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President Joseph D. Eggleston

Address to Graduating Class and Corps of Cadets

Delivered by President J. D. Eggleston, May 31, 1917

We are all greatly disappointed that Governor Stuart is unable to be present on this occasion. He made every endeavor to be with us, but important duties have detained him elsewhere. We had hoped that he would give to you, and, indeed, to all of us, a message of power and of practical value.

His inability to be present creates a situation which reminds me of an incident which took place when a book agent once knocked at the front door of a country home. The son of the family answered the call, and when the agent asked him the question, "Is the head of the house in?" he promptly replied, "No; the head of the house is not in, but the speaker of the house is." To-day the reverse is true. The head of the institution is here, but the speaker is absent.

An occasion of this kind is rightly regarded as a time of felicitations; a time for congratulatory words to those who are about to step from the doors of the college into the highways of life; and a time when Maturity and Experience offer a sage word of caution and advice to those who are about to step forth into the various fields of endeavor.

And you who have gone through the preparatory period here, and are now ready to go into the activities of life, are to be congratulated. You have undertaken to do a specific thing, and you have done it successfully up to this point. Your value to the State has been greatly enhanced, because you are prepared to do definite, efficient and honest work. This is, indeed, a cause for congratulation, and your alma mater will watch your future career with deep interest; with the keenest solicitude combined with a depth of affection which you do not yet realize; and with very best wishes for a solid success.

The words of caution and advice given on occasions of this kind, always with the best of intentions, and generally at great length, are usually applicable to the peaceful walks of life; but are they less applicable to the tragic times in which we now live, and to the more tragic times into which we appear to be entering? I think not. The man who does his duty is the man who is ready, whether for times of peace or for times of war. The man who is a slacker in the one will usually be a slacker in the other, and yet it is true that a very serious crisis in a man's life may call forth qualities of mind and heart that might otherwise go unnoticed.

In peace Stonewall Jackson was a plodding, duty-loving cadet and teacher; in war he was also duty-loving, but the crisis called forth his transcendent genius. The fact remains that it was the plodding, duty-loving qualities of mind and heart in Cadet Jackson, and in Professor Jackson, that laid the foundations for, and made possible, the success of General Jackson. One might have prophesied General Robert Lee from Cadet Robert Lee.

Does every one have genius, then? Not necessarily. Does every plodding, duty-loving young man have in him the possibilities of a Jackson or a Lee? In generalship, not necessarily. Or if he has the possibilities, he has not the probabilities; and if the probabilities, then not the certainty. But in character, yes; the possibilities, the probabilities, and the certainty. And when the balance is struck, when the measure is taken of what a man has accomplished in this world, of good or evil, nothing counts except character. All else is tinder or tinsel.

What a delusion it, is—as common as it is false—when a young man dreams that he can jump into fame or leadership at a bound, minus thorough preparation. Imagination is a wonderful quality of mind, but the imagination that pictures oneself in a position of great usefulness without the previous preparation necessary for usefulness, is simply running riot. That is the way of the foolish.

Where, then, is the best place of preparation of young men for life? Beyond any question, a good college. It is to be regretted, then, that there are many young men to-day in this country, and many parents, who think that, because we are in a time of war, it might be better for the young man to stay at home or go to work on some job until the war is over.

It is entirely forgotten by these misguided people that a year of life does not come back, and that in these days, when a young man loses a good college training, he places an almost hopeless handicap upon himself for the greatest usefulness. It is as plainly the duty of young men, when not called to war, to go to college and prepare themselves for efficient citizenship, as it is for those who are called by their country to go to the front to respond to that call. Preparation for life is as vital as preparation for war, and preparation for life is preparation for war, as well as preparation for peace, because preparation for life, which is best gained at college, is preparation for public duty.

It cannot be too often, or too emphatically, or too persistently said that if the colleges and universities of this country were to close during the next half dozen years, the loss to this country in efficiency, in leadership, in culture, in wealth, in practically everything that goes to make a nation worth while, would be so colossal that the nation could not recover from it in a century of time.

I believe, therefore, that it becomes the paramount duty of parents to use their utmost endeavors to send their sons to college next session. It is even more necessary that the colleges be filled in time of war than in time of peace, because the colleges do prepare our leaders for every walk of life; and if war decimates the men of the land, it is essential that other leaders be prepared promptly to take their places. It is not consistent with a high ideal of national service to keep a young man at home, if it is possible to send him to a good college.

I have alluded to the tragic times that are upon us, and the more tragic times to come. At once we think of desolated Europe, and yet the tragic conditions there which have called forth the noblest, as well as the worst, qualities of mind and heart, may exist in the heart of every individual, and do exist in many. A nation is composed of individuals. All know that, yet few stop to consider that it is the aggregate of individuals that makes world conditions what they are. Most people believe that somehow what nations do is not what individuals do.

