Remarks at William and Mary on the Occasion of Receiving An Honorary Doctorate – May 10, 2008

Saturday, May 10, 2008

By David Ellenson 

It is with a sense of great joy that I stand here this evening before my family and so many close friends and express my appreciation to The College of William and Mary for the honor it has bestowed upon me in granting me this honorary doctorate. I must also say how very pleased I am to be acknowledged on the same evening that Michael Tomlin has been selected. He is such a distinguished alumnus, and to be paired with him in this way fills me with a profound sense of gratitude. 

The decision of The College to honor a rabbi and an African American at graduation tomorrow constitutes a powerful symbolic statement that affirms the dignity inherent in all human beings and our selection embodies an ethos of racial and religious expansion and inclusion – an affirmation of diversity – on the part of The College that I can only applaud. The recognition of two persons like us would surely have been unlikely forty years ago when I attended William and Mary. I am especially grateful to former President Gene Nichol for his efforts in this direction, and I thank him for originally extending the invitation to receive this degree to me. I am grateful as well to President Taylor Reveley for confirming that invitation, and eagerly look forward to Chancellor Sandra Day O'Connor and Rector Michael Powell conferring this degree upon me tomorrow. To be acknowledged by my alma mater in this way has a special significance and fills me with a welter of emotions I hope to be able to articulate and transmit as I speak with you over the next few moments about what this degree and this College mean to me – both personally and as a member of a family that has been blessed by this institution. 

In thinking about this day, the words of Mark Twain returned to me again and again. In an epigram contained in the "calendar" of his Pudd'nhead Wilson, Twain wrote, "The difference between a man and a dog is that if you feed them both, a dog will never bite your hand." While I leave the accuracy of Twain's characteristically cynical assessment of humankind to your judgment, I would say – in approaching this evening – that I accept the correctness of Twain's observation and, in expressing my gratitude this evening to The College, I hope I will reveal myself to have more in common with Twain's "dog" than with his "man." I would begin then by providing a bit of my family history that will clarify and illuminate the meaning of this evening to me and the sense of gratitude I feel. 

Two months ago, in a conversation I had with my cousin Meyera (Oberndorf, Mayor of Virginia Beach) when I was visiting in Newport News, she spoke to me of our grandmother and how she had arrived on the Virginia Peninsula almost 100 years ago as a 16 year old girl from Russia who spoke not even a single word of English. I cannot even imagine how different this land must have seemed to her and the several dozen other eastern European Jewish immigrant families that arrived at that time in Newport News. Yet, she and my grandfather, like those other Jewish immigrants, worked hard, and they established a sheet metal and roofing business in Newport News while raising five children. Times were not easy for them, but they were industrious and dutiful people, honest and hardworking, and they succeeded. My father was the youngest of those five children, and in 1938, after graduating from Newport News High School, enrolled at William and Mary, where he distinguished himself academically and prepared for entry into Harvard Law School, where he enrolled after World War II ended. At that same time, his older brother, my Uncle Louis, entered the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at W&M, where he was prepared for what would become an outstanding career as an attorney on the Peninsula. Uncle Louis always had a picture of his law School Dean, Professor Woodbridge, on the wall of his office, and constantly told me of the gratitude he had to Dean Woodbridge for his ongoing confidence in and encouragement of my Uncle, and Uncle Louis, as well as my father, impressed upon me how grateful they were for the education William and Mary provided them. In subsequent years, my cousins Edwin and Meyera (as well as her daughter Marci) enrolled at The College, and later my brother Jimmy, who is now a member of the Virginia Bar, attended both The College and Marshall-Wythe, as well. The Ellenson family is indebted to this school, and I am glad so many of us are here now to share in this celebration. I am only sorry that my father and my Uncle did not live to see this day, for I know how very proud they would be. Their souls permeate my very being this evening. 

On a personal level, I must mention two teachers – one of whom is here this evening – whose impact upon me has been profound and lasting, and thank them for playing such a significant role in shaping the entire course and direction of my life. My journey could not have been what it was without them. I speak now of Professors Ed Crapol and Jim Livingston, and I am elated that Dr. Crapol is here tonight. Forty years ago precisely, I was blessed to enroll in his course on "The History of American Foreign Policy." It was to be a course that changed my life. Up to that point, I will confess that I had been a somewhat indifferent student. However, Professor Crapol, newly arrived from his graduate work at the University of Wisconsin under the direction of William Appleman Williams, changed all that. Dr. Crapol's knowledge was voluminous and he had a complete command of the material he presented. His lectures were filled with content and he delivered them with excitement and passion. I still recall with the joy that is always associated with great learning and discovery how he applied the "Frontier Thesis" of Frederick Jackson Turner as a framework for understanding the course of American Foreign Policy from its origins during the early Federalist Period of this nation up to the modern day. The analysis he provided of the Federalist Papers of James Madison from this perspective was one of the most brilliant lectures I have ever heard. Ed Crapol modeled the relevance and excitement, the moral dimensions, of what an academic life could and ought to be, and I will always be indebted to him for that. I would not have entered the Academy if it were not for him, and I feel privileged beyond measure to thank him publicly tonight for what he has meant to me. 

The other teacher I would recall is Professor James Livingston. Dr. Livingston came to William and Mary my senior year to inaugurate the Department of Religious Studies. It was he who taught me for the first time the works of Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, and others. It was he who pointed out to me how many of the persons who were the great moral voices of that day – Abraham Joshua Heschel, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King – possessed religious educations and commitments. Like Dr. Crapol, Professor Livingston displayed a complete mastery over the materials he presented, and in his quiet and yet comparably passionate way, he made me convinced that there was no field in the world I would rather pursue than that of religious studies. While I am genuinely sorry that previous commitments took him out of the country tonight, I will always be grateful to him, as I am to Professor Crapol, for transforming and inspiring the entire direction of my life. It was he who recommended I consider becoming a rabbi (a suggestion I completely rebuffed at the time!), and it was he who directed me towards further study in the area of Religion at the University of Virginia. I am very proud that later I was able to follow in his footsteps and earn my own doctorate in the very program that he had – the joint Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary Program in New York. I carry his teachings and his spirit within me always, as I do those of Professor Crapol, and every day I attempt, as they did with me, to seek out the sparks of creativity and passion that reside within each of my students and help them walk along a path of their own choosing as they fulfill their own destiny and vocation. Thank you hardly seems sufficient to express my gratitude to both these men, and I can only be eternally grateful to this college for having provided me with such instructors, models, and mentors. 

In closing, I would recall a story that Professor Herbert Johnson, with whom I studied American Constitutional History here, told us once about the case of Dartmouth College v. Cherokee Nation. In the presence of two great students of the law such as Justice O'Connor and President Reveley, I do so with some trepidation. However, I tell it nevertheless because it captures my sentiments on this evening. Dr. Johnson related to us that it was Daniel Webster who represented Dartmouth College in that case, and in summing up his argument before Chief Justice John Marshall and the Supreme Court, Senator Webster said of Dartmouth, "It is a small college, but there are those of us who love it." John Marshall, recalling his own student days at William and Mary (all of three months!), was then said to have shed a tear. It is in that spirit that I would say tonight of William and Mary, "It is a small college, but there are those of us who love it." 

Once again, I am extremely grateful for the honor you have bestowed upon me and I hope, like Twain's "dog," I have been able to convey that gratitude this evening with these remarks. Thank you.


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