On May 7th I had the honor of giving the commencement address for the graduating class of the American College of the Building Arts, located in Charleston, South Carolina. Its founder, John Paul Huguley, had called me with the invitation. On the one hand, I was deeply honored, but on the other, I was concerned. I’d never given a commencement address before. What do you say to graduating seniors? I knew I didn’t want to bore them with fulsome advice about how to live their lives or wax eloquent about the halcyon days of student life. In addition to the students, there would be the parents, faculty, and board members in the audience. They too needed to engaged in some way.
Drayton Hall and I have had close connections with the college since its founding. In fact, I’d been a founding member of its board, and we’ve engaged in joint projects over the years. Recently, the students have done masterful work in documenting and reproducing the historical plaster ceilings of our first floor great hall and of the “Ionic” drawing room. They’d also hand-crafted plaster replicas of ornamental ceiling details that we’ll be selling in our museum shop. So there was a solid foundation from which I could speak.
The morning was beautiful. Blue sky. Cool weather. Since I’ve made my career in the museum field, and not in academe, I didn’t have my gown and my hood and other academic regalia indicating my Ph.D., but that was just fine. The day turned out to be outstanding, and to my surprise and pleasure, they gave me an honorary Bachelor of Arts in the Applied Sciences. But back to the main question: What do you say to graduating seniors?
Below is my answer: An “Initiation Together” into Life
“It’s an honor to be here, and what a well-chosen location: Washington Park, Charleston’s first public park. I’m honored to be here for this commencement ceremony and want to thank all of those who made this remarkable occasion possible: Pierre Manigault, chairman of the board; Gen. Colby Broadwater, president; John Paul Huguley, founder; all of you members of the board and staff; plus you students and your parents, family members, and friends; and the donors here present – and everyone else. Together you make for a formidable team.
“We have five wonderful seniors with us, celebrating their commencement: Guyton Parker Ash, Michael Lauer, Alexander Gault McAlister, Megan Elizabeth Shogan, and David Matthew Utterback-Tyminski. Congratulations.
“Your commencement. Just what does that word mean? I enjoy etymology, the study of the root meanings of words, because so often there is a story associated with those original meanings. If you look up the etymology of commencement or commence, you see something interesting: it does mean to “begin,” so this commencement marks a beginning. But interesting, “commence” is derived from the Latin word “com” meaning jointly or together, as in “compact” or “commingle”; and then from “initiare,” which means to “begin,” or principally, to “initiate.” So “Commence” means to “begin together,” to “initiate together.” So this ceremony then marks a new beginning for you as individuals and as a group. You will be beginning a new life. But I also think that your entire time with the American College of the Building Arts has constituted a commencement: over the last 4 years you have been initiated together into the Building Arts.
“You came here as freshmen, and like all freshmen, were probably uncertain about the future. Through this college experience, you took a wide range of classes. In fact, you participated in the only college in the world to offer a four year bachelor’s degree in the applied sciences of the building arts. You took courses that synthesized a traditional liberal arts degree with traditional training in the building arts. That is, you took rigorous courses in math, English, science, and history, which sought to connect those disciplines to the building arts. What makes this College unique is that the problems you studied in math or science were often based on real problems you faced within your shop classes. Your history classes were not the typical surveys of Western Civilization but rather they accented the historical connections between architecture and society, thereby enabling you to see traditional building arts as products of their time and to respect them as such. Of course, this initiation also required the learning of skills in the building arts, and you had exceptional masters to teach you, masters with experience both in the classroom and in the real world. Masters like Simeon Warren, Bruno Sutter, Richard Guthrie, James Hanford, Ken Nuttle, and Frank Genello.
“These masters initiated you into the building arts in general, through your course in the Foundations in the Building Arts, and taught you about the basics of building construction, and you learned about wood trades, trowel trades, and metalworking. Later, you were initiated into specific trade areas of specialization: carpentry, timber framing, masonry, architectural stonework, architectural ironwork, and plaster. You used Drayton Hall as a learning laboratory, documenting and replicating two of its historical plaster ceilings as classroom projects. Over there on the bench, I’ve placed some examples of your plasterwork, which will soon be featured for sale in Drayton Hall’s museum shop. Visitors, who are awed by the craftsmanship of artisans from centuries ago, can now own a replica, handcrafted by you and your colleagues as a tangible symbol of Charleston’s traditional building arts; more than a souvenir, these replicas are authentic reminders of why historic preservation is important and of the traditions that you and the College uphold.
“Throughout all of your classes, you learned essential lessons for the real world: how to work with other people, how to lead and how to follow, how to work as a team, and how to develop and adhere to the high values and standards of the traditional building arts. As a result of this initiation, you came to choose the special trades you have majored in:
“So you have been initiated well here at the American College of the Building Arts. But your initiation, your commencement, didn’t just begin upon your arrival, didn’t begin just with you.