If one could see the heart as God sees it, one would see there a miniature world where selfishness and unselfishness, things noble and things ignoble, greed and generosity, lust and purity, impatience and forbearance, cruelty and tenderness, harshness and gentleness—in fact, every good and every bad quality that we see in a nation—battle for supremacy. Oh, the tragedies in this miniature world! Oh, the victories and defeats that make up the history of the individual heart!

What is the application, then? That the individual is responsible for the victories and the defeats in his own heart, regardless of whether his neighbor gains the victory or goes down in defeat. The two most contemptible creatures on earth are these: the one who says that he is not responsible for his wrong-doing because his environment is bad, and the one who thinks he has the right to be a slacker because others slack. The first is a coward and a liar, and the second bids fair to be a shiftless skulker and ne'er-do-well. And nowhere is individual responsibility so great as in a democracy, for nowhere else does the individual count for so much. President Wilson says that the world must be made safe for democracy. True. But if democracy is destroyed, it will be destroyed not by autocracy, but by itself. It will be destroyed by the individuals composing it insisting on their so-called rights. and slacking in their actual duties.

Young gentlemen, the absence of a goodly number of the corps recalls a similar state of affairs fifty-six years ago when this country was just plunging into a sectional war that was to last four years and that took the lives of many of the most promising young men of the country. Many a young man dropped his books and shouldered his gun and went to the front. Many, equally devoted to duty, remained at home to raise food and to look after the home and the homefolk, until men at the front became scarce.

The recent prompt response of this corps to the call of our common country is in itself the promise of a sure performance of duty that demands our unstinted praise. I am as confident of the record as if it were already made up. V. P. I. will be heard from on the field of battle, and the record will be one of ability; of courage; of devotion to duty—a record of heroism that will forever imbed this institution in the affections of Virginia and the country.

Nor should we forget the heroes who remain at home, for there are such: men who, if they followed their inclinations, would prefer to be at the front, but who have placed themselves at the disposal of their country to be used where they can best serve. Ah, that sometimes takes a moral courage that is sublime! For it does take moral courage of the highest order to do the unseen, possibly the unknown, certainly the everyday, common things of life in an uncommon manner.

It has seemed necessary for a distressing condition to arise to accentuate the peculiar efficiency of this institution. In a time of stress and danger, the country calls for men prepared in one or more of three lines: military, agricultural and engineering. When the government called for men trained in military, V. P. I. said at once, "We are ready," and the War Department is finding out at Fort Myer and elsewhere that V. P. I. was ready.

When the government called for engineers, V. P. I. said, "We are ready," and the government will find out the truth of the statement when our troops go abroad.

When the government sent out a distress call for greater food production and looked around for men to organize and direct the men and women, boys and girls, in this first line of defense, it turned to V. P. I., in so far as Virginia was concerned, and V. P. I. said, "We are ready"; and to-day V. P. I. has in this State an organization for greater food production that two prominent government experts say is the best in the South, and one of the most efficient in the whole country. Were Governor Stuart here to-day he would endorse this statement.

Young men of V. P. I., it behooves every student of this institution to be on his individual honor to try to be ready whenever the call of duty comes; and duty calls in peace as in war. This is no place for slackers. Honor and a slacker are strangers; they cannot companion; and if I should ask your alma mater, dear V. P. I., what each of you can do for our common country, and for her, I might well adopt the words of John Oxenham, and ask:

"What can a young man do
For his country and for you?
What can a :young man do?"

And she would answer:

"He can play a straight game all through;
That's one good thing he can do.

"He can fight like a knight
For the truth and the right;
That's another good thing he can do.

"He can shun all that's mean,
He can keep himself clean,
Both without and within;
That's a very fine thing he can do.

"His soul he can brace
Against everything base,
And the trace can be seen
All his life in his face;
That's an excellent thing he can do.

"He can look to the light,
He can keep his thought white,
He can fight the great fight,
He can do with his might
What is good in God's sight;
Those are truly great things he can do.

"Though his years be but few,
If he keep himself true
He can march in the queue
Of the good and the great,
Who battled with fate
And Won through;
That's a wonderful thing he can do.

"And—in each little thing
He can follow the King,
Yes—in each smallest thing
He can follow the King,
He can follow the Christ, the King."

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From the Bulletin of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute -- The State Agricultural and Mechanical College, Commencement Number, Vol. 10, No. 4, August, 1917, pp. 5-10.

Joseph D. Eggleston was the seventh president of Virginia Polytechnic Institute.