"Memorial Service Homily”
James A. Baker, III
Princeton Class of 1952 Reunion
Ladies and gentlemen....
We gather here today in a house of God to honor the roll call of so many of our friends, classmates, colleagues and loved ones from the class of 1952.
Without being egotistical, I can honestly say that we were all part of one of the most successful and generous classes in Princeton’s history. Our class ranks right up there with the 1879 class of Woodrow Wilson and the 1771 class of James Madison -- and the alumni office has said as much. As our classmates who have departed demonstrated over and over again, life is much more than how much time you spend on this sweet earth -- it is what you do with that time. And whether or not you spend it trying to build a better world.
Most of us here today gathered together sixty years ago this month to hear Princeton’s President Harold Dodds present the baccalaureate address to our graduating class. For those who may not remember it -- (and I won’t call for a show of hands) -- Dodds offered a simple proposition. Is the human race advancing? Or, not?
"Is the course of history,” he asked, "a spiral movement upward to a better civilization? Or, is it but a repetitious cycle of coming and going, the rise and fall of peoples to be likened to a wheel rotating on a fixed axis, never getting anywhere, and finally wearing itself out and passing away?”
"If our answer is that there is no progress, no hope of progressive bettering our civilization, our outlook towards the future sinks into a sort of cosmic pessimism.”
The result of such pessimism, Dodds warned, would be to accept the cynic’s goal of crass materialism and to halt our attempts to make society more reasonable and more humane.
"But on the other hand,” he said, "if progress is possible, then there are grounds for cosmic optimism. Courageous effort and self-sacrifice have a meaning.”
About 15 minutes later, after discussing the historical debate between unbridled pessimism and unbridled optimism, Dodd’s concluded his remarks by challenging us to take the more difficult road.
"I believe,” he said, "that you will find your strength in the end where your forefathers found it, in the same sort of assurance they derived from their conviction that God would work through them to a beneficent purpose.”
And then, we accepted our diplomas, tossed our mortarboards skyward, and proceeded into the world. Along the way, we learned that the history of civilization is both cyclical and progressive.
Cyclical? Yes. Each member of the Class of ‘52 was born during the great Depression. And now, those of us who have made it this long are living in the age of the great Recession. In between those two historic bookends, we have seen the very best that mankind has to offer -- and at times, the very worst.
And we have experienced our share of conflict. Our fathers, brothers and sisters fought in World Wars One and Two and we did the same in the Korean War. Our children battled in Vietnam and now are grandchildren are doing the same in Afghanistan. Of course, the Cold War affected all of those generations, though mercifully, without the nuclear bang that we all feared.
But during that same period, tremendous progress has been accomplished. We have seen the virtual eradication of polio, watched Neil Armstrong make his giant leap for mankind, and witnessed the spread of electoral democracy from a handful of countries to more than 110 countries today. DNA has been discovered, de-coded and manipulated in ways that improve our lives. The sun’s rays have been harnessed to generate power. Technology has emerged that we could never have even dreamed of in 1952. Women have taken control of their own destinies.
When looking at the arc of the human condition, we have experienced the most prolific advances in world history, with members of the class of ’52 contributing greatly to many of them.
And so, here we are today, in our 80’s, nearing the close of our lives. When I think about it, I realize that President Dodds’ question sixty years ago remains as pertinent today as it was when we were fresh-faced graduating seniors. Is the human race advancing? Or, not?
Those 90 classmates whose names you heard -- and the members of the class of ’52 who left us before them -- have answered Dodd’s question. On balance, they lived their lives firmly believing in the cosmic optimism that Dodds described. Yes, there is much wrong in the world today. But when the spirit is willing, and the mind resolute, nothing is so broken that it cannot be fixed.
Ladies and gentlemen, I believe that every single one of our departed classmates would challenge those of us who are left to not go gentle into that good night. They certainly didn’t.
They remained on the path that this school laid out for us sixty years ago, one based on their faith that the world can get better. And because of them, it did -- in many, many ways.
And it will continue to, but only if those of us who remain of the class of 1952 keep striving to make certain that courageous effort and self-sacrifice still have meaning.
That, of course, is our Princeton legacy.