Graduation address given by Jeremy Macdonald Steele
Jeremy Macdonald Steele gave the following occasional address at the Faculty of Arts graduation ceremony held at 4.00pm on 23 April 2008, at which he had been awarded the title of Honorary Fellow of the University of Sydney.
Professor Sutton, Chair of the Academic Board, Professor Benrimoj, companions on the dais, ladies and gentlemen, and new graduates.
I am deeply conscious that the account you have just heard about how I whiled away some weary years in the employ of this benevolent institution is almost as nothing when compared with scholarship and accomplishments of the academic staff, senior officers, and alumni past and present of this place.
But I hope I may have made a small scratch at least on its storyboard.
As a consequence of this scratch, I have been directed to talk to you today (for TEN minutes, no more), so sit back and relax, for it will soon be over and there’s tea and scones to follow.
First, congratulations to the new graduates on their achievement, and on this particular day, conferring of degrees day - this special date.
The 23rd of April would at first sight seem as nondescript a date as you could imagine: Uninspiring, unremarkable, boring, forgettable. Not like 1st of January, the 14th of July: Bastille Day; or the 25th of December: dates with panache. Yet this is reality to a date to remember, a date that for Arts graduates anyway, as many of you are not doubt aware, could hardly be better, or more memorable.
And what more fitting place to graduate than in this Great Hall?
The 23rd of April.
It was on the 23rd of April, 1564, that William Shakespeare, in the centre of the 5th side window, was born. Today, in 2008, it would have been his 444th birthday. What alliterative symmetry.
Shakespeare. A remarkable figure. Few if any better known in the English speaking world.
But let us speed on: a year of weeks; a pack of cards; 52 short years; an interval halfway between your present ages, dear graduates, and mine.
The 23rd of April – again
It was on the 23rd of April, 1616, another year of numerical symmetry, that the same William Shakespeare died, at the age of 52.
But this day right now we ordinary mortals excel the great Shakespeare, for we are, at least, alive.
And our immediate challenge is to see out today, the 23rd of April, to make it not even more remarkable, and then to celebrate some further anniversaries of it, so much the better to marvel at it.
But how long will this transcendence over Shakespeare last when we, in our turn, turn to dust? (My turn first, I suspect).
In one of Shakespeare’s many works, As You Like It, he wrote about life:
All the world’s a stage
An all the men and women merely players…….
They have their exits and their entrances……
You are all at the entrances of your careers.
For me, I am way beyond the exit of mine – in this place anyway: a status not without its compensations – as you, too, one day, will discover.
And between his own entrance and exit Shakespeare achieved monumentally – and is rightly famous for it.
In the Bible, if I dare mention it in this university, which was set up in 1850 as a SECULAR institution, the Book of Ecclesiasticus (chapter 44) also reflects on life: Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us……. and after detailing these famous men, these giants, Ecclesiasticus presents first a summary: There be of them, that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported…. and then offers a warning: and some there be which NO memorial; Who are perished as though they never been; while Shakespeare adds that: the last scene of all to end this strange eventual history is mere ablivion…..
The famous, the people of action, for the most part will avoid oblivion, or history will generally look after them; although not always…… To whom is owed the credit for Stonehenge? prehistoric rock engravings? or the Nazca lines and figures of Peru?
You graduates present – are at the ‘entrance’ of your careers. Almost certainly some of you will go on to high achievement.
But of the rest of you, and us, the un-famous - are we destined to the dismal prospect of NO memorial? To oblivion?
Well, there may be no memorial in the wider landscape, but it need not be the case in the University of Sydney at least.
There are memorials a plenty in this Hall – to the famous. Various giants of history are recorded in its stained glass windows who include scientists, soldiers, statesmen, poets, philosophers, and explorers. For the very purpose of the Hall was to inspire your forebears, you, and your successors, to great heights. This story of remarkable people is a never–ending one in this hall, from the founders of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge in the huge windows at the end, to the figures in the side windows.
Of these, let me choose one from the first side window and one from the last: an entrance and an exit to this account of them:
In the first side window, chronologically the earliest, the figure in the third panel is of Caedmon, of the EIGHTH century – illiterate servant in the Abbey, at Whitby in Yorkshire, a fishing town on the north-east coast of England, who, following a vision, began singing the praises of God, and became, by so doing, the earliest English poet.
In the last window, and chronologically the one closest to the present day, another figure from Whitby in Yorkshire: Captain James Cook, of the eighteenth century- a thousand years later. Well known to us, he was extraordinary navigator, seamen, and – from a European viewpoint - discoverer of the east coast of Australia, a chart of which he is shown holding in his hand.
