In Praise of These Seniors

by Vince Durnan

Observing the passing of one of USN’s founding heroes provided an opportunity for reflection on modesty as a virtue. And watching this senior class confirms that virtue is alive and well in our halls.

That paragon of virtue was Bernard Werthan, a quiet, brilliant, community-committed figure from a time that must seem long ago to most USN families. Can you imagine wondering if the school would be able to continue next year?

In 1974, after Peabody College announced the closing of their Demonstration School, such was the case. Then a small, Saturday morning kitchen-table group convened a larger, Neely Auditorium (VU) sized group days later, and a whole new entity emerged in the course of a few months.
And it started at that table, with Betty and Bernard Werthan. Most important to this little column is that I’ve never once observed either of them do anything but offer the credit to others. Their humility should continue to inspire our steps, but it carries the risk of their signal accomplishment being lost in the mists of time and current day urgency. When the Werthans and their compatriots came back to USN for visits, I could not help asking if we’d become what they hoped we would, and they invariably answered that they could not have imagined where we are today—deftly turning the spotlight away from them and toward us.
What could any of this have to do with this year’s group of soon-to-be graduates? Let me tell you. A week ago, on May 1, the seniors observed the popular if imperfect ritual of wearing to school t-shirts identifying their college destinations. Looking up at the big front steps on which they assembled, I realized that in many cases students had kept their search so quiet that the choice was news to me. They'd heard the message from our college counseling process (and from the superstars who guide that process) that being modest is a virtue.
Let me hasten to add that the list of destinations is stunningly impressive, both at first glance and when looked at in any depth. These young people are doing amazing things, have been doing amazing things, and will be doing amazing things—they simply choose to be quieter than is common in our self-aggrandizing pop culture. And I’m grateful. We’re correspondingly no less proud of them—in fact we couldn’t be more proud of them, I’d guess.
Consider a counterexample. Where did those yard signs come from, the ones announcing college decisions on front lawns the way mailboxes used to for baby announcements? Who pegged that as a good idea? They’re proliferating now, even as the members of USN 2017 appreciate distance traveled and one another, pretty humbly, even as their accolades, including now one of Tennessee’s Presidential Scholars in their midst, continue to rack up. Remember, that came from me, not from them.
This lovable bunch endured months of being asked by nearly every adult who crossed their paths what college was their favorite. And they learned to politely redirect. Meanwhile, they kept things sensible here and considered all the facets of a decision far more complex than picking a favorite. Many are weighing the substantial financial implications of one option or another, among many deep questions extending beyond bumper sticker appeal. And in my view they’ve done admirably well, endearing themselves to us even more along the journey.
So ask one of our seniors, if you have the chance, what they’re excited about in their future, and let them take it from there. May their successors be watching closely. I’d be hard pressed to recall a group that has done more and said less about themselves than these seniors. And my guess is that Bernard Werthan would have been proud of them.
Graduation here we come,

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