can say that Dean Woo’s remarks and Ken Ringle’s two pieces are right on the mark. There were several female students in the early ’50′s who were faculty daughters: e.g. Suzanne Moffatt (Dean Moffatt) and Sissy Tebell(Coach Gus). I chaired the Judiciary Committee 1958-59 and confirm we did not have to deal with a firearms case, just such matters as the portrait of Hollins’ founder which wound up in a fraternity house. What memories. Will Waller

  8. Just wait until you “cap off” in your eighties. Looking back provides a brilliant view of what is coming. The University, Mr Jefferson’s greatest work, will still leave its indelible mark on those who dare to tread its halls.

  9. Mike Murphy says:

    What’s admirable, fantastic even, about this blog is the spirit of recapturing and retelling the past without rancor or judgement.

    The past is what is was, the present is what it is. That there have been changes over time, and that what once was acceptable and common is no longer done for whatever reason, should never be a condemnation for those who were there. Too often the bad historian imposes today’s attitudes and opinions on past events to declare anything different from today to be evil or bad.

    Thanks Dean Woo for being a great historian and telling a great story!!!

  10. Brawner Cates says:

    “This institution of my native State.the hobby of my old age.will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind,to explore and to expose every subject susceptible of its contemplation” Thomas Jefferson circa 1820. Now that guy had a plan for his retirement& amortality.We’re very fortunate to have Dean Woo stir our hearts and memories from time to time with her magnificent observations about UVA and its alumni.I only hope to get the chance to meet her someday.

  11. Paul Sierocinski says:

    Your pieces are so elegantly written, you made this 6’-6” 300lbr tear up! May you have a blessed day.

    Best regards,
    Paul Sierocinski
    Class ‘88

  12. Bernie Kirsch says:

    I read your blog and enjoyed it. Your “Forever Young” talk at Wednesday’s lunch was marvelous. You hit the nail on the head for the old timers in attendance. The College is fortunate to have someone with your enormous talent serving as its Dean. It makes me even prouder of The University.

  13. Alexander C. von Thelen says:

    Dean Woo continues to fascinate, tantalize and make my heart soar when I read her blog about her UVA experience. A true daughter of Virginia and a treasure of the University.

  14. Keith says:

    What restores our youth is to impart to the next generation a message that they recognize worth carrying forward in our stead. The message could be a song, a wise phrase, a humanitarian goal… or in the case of a capable teacher, a lesson well learned. To see the student accept and retain a lesson, that is to know the meaning of eternal youth. Many ask what our beloved Mr. Mead drinks, to keep his youth and vigor; ask him, and you will know.

    Keith

  15. Gene Barrett says:

    What a terrific and thought-provoking essay. I watched a son graduate from Virginia today, and reading this essay this evening was very apropos. In all honesty I had not encouraged him to attend, for several reasons. In addition to minor matters such as the ongoing general disdain for the adoption and use of modern technology, and its ongoing administrative dysfunctionality (unchanged from my days here in the early 80′s, and reinforced in comparison to the institutions my other two sons attended), there was, among other things, the more serious issue of the lack of appropriate focus (only now beginning to be addressed) on science and engineering — at least for a university of UVa’s pedigree and designs. But in addition, there was my own lingering discomfort about the very thing you so perceptively address: that definitional question, what is UVa trying to be? Is it elitist, an elite striver, a public-with-delusions-of-grandeur, or a victim of creeping-State-U-ism? It never seemed — to me — comfortable in its own skin. Yet I think maybe I missed it all along. Perhaps it’s all of those, on purpose, but also more than that. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

    I always enjoy your work. Keep it coming!

  16. F.Winston Johns says:

    Dear Dean Woo;
    Although I matriculated in ’49, I graduated in ’54 (there was a war on). I was a townee, Lane High School ’49.
    Suzanne Moffat and Sissy Tebell (mentioned in a prior letter) were classmates. I committed the eternal sin
    and married another townee Anne Churchman in 1953. I loved UVa, and was President of The Virginia Players
    and ran for an office (didn’t win). I have kept an attachment by being a VP of the Alumni Assoc. in Jacksonville Florida (’59) and a VP and one of the founders of our group in Northern Va. who meet at the Arboretum (UVa owns). One of my dear friends at school was Colgate W. Darden III and I spent much time at Carrs Hill, having been invited by Gov. and Mrs. Darden to a lunch or dinner. (I think I am more attached to UVa than my family). I also have a daughter who holds two degrees from UVa, lives up beyond Monticello and runs the MRC (Music Resource Center)(at the top of Vinegar Hill) Sibley Johns. I LOVED your FOREVER YOUNG and am glad you are with us to lead our University to the wonderful future
    it deserves…Best Wishes…..Winston Johns

  17. Meredith Woo says:

    Dear Gene:

    Thanks for your observations. I recognize the challenges you identify and we’re working hard to address them. For example, our strategic plan calls for growth in the sciences and the multidisciplinary areas in which we are well positioned for distinction, and which sit at the frontiers of scientific discovery over the next decade. We expect that nearly half of our new hires will be scientists. Whether our students study science or not, we try to give them the scientific vocabulary for the new century – the language they need to function and compete in today’s world. If we’ve done our jobs well, we’ve helped them learn to think for themselves, and think well.

  18. Jean Hicks Rood says:

    I love the line “The spirit lives on while the body caves in!” I am a 1961 graduate of the School of Nursing and obviously one of the few women on Grounds in those days. They certainly were different for us then, but our allegiance to the University is no less than that of our fellow male students. I have just enjoyed my 50th reunion and induction into the Jefferson Society, marred only by the missed opportunity due to rain, to finally walk the Lawn after 50 years, as we graduated in Old Cabell Hall in September. Thanks to Cate and the Alumni Society for a great reunion, and to you for putting into beautiful words a summary of exactly how I think we all feel – as ageless as UVa itself. For those few days, I felt exactly like I did in 1961 when we were singing our songs, sharing the flasks at games, and partying on sawdust floors at the fraternity houses.

  19. Dear Bob Molinaro, Sports writer, The Virginian-Pilot:
    I delayed responding to your latest effort to incite the Wahoo troops in your column this past week in The Virginian-Pilot. You made light of Virginia’s current pursuit of NCAA championships in tennis, lacrosse, and baseball. Two letters to the editor of 6-4-11, responding to your column, were right on target and quite moderate in tone.
    Here are the comments of UVa’s remarkable Dean of Arts & Sciences, Meredith Jung-En Woo, in May 2011 to a gathering of U.Va. alumni who graduated 50 or more years ago – FOREVER YOUNG. I hope the quality and diversity of her viewpoints will impress you, and that you will remember her graciousness when you think and write about the University of Virginia in the future.

  20. Joetta Hitchcock-Smith says:

    Even the recent grads of the University (one being myself, CLAS ’09) can appreciate the memories conjured up in this piece. Well written, Dean Woo!