Jon Willis: The Bernice & Hank Willis Study Lounge

November 18, 2009 by Jon Willis, with permission

Jon Willis: Remarks at the Dedication of the Bernice & Hank Willis Study Lounge, Oct. 23, 2009

Jon B. Willis

Jon B. Willis

Thank you Dean Carruthers, Sylvia, and Cheri for your efforts in organizing this event. And thank you particularly for your inspiration to add Dad’s name to this room, now the Bernice and Hank Willis Student Lounge. Mom and Dad are together in a place they loved, and this is how they would have wanted it.

I confess that I anticipated an event of this sort some time ago and have given considerable thought to words appropriate for this occasion. I hope you will forgive that these thoughts may go a bit beyond simple comments and give them a listen.

I would like to speak with you today, especially to the young people among you, about generations and principles. Because generations are the story of life, including the two lives we celebrate today; and principles are the anchors by which we chose to lead our lives. And it is particularly appropriate to do so in this setting because Mom and Dad held an unyielding faith in the promise of each new generation, and their gift of this room underscores their belief in the importance of these college years in your lives, and in the early formation of your own life principles and the character of your time.

Cloudcroft, NM.

Cloudcroft, NM.

So let me begin with the generation of my maternal grandfather. His name was Arra Burton Fite, and as Dean Carruthers has already mentioned, he committed virtually all of his professional life to this institution. Granddad was born in 1886 near the village of Cloudcroft in the Sacramento Mountains, about 80 miles from here. His mother died when he was seven years old, and as was common practice in those days his father parceled out the children, in this case four boys, to family and friends to raise them. My grandfather was “gifted” to a nearby ranching family.

He could have been a ranch hand as his life’s work but he was determined to do more. So after six years, when he was legally allowed, he struck out on his own at the age of 13, riding his little pony across the Tularosa Desert to the town of Hope, where he supported himself as a cowboy while attending school for the first time.

William Conroy Honors Center, NMSU historical building, built in 1909.

William Conroy Honors Center, NMSU historical building, built in 1909.

Seven years later he then set out for Las Cruces where he enrolled at the New Mexico Agriculture and Mechanics College, as this University was then known, where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Agriculture in 1915 at the tender age of 29; …this may give a bit of hope to some of you “late bloomers”. He then went on to earn a Master’s Degree is the same field and served the next thirty years in various academic and administrative roles associated with this institution. My mother, the youngest of his five children, was practically raised on this campus.

On my father’s side of the family the journey to New Mexico was a bit more circuitous. His great grandfather, William Oliver Cowan, was forced to leave his beloved Ireland in the face of the great potato famine of the mid-1800’s. His ship was bound for Boston but a series of storms drove them off course and they were lost at sea for over six months before landing at last in Jamaica. Imagine setting out for Boston and landing in Jamaica… from thence they sailed on to New Orleans.

The family then migrated a bit north to Tennessee, where my father was born in 1925. America entered World War II some 16 years later in December 1941. When Dad was old enough he enlisted in the United States Navy, and was improbably assigned to entirely land-locked New Mexico.

Hank and Bernice Willis.

Hank and Bernice Willis.

And that is how my Mother and Father got together. It is a story of land and sea, a story of departures and discoveries, a story of happenstance and fortune. And it is the story of Life and of generations.

Many of us identify generations by the images they have left us. In modern America it was the fear and loss of confidence during the economic collapse of the 1930s that defined the Depression Generation. It was the undaunted courage of those who fought so bravely in the Second World War that defined what the newscaster and writer Tom Browkaw has called The Greatest Generation. And my generation, The Boomers, were defined by the first landing on the Moon, the somber march of the Civil Rights Movement, the tragedy of Viet Nam, and the violent deaths of three of America’s most beloved leaders.

But while these images may lead some to conclude that it is mostly events that define a generation, my parents believed differently. They believed that is was the response to events that truly defined a generation and ultimately established its character. And this response is the special combination of ideals and aspirations, of hopes and dreams, of beliefs and convictions that are now being forged among you here in these crucial college years; in the libraries and study lounges, in the dorm rooms and apartment kitchens, in the coffee houses and neighborhood pubs, and on the sports fields and gathering places around this campus. That is why this place was so special to Mom and Dad.

Generations do not stand alone. They receive wisdom and guidance from those that preceded it, although each generation will develop new principles that are unique to its time while setting aside former ideas that no longer apply. But there are four principles that I think Mom and Dad believed should apply to all generations. They are timeless in nature. They are what they taught my brother and sister and me, and to their grandchildren as well. Because this occasion is to honor their lives and the principles they lived by, I would like to pass them on to you. I think you will like them:

  • First, always strive to maintain an inquisitive mind. Learn to love learning. A robust curiosity and vigorous intellectual pursuit are the wellspring of a compleat life. And toward the end of your life, when perhaps you can do little else, what you have invested in the life of your mind can bring you great contentment.
  • Second, nurture your spirit. Mom and Dad were both very devout and committed many thousands of hours to study, thought, prayer, and meditation. They believed deeply in a loving Providence and a greater purpose. Take time regularly each day, every week, every month, and every year to feed and nurture the needs of your soul.
  • Number three, fight like hell for that in which you believe and against that which you disdain. Injustice, prejudice, ignorance, selfishness, hatred and bigotry are still too much a part of the human condition. They suffocate the human spirit. Confront them boldly wherever you find them; and never give up in your battle for what you believe to be right.
  • And finally, but by no any means the least, always find time for your family and friends…

(Incidentally, I heard a story the other day that the definition of a good friend is someone who will unquestioningly come bail you out of jail in the middle of the night. But a really true friend is the one sitting next to you in that jail cell, smiling, holding his hung-over head saying, “Damn that was a good time!”)

Student Ambassadors at the Willis Student Lounge redication, Oct. 23, 2009.

Student Ambassadors at the Willis Student Lounge redication, Oct. 23, 2009.

… But seriously, your family and friends will sustain you through good times and bad, and a full life will have its full measure of both. Loving relationships and devoted friendships are the glue that binds generations, communities, and kindred spirits. Value and nurture these relationships for the treasure they are.

Those of you who are students today have already seen some of the images that will be identified forever with your generation. The collapse of the World Trade Center towers, the inauguration of the first African-American President, visible evidence of global climate change.

Some of these images are inspiring and some are frightening; you are entering an uncertain world. But always remember that it is not the images that will define your generation, but it is your response to the events of your time that will mark your character. And it is incumbent upon you to respond to those events with the same courage, fortitude, confidence, and determination as those who have gone before you.

So whatever tired little pony you ride, or whatever storm-tossed sea you find yourselves upon, when you get to where you are going, which in some cases will be a surprise to you, move on to vigorously address the challenges before you. That is what will define your generation.

Student Ambassadors, Oct. 23, 2009.

Student Ambassadors, Oct. 23, 2009.

And if you can, try to remember the principles the two we honor here today would have wanted you to know: Strive always to maintain an inquisitive mind; protect and nurture your spirit; fight vigorously for what you believe to be right; and always remember your family and friends. This is a gift from their generation to yours; and it is given with all the love and respect, and with all the hope and affirmation of their very great hearts.

Thank you for honoring my parents with your presence here today. In your Life’s journey I wish you God’s blessing and Godspeed. Thank you.

Jon Willis
October 23, 2009


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