“Instead, it has been the realization of the vision of pioneers from the not too distant past, pioneers who could see from where they were in the early 1990’s into the future. Who were those pioneers? At the top of the list is a place, not a person but still like a living entity — and that is the City of Charleston. Look around you at this remarkable city and its historic resources, and feel the inspiration they engender. There is St. Michael’s, dating to the 1750’s, which has stood witness to the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, to earthquakes and hurricanes, and to baptisms, marriages, and funerals year after year, a remarkable testimony to the beauty made possible by the traditional building arts. Over there is City Hall, dating to 1801, where decisions shaping the life of this city have been made for centuries, and which also exemplifies the importance of excellent design and construction for the public realm. Down Meeting and Church Streets and along the Battery are 18th – and 19th-century houses, where, about this time in 1861, people gathered to cheer the firing on Fort Sumter, thinking Independence was at hand and not knowing the tragedy that awaited them as their world was turned upside down. And if you had been here in late September, 1989, you would have seen these buildings ravaged by Hurricane Hugo, seen a city drastically in need of trained artists in the building trades to achieve its recovery. In fact, it was the tragedy of Hugo, and the dearth of artists trained in traditional building trades, that led to the birth of the American College of the Building Arts.
“The reason is simple: Buildings don’t preserve, or repair, buildings; people do. And the pioneers of this college realized that in the event of the next Hurricane Hugo, we had to have trained craftspeople.
“One of those pioneers was John Paul Huguley. Without him this College would not exist. John Paul was born in Gaston, AL, earned his BA and Masters in Structural Engineering from UVA, studied in Europe, and came to work in Charleston with preservation engineer Craig Bennett. It was John Paul, who, in 1997, assembled the initial task force of diverse and talented individuals who composed the original board and who led, under John Paul’s leadership, the formation of this college.
“Another pioneer was Nancy Hawk, who served as chairman of the board for many years, a remarkable lady. Her children are here with us in the audience. Nancy was a leading educator in Charleston, having founded Mason Preparatory School. She successfully reared nine children, and in 1989 was awarded the National Mother of the Year. In a way, the American College of the Building Arts was her 10th child, which would make you students, her ‘grandchildren.’
“Another pioneer was Pierre Manigault, who, among other things, comes by his talents and interests in the building arts naturally, because he is a direct descendant of John Drayton, the builder of Drayton Hall in 1738, and of his granddaughter Charlotte Drayton who married Joseph Manigault, of the Joseph Manigault House, located just up Meeting Street. His ancestral uncle, Gabriel Manigault, was the architect for City Hall.
“Still another pioneer was Herbert Da Costa, a leading preservation architect in Charleston, whose family heritage constitutes a remarkable chapter in American history.
“Other pioneers included: Jane Hanahan deButts, Dana Beach, Wade Lawrence, Carter Hudgins, Sr., Sen. Herbert Fielding, Mayor Joe Riley, and Cong. Jim Clyburn.
“The “inspirational founder” of the college was Phillip Simmons, the renowned blacksmith who recently passed away. Many of you knew him. In addition to being an artist, he was a gentleman.
“As I explained, the vision of these pioneers for this college was sparked by Hurricane Hugo, but it went beyond that one disaster. What they envisioned, and what we all aspire to, I believe , is a world in which your expertise in the building arts will consistently have a respected place – a world that will not need a Hurricane Hugo to wake it up, but rather a world in which your crafts will be an integral part of life. These pioneers envisioned this for you because they saw your work as a living link, connecting the quality of the past with the quality of the future. They envisioned you continuing the invaluable traditions of the past into the next generation. While traditional, however, your work is not to be not frozen in time, but like the work of any good artist, it should be part of its time. You are to use technology of your own time as appropriate, in order to produce the best product for the intended purpose. You, therefore, are a bridge, a living link. As individuals and as a class, you constitute an extension into the future of the vision of the founders of the College. You are also an extension into the future of your parents and relatives, gathered here today, as well as of the faculty of the College, who have completed their task of teaching you.
“You will now be beginning a new life, and this College will begin a new relationship with you. You become its alumni. The root words of alumnus come from the Greek, with an interesting double meaning: that is, a “foster son” and “to grow old.” So, in a sense, now as alumni, you have become the son or daughter who has grown old, or rather “grown up,” here in the College. So it is in that full sense of commencement, of initiation, that I speak to you today:
1) of your having been initiated together here as students through your classes and the excellent tutelage of your master teachers;
2) of your having been initiated by having lived into the vision of the pioneers who established this college;
and 3) of your now beginning anew as grown up adults, or as alumni.
“You now take with you the dreams, talents, and skills of this College’s pioneers and of its current faculty and board, and of your parents and friends. Please know that all of them, as do I, join together in hoping that, as a result of your initiation together at the American College of the Building Arts, as a result of your commencement, you will be among those who will be building a better future for us all. We need you.
-George W. McDaniel, Ph.D Executive Director of Drayton Hall