But the University has its own heroes, too: let me draw your attention first to two, commemorated in marble effigies in this Hall – behind you – both high achievers, of different kinds:
William Charles Wentworth, on my right, on the Quadrangle side. Son of a convict transported to Norfolk Island;
explorer, famous in school history books, for crossing the Blue Mountains with Blaxland and Lawson. Member of the Legislative Council, whose powerful persona and oratory secured the passage of the Act calling this university into being on 1 October 1850. It is Wentworth who can best be classed as the FOUNDER of this University. He left his mark upon it. A mover and a shaker: a man of action.
The second is John Henry Challis, standing across the hall from Wentworth, an English merchant who, in his 26 career years in Sydney, prospered extraordinarily. Yet what he actually did is little known, and hard to remember - but remember HERE he surely is, for he chose to endow the great king-and-queen window in this Hall, in the alcove behind me, and in his will he left a king’s ransom to this University- so big a treasure that he is often regarded as its greatest benefactor. So he, too, left an indelible mark. As a benefactor.
This Hall abounds in reminders of other heroes who shaped this University, your university, a few of whom might be mentioned:
In the portraits on the walls:
Sir Charles Nicholson, second provost and first chancellor, and benefactor;
The Rev. John Woolley, first principal and professor of Classics and Logics;
and Francis Lewis Shaw Merewether, visionary founding father and member of the Buildings Committee, to whom we owe this space, who said, when his still grander plans had been discarded: "I was out–voted, but I had got the grand Hall."
also Sir Edward Deas Thomson, Colonial Secretary, who granted the property, Grose Farm, to the University - its present site (recorded in a marble bust);
Edmund Blacket, the architect of the Main Building and Great Hall (remembered in monograms outside, and in coat of arms carved in stone);
and foundation Fellows or the Senate – commemorated on wall shields outside.
And, or course, chancellors and vice chancellors, in other portraits on the walls.
Still other University high achievers are commemorated in building names within the grounds:
in Eastern Avenue: Anderson Stuart, Fisher, and Carslaw.
in Science Road: Holme, Badham,Woolley, and Wallace,
and in the Darlington precinct: Wilkinson, to name a few.
Edgeworth David and Stephen Robert have gone, buildings recently demolished in the upgrading of Eastern Avenue, their names, perhaps, to reappear elsewhere, in due course.
Others still, are recalled in the names of roads: such as the senior officers Barff and Manning.
But also commemorated in this Hall are those who made their mark by their generosity:
donors of the stained glass windows, whose names are inscribed in the white line below the feet of the figures depicted.
Sir Peter Nicol Russell, who endowed the PNR School of Engineering (a marble bust)
and Sir Samuel McCoughey, landowner and pastoralist, whose enormous endowment may have surpassed even that of Challis;
and just outside, in a building name, Macleay, who endowed the museum.
I won’t presume to tell you what you should do, nor how to do it, for most of you will have a clearer idea of that than I ever would.
But I would like to suggest that you strive to make some positive mark in your careers and lives, to make your environment a better place than you found it.
There are examplars here around you that show the way of doing so, by deeds, or by gifts.
Many lives are fruitful, worthy and rewarding, yet, alas, leave little lasting trace.
This place, this institution, like some others, offers the opportunity to leave a mark, a memorial, as it has done for Challis and McCoughey and host of others through an endowment or benefaction, whether munificent, or on a modest human scale that will help others, perhaps in perpetuity.
While gifts can be anonymous, and will be listed as such, the University routinely creates and publishes memorials and so, unintentionally, confers a measure of immortality.
It does this in its publications, Calendar, archives, and other records, where are preserved the names of its office bearers and its benefactors – whether of great fortunes, or a modest annual prize.
How do I know this is the case? From the unsung annual duty in the Registrar’s Officer, over a decade of proofing and checking some 130 pages of entries in 8- point type in the gifts and donations, prizes and scholarships, sections of the University’s annual book of record, the Calendar, where the many gestures of generous individuals, from the Wentworth Medal of 1854 to the present day, are meticulously recorded.
To make mark on the world, or in this your university at least, you do not have to scale the dizzy summits reached by the colossi of accomplishment recalled in the windows, statues, busts and portraits here.
In fact, some of you will have already begun to make your own positive and lasting difference.
How, then, can ordinary mortals make a mark? You might, by the time the exit of your own career approaches, just remember, in a tangible way – say by means of a cheque – the University that gave you a start. And should you do so, it will assuredly remember YOU thereafter.
But I warn you, when you have made your mark on the world, should you indeed touch again this superb establishment, in a way that it notices you – perhaps as I have just suggested you may find yourself summoned to address a graduation ceremony such as this.
In the meantime, good luck as you journey through the stages of your own strange and eventful histories that lie before you – and finally, I wish you many – at least 52 – happy returns of this, your remarkable, graduation day….
What was that date?