A Winter Gift
As readers receive their copies of this Chronicle, Berry will be beginning a yearlong birthday or anniversary party to mark the 100 years since our founding. It will also be a year of looking ahead and planning for our second century. As we celebrate, we should remind ourselves of the gifts we have received from Martha Berry and our obligation to give gifts to her in return. Some readers will be delighted to know that I am not simply talking about the annual fund! As important as such contributions are, I have other sorts of gifts in mind.
One of the major gifts Martha Berry gave to us was, of course, the Berry Schools of her time and the Berry College of today. That one is obvious.
Less obvious are two gifts that show us how to conduct our lives. Miss Berry taught us to take poor and disadvantaged people seriously and to think of the dispossessed not as "them" but as part of "us." Because of her educational experiment, many hundreds of people who faced bleak prospects in the early years of the last century have been able to live full and useful lives in their communities and beyond. Martha Berry taught those who enjoy comfortable lives to take responsibility for the many people whose lives are not as privileged as our own. This observation may seem self-evident, but once one thinks about it, that gift of respect and concern for those who may be considered marginal looms large in its social importance.
Another gift Martha Berry gave us is the example of what a young woman can do with her life if she has energy, drive and important ideas. In the cultural setting into which Martha Berry was born, the social roles of women of her class were well structured and defined. Her sisters, fine people all of them, followed paths that one would anticipate women of their background and class to follow. Indeed, they filled those roles very well.
Martha Berry, of course, created a very different life for herself. Starting from scratch and within a period of 40 years, she turned a dream into a magnificent reality. Our campus remains inviting to our graduates because it remains Martha Berry's campus in almost all essentials. People who were here in 1942 could recognize most of the Berry College of 2002. Martha Berry built quickly, and she built well.
The roles of women in the United States have changed dramatically during the past half century, and some contemporary young women may not think that Martha Berry has anything to teach them. We should remind ourselves that the first woman in Georgia to be named a college president was our own Gloria Shatto in 1980. That is not all that long ago. Even now, there are many people who define women's roles in narrow ways that Martha Berry would have rejected a century ago. Without diminishing the importance of the lives her mother and sisters lived, Miss Berry provided a model of what a driven woman could accomplish. This wonderful lesson applies to not only young women but to young men as well. All of us, in fact, can learn from Martha Berry's example.
Before I list some gifts I think we should give to Martha Berry, let me reflect upon the autumn of 2001. Chronicle readers surely realize that each issue is prepared months before it reaches mailboxes. It takes a while to assemble the materials that make up each issue. Moreover, we use the least expensive postal rate possible in order to hold down costs, and that adds many weeks to the delivery process. I began writing the comments you are now reading on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. That morning I was working hard to meet a Wednesday deadline when a colleague came into my office and said, "I think you'd better look at this news report."
In the days following Sept. 11, people across the country were saying "This day made me think about what is most important about life." Or, "This day made me come into closer contact with my faith." Or, "The feelings of that day made me want to be close to my family." Throughout America, we passed a week during which most people seemed quieter, more thoughtful, more reflective than usual. Even before flags sprouted on cars, many Americans seemed to be more mindful than before of the bonds of citizenship that link us.
When I think of gifts we may wish to give Martha Berry, I have such reflections in mind.
What would happen if we gave gifts to Martha Berry that resemble those she gave to us? What if we took seriously the plight of the marginalized and dispossessed among us and did all we could to improve the lives of people who pass their lives in desperation? The great-grandchildren of Martha Berry's original poor, rural Appalachian white students now live in great prosperity compared to family members a few generations ago. Now many of America's dispossessed live in inner cities, and many hard-working yet struggling people belong to America's Spanish-speaking population. What kind of society would we have if we were to take these people as seriously as Martha Berry took her original pupils?
On another note, what would happen if we hesitated before condemning someone for questioning prevailing social customs in the same way Martha Berry questioned her assigned social role all those years ago?
Clearly, these are rhetorical questions, and the responses I am seeking are signaled by my phrasing. If we were to follow Martha Berry's example, it is obvious what we should be doing today - now - in our own lives and in our own communities.
Many of us have been taught that the two greatest commandments are to love God and love our neighbor and that loving someone quite unlike ourselves is more blessed than loving family members, friends and people with whom we have a great deal in common. Indeed, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, who is identified as the good neighbor - the pious and respectable passers-by or the marginalized and detested Samaritan? All of us know that story. We all know who was the good neighbor.
Please join me in presenting a special anniversary gift to Martha Berry: a commitment to living up to our highest ideals. Let us sustain our efforts that marry intellectual growth, moral and spiritual growth, and lessons gained from worthwhile work done well - all dedicated to serving others, all dedicated to active and energetic good neighborliness. Let us devote our portion of Berry's second century to following the two greatest commandments. Indeed, let us love our neighbor even as we respect those whose paths take them in directions different from our own. That is a way to offer Martha Berry anniversary gifts that are as great as those we have received from her.
Dr. Scott Colley
Berry College President