Robert W. Hill III’s Advice: Let Down Your Guard

Head of School Robert W. Hill III delivered this address at the 178th Convocation on September 14, 2018. Photos of the event are here. A speech by keynote Chic Eglee ’70 is here.

Good afternoon Williston and welcome students, the Class of 2019 especially, faculty and staff, and honored guests.  Here we are at the end of our first week of Williston’s 178th year, and so all of you have had a chance to sample classes, the afternoon program and residential life. I think it takes at least two weeks to complete re-entry from our summer schedules and to get back into the routine, but in saying that I hope that you each strive to make your year ahead anything but routine.

In preparing my remarks for this afternoon, I did what Mrs. Sawyer invited us all to do, I went to the Writing Center, searching for a topic or at least a little inspiration. But Mrs. Sawyer turned me away, she was actually a little abrupt, telling me to get serious and come back when I had a first draft or an outline—I left feeling a little dissed. But then I thought that with Mr. Koritkoski and Mr. Tuleja across the hall from my office, I could go to them for advice. I shared with Mr. Koritkoski, that I had read a couple of great novels this summer, but he gave me that stern-eyed dean’s look saying, “stay away from fiction, talk about something historical and relevant”—so I slouched down to Mr. Tuleja’s office thinking that he would have the perfect advice—after all, he’s like Obi Wan Kenobi and students are always making a pilgrimage to his office for advice. I found him sitting on the floor on a velvet cushion in the lotus position and he said to me in a barely audible whisper: “What you say matters not, Mr. Headmaster, since no one really listens.”

Ok. Well I’ll try anyway. In the middle of the summer I visited a Williston alumnus, an 86-year old man who looked and acted as if he were twenty years younger. He shook my hand with the kind of vise-like grip that I imagine Mr. Kearney uses in his Strong Man competitions when he log presses 400 pounds. Anyway, Mr. Palmer graduated from Williston in 1949, four years after the end of World War II. Think about that point in history.

I asked Mr. Palmer how it happened that he came to Williston. He said his grandfather wanted him to take a PG year before he matriculated to Yale, just as he had done himself. Being a reader of history and an avid listener to stories told by older generations, my ears perked up.  I said, wait, Mr. Palmer, your grandfather graduated from Williston? What class was he?  Mr. Palmer replied in a matter of fact tone, the Class of 1869—think about that point in history, four years after the Civil War ended.  Mr. Palmer can tell any one of you seated here today stories that he remembers from his boyhood as told to him by his grandfather, stories about Williston DURING the Civil War. Galbraith was headmaster then.

Last week during Welcome Days, I suggested to new students and their families that the best way to approach your Williston experience was to “let your guard down,” to be open to trying new things and meeting new people from backgrounds different than your own.  So, I will follow my own advice, and let my guard down a minute to share with you a few broad strokes from my story in ways I hope you will do with one another.

Like Mr. Palmer, I am a product of some long-lived grandparents, my grandmother lived to be 102 years old and she only passed away five years ago this October. She used to tell me stories of watching Babe Ruth play for the Yankees when she was a girl growing up in NYC. My grandmother was the matriarch of the Jewish side of my family which lives in Charleston, SC, (so I’ve been following the hurricane news very closely the last few days).  My father, on the other hand, represents the WASP side of my heritage, that’s where the Robert W. Hill III name comes from. I like to say that I am bi-cultural, a product of Vermont and South Carolina, of Jewish ancestry on the one hand and Daughters of the American Revolution on the other. Both my northern father and my southern uncle served as junior officers in the U.S. Navy, and one of the thrills of my childhood was eating lunch in the officer’s mess on a guided-missile destroyer in Charleston harbor. Oh, you should know that my sister, just 14 months older than I, is an expatriate who has spent her life since college living in Africa, where she now cares for her disabled adult daughter. These are just a few of the broad strokes of my story, but they say something about who I am, how I came to believe in the values that I hold. It should not be a surprise to you that because of my niece, Jessica, I care deeply about disabled folks and their access to a good life, or that given my Jewish relatives, that antisemitism, in its historic form or contemporary expression incites me, or that I have enduring admiration for those who serve in the United States military, particularly those overseas.

Here’s my challenge: Each of you can share similar stories from your still young lives, or from what you know of your family’s history. I urge you to let your guard down with one another and share your stories, since that is the opening to meaningful friendships, to respectful relationships, and to building lasting communities. We are so lucky to be here, all of us from 30 countries and 25 states.  You might not recognize this in the moment—and I’m speaking to all students now specifically—but your Williston story has already begun. Some of you are being shaped by the giggles of Caroline Beaton or Addie Tyree, or by walking Ms. Marland’s beautiful golden retrievers. All of you will be shaped by your teachers, advisers, coaches, every mentor you come to know—they will become part of your story.