Keep It Simple
Clay Wawner, Dean of Students, delivered a powerful and practical 2018 Baccalaureate message to the senior class on the eve of graduation. As the sun set behind the Blue Ridge Mountains, Mr. Wawner shared three lessons that he remarked "come back to him" on a daily basis.
In addition to serving as Dean of Students, Mr. Wawner is the head coach of the lacrosse team and teaches in the history department.
Watch and read the entire message below.
Keep It Simple: Mr. Wawner's Baccaluareate Message
Thank you. It is an honor to be here tonight on the eve of Graduation.
To the Parents of the Class of Two Thousand Eighteen: Welcome to the Miller School of Albemarle. I would like all of the seniors to please RISE and turn to your families, and give a round of applause to the men and women whose love, support and sacrifice made it possible for you to be here today. Parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, thank you for your support over the last few years, without you, none of this would be possible. You may be seated.
And Now to the Class of 2018: It’s FRIDAY. We’ve got 9 different nationalities represented, we’ve got 23 State Champions representing 4 different State Championship teams, we’ve got 12 students attending top 50 universities, we’ve got over $1 million dollars in college scholarships earned, we’ve got collectively over 1,500 hours of helping out the community, we’ve got a new road, we’ve got a new bell, and we’ve got a new Head of School. But even better than that, we’ve got 50 students who we are proud to say are graduates of the Miller School of Albemarle. Let’s give 2 claps to the class of 2018.
When I was asked to be the speaker at this years Baccalaureate celebration, I did what I typically do to clear my head- I grabbed my dog Stanley and went on a walk. I followed the trail past my house, across the cattle guard and onto Ross’ loop. I passed the ancient Walnut tree and took a right onto the gravel road that leads through the towering pine forest. I passed the Wood Mizer on my left and the pile of slabs that our Land Management students had milled, pausing to smell the freshly cut cedars. I stayed left and followed the mowed route as it travelled uphill. I looked down to the red barn in the corner of the field, with ivy and honeysuckle climbing up it’s walls, and I tried to imagine the time when cattle roamed these fields, worked by the students, and that red barn was the beacon for shelter and feed. As I wandered, I hoped to be inspired by the words of Wendell Berry, or Socrates, or even Samuel Miller himself. I reached the top of hill, slightly out of breath, with Stanley panting at my side. I looked over the entire campus, with Old Main sticking up above the tree line, and the Bell Tower standing proudly at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and felt the Virginia breeze on my cheeks, mere moments away from clarity and enlightenment, when my older brother Fred’s voice popped into my head and he said “keep it simple, there are going to be a lot smarter people than you in that crowd.”
Slightly disappointed in the inspiration I attempted to find, but did not receive, I continued my walk down hill, back to my house. I watched my loyal companion Stanley terrorize some unsuspecting cyclists, despite my cries for him to stop. I received a text message about how yet another student failed to sign out when leaving campus. I then got a phone call from Mr. Riddick who while sitting at the grill at Birdwood golf club, had decided that the read and react offense that I had spent so many nights creating for our lacrosse team just wasn’t going to work. I then started laughing and realized once again that Fred Wawner was right, it’s best to just keep it simple. So instead of giving you some great words of wisdom, or reciting Romantic poetry or ancient philosophy, I want to share with you the three really basic things that I have learned that seem to come back to me on an almost daily basis.
Number 1. Do Something- and figure it out as you go Growing up, the rule in my house was that we, the children, were not allowed to come home directly after school. We had to do something. My parents did not care what is was, as long as it was a structured activity that lasted multiple hours. My brother and I chose to play sports, because it seemed like more fun than getting a job, and my sister, along with playing sports got into local theater productions. Everyday until we could drive, we were hauled all over town, or caught rides to practices, or tournaments or events. In between seasons, we would volunteer at the Salvation Army or the Free Clinic. Friends would invite me over to come hang out after school and I would roll my eyes and tell them I can’t because I have to DO SOMETHING. To clarify, hanging out with friends was not considered “doing something”, to truly “do something” you had to either be on a team, producing something or contribute to society in a meaningful way. The few times that we were caught on the couch or in our rooms during the daylight hours, were often met with a look of disappointment, which was quickly followed by the question “what are you doing?” These were the most lonely 4 words that could be strung together. To say “nothing” meant that I was simply existing, not being a part of anything, not contributing in anyway. And this was the worst thing that a person could do, NOTHING.
So my sophomore year of high school had ended and it was the first day of summer break. I had camps and summer leagues and trips to the beach all lined up, and I was going to take the first few days to just relax, you know, hang out. My father came into my room on that first morning before leaving for work and woke me up and asked “what are you doing today?” I, of course, had no answer to this incredibly simple yet intricate question. He wasn’t just asking me what I was doing today, he was asking what I was doing everyday of the summer that I didn’t already have something to do. I started sweating under my sheets and mumbled something so he would leave. Later that morning I did what I had always done when my parents were giving me a hard time, I called my best friend, Sam Hale. Sam answered the call, heard all of my grievances about how unjust this was and how it’s the first day of summer and what a jerk my dad is, and when I was all out of complaints, Sam calmly said “get a chainsaw and a weedeater and meet me at my house, I have an idea.”
And thus launched the first and only business I’ve ever owned- Clay and Sam’s Lawn Service. We shortened the name to C&S, had t-shirts made with my parents landline phone number on the back (this was before cell phones) and drove around to all the nearby neighborhoods looking for work. For the next 3 years, C&S became not only a modest source of pocket money, but a point of pride for us. Now when that dreaded question “what are you doing” was asked I always had a response- “C & S.” Sam and I learned a lot of valuable lessons as small business owners. First and foremost we learned that if you don’t work, then you don’t get paid. We learned what it was like to keep books and negotiate price, we learned how to deal with an unhappy customer, we learned that sometimes even after working for someone all day, you can still somehow owe THEM money (Sam I promise that pine tree was supposed to fall next to, not into Mr. Bigelow’s barn). But most importantly, we did something and though we did not know what we were doing at the time, we tried something new and ultimately, we learned the valuable business and life lesson- ‘be confident and figure it out as you go.’ Now, prior to owning my own company, the extent of my landscaping knowledge was limited to picking up sticks in the back yard so my dad did not run them over with the lawn mower. But, there was no job too big or too small for C&S. No matter what a customer requested, Sam and I would look at each other, nod and confidently say “Yep, we can do that.” Clean the gutters on your 4 story house, no problem. Take down that 60 foot oak tree in your back yard, you got it. Drive your old manual Ford truck to the farm down the road (even though I did not have a driver’s license or know how to drive a stick shift), we got you covered. The fact that we stayed in business for 3 years without any major incidents or property destruction is beyond me. But, we showed up on time, we were polite, we always said yes and we figured it out as we went.
Number 2. Be Kind In his 2005 collection of essays in “A Man Without a Country”, novelist and satirist Kurt Vonnegut responds to a letter from a man named Joe from Pittsburg. “Welcome to Earth young man” writes Vonnegut. “It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, Joe, you’ve got about a hundred years here. And there’s only one rule that I know of: Damn it, Joe, you’ve got to be kind!” When I first read this, it really had no effect on me. I was a completely self absorbed junior in college, trying to finish papers, study for tests, win lacrosse games and get invited to the next party- and not always in that order.
It wasn’t until after I graduated and began my career as a counselor at a wilderness therapy program, that I really considered this notion. The program, based in the mountains of North Carolina, was set up as an intervention for young men and women who at some point in their adolescence had veered severely off course. In my 6 years working in wilderness counseling, I spent time with kids with a myriad of issues, ranging from drug and alcohol abuse, to trauma, and mental illness. Each week, before packing our packs and hiking out to find our group in the backcountry, all of the counselor teams would gather at base camp for a couple hours of training. As we left the training room, above the door in big black letters was a sign that read “Be Kind: Everyone You Meet is Fighting a Battle”. Though she never referenced it directly, my supervisor made sure that this was the last thing that we saw each and every time we hiked out.
I spent many nights awake in my shelter considering this. What a wonderful thought. What if we all entered each interaction with this idea in the back of our minds. The idea that though you can’t see it, or a person does not say it, or act like it, each and every one of us is fighting some sort of internal war. So as you move forward remember, the strange kid in your science lab, the cool kid on the baseball team, the guy or girl in your dorm that you just don’t like, the professor or boss or co-worker that you just can’t seem to get along with, they are all fighting a battle, just like you, so be kind. And if you can muster up the courage, ask them about it.
Number 3. Never take yourself too seriously As my dear friend and mentor Dave Riddick recently said to me in an email- “Ego management is one of the most important elements of success. Arrogance leads to hubris, and hubris leads to a butt-whipping. Just ask Achilles!”
In my cousin Booker’s eulogy at his father “Greenie’s” funeral a couple of years ago, he said that our family abides by all 11 commandments, with the 11th commandment being “thou shall not take thy self too seriously.” Greenie’s old brother is my grandfather, Gene Corrigan. In his career, Papa Gene as we call him, was one of the most influential men in college athletics. He served as the Athletic Director at the University of Virginia and the University of Notre Dame, he was the Commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and towards the end of his career was president of the NCAA. He is the father of 7 children, is in multiple hall of fames, continues to consult on numerous NCAA boards and is flown all over the country to speak at university banquets. He is a man who could very easily take himself seriously.
At a family reunion about 4 years ago, right here on the Miller campus, all of the Corrigan’s gathered to spend time together, to eat and drink and tell stories. In the middle of the afternoon, Papa Gene was sitting on the steps of Caton Hall with two of his brothers looking out at all of their children and grandchildren. I approached this group of wise old men, knowing what they all had accomplished in their lives, and said “look at that, 3 great men back together.” Papa Gene quickly replied, “back together, and nothing has changed since we were babies. We can’t remember anything and we are all wearing diapers.” Now that is funny. The three of them then started laughing so hard that they cried, at which point Greenie said “and now I’m glad I’m wearing them too.”
Now you will all need to be serious in your lives, without this, nothing would really get done. You will have intense moments, and joyous moments and tragic moments, and moments of pride and moments when you just don’t know what to do. You’re not perfect, nobody is. You are going to try some things that are wildly successful and some that are miserable failures. And no matter which way it goes, remember that it is ok to laugh at yourself.
Looking over this collection of graduates, it makes me smile, because the three things that I mentioned, many of you already do. You are kind. I saw it everyday in the hallway, I saw it when you would listen intently to one another’s Senior Speeches, or when you would support each other at athletic events and drama performances.
You are funny. I saw it at formal gatherings when glittered suits showed up and dominated the dance floor, or octopus hats made it to basketball games, or when I catch someone doing an impersonation of a teacher in the hallway.
And you all “Do Something”, and we have made sure of that. Everyday after school you are out, trying something new, or perfecting something old or just trying to creatively get out of something that you really don’t want to do. Continue to learn and continue to grow. And whatever it is that you are doing, be confident, I am sure that you can figure it out.
This is a wonderful time, and you all deserve to be celebrated. You have worked hard and you have earned it. Now it is time to move forward. You are going to do great things. And if you can be kind, be productive and laugh at your yourself every now and then, don’t worry, everything is going to work out. And remember that before you have something important to do, take a walk, look around, and keep it simple. Thank You.