Sunday, April 15, 2012

Valedictory address by Winona Branch (1871)

Winona Branch Sawyer was one of the ten members of Shimer's graduating class of 1871. She served as one of the first members of the new Board of Trustees of the Frances Shimer Academy in 1896. 

Mrs. Sawyer's speech to the class of 1895 has previously been published on this blog.  Here we present the speech she gave as valedictorian at her own graduation, on June 13, 1871.  The preceding year had seen the breaking of the partnership between Frances Shimer and Cindarella Gregory, as well as the death of Margaretta Ophelia Mason, principal of the music department. 

"Life is a yearning, hungering, reaching toward the Infinite;" and to this day, have we been looking for the first whisperings of the answer to the vague questionings of our hearts.

Do we hear an answer?

Comes there to us a still, small voice, like an echo from another world, telling of the joys and the sorrows of time? Is there an invisible presence which draws aside the veil that hides the future? No; to mortal sense, that veil will never rise; to mortal ear, no voice will ever whisper of the great "to be."

Our clearer vision may detect — or, imagine it detects — more dangerous rocks or mad whirlpools, than childhood's unsuspecting eye could perceive; but we have no more power or skill to steer our barks between the Scyllas and Caribdes of life, than when we first embarked. Only the wisdom of a God above, can bring us safely to a haven of eternal rest.

Real, earnest life is for us just opening. Before us rises our life-work, towering mountain high. We do not purpose to go around, or over, but to mine patiently through it. What is this work?

It is to gain knowledge, correct error in ourselves, and to assist others in gaining the same end; sowing, beside all waters, seeds of love and happiness.

It is often truly said that "knowledge is power;" but, higher, purer, better than all; more constant in its influence, more lasting in its sway, is the power of character — that power which emanates from a pure and lofty mind. To form this character, is our aim and life-work. As the sculptor traces a meaning on the fair marble, and leaves it there forever; so would we carve upon our lives, as grand and pure an ideal — a rare embodiment of earth's and heaven's best graces.

To waning, dreading hearts, Time brings the present moments. Never before have our minds been so tossed and torn with conflicting emotions. Oh! That we could stand face to face with the future, and read the uttermost meaning of its desolation, or fathom the fullness of its joy.

The fond regrets, and vague presentiments of evil, which throng us, are not wholly delusive; they are, indeed, shadows and echoes ; but they are shadows from the Valley of Shadows, which is the only certainty life brings; they are echoes of farewells, which must be said at last.

Kind Friends: We thank you for the interest you have taken in our welfare, and which you manifest by your presence today. From this point our paths widely diverge; but may there be another, better, and more complete reunion, after we have passed through the "deep, dark valley," and rest in the "sweet by and by."

With trembling feet have we approached this day, and a shadow of parting has been ever present, brooding over all. 'Mid present joys, our hearts will give some bitter notes; yet Hope is not dead; we only look with dimmer eyes, and through the hazy mist of recent grief. Still, when we think of what life might have been, we have but "fed on roses, and gathered only the lilies of life,"

The song of woe is, after all, an earthly song, ending with the sad refrain, " Adieu, adieu, forever-more;" and, echoing back the words, we say "Fare-well."

Dear Schoolmates: Through all these happy, uneventful days, we have been journeying hand in hand, always toward this point where our hands must be unclasped. Our acquaintance has been friendly, though not always intimate. In some instances, it has been the friendship of weeks, and months, and years; but, however short the period, each moment has been a golden link in the chain of friendship.

Our hearts' prayer for you is, that, as you advance farther and farther into the great "To be," it may indeed prove a bright and unclouded future. Though clouds mingle with the sunshine, and thorns be interspersed with life's flowers, may you have an unshaken trust in the good All-Father. Aye, 'tis ever
"Better to weave in the web of life
A bright and golden filling,
And to do God's will with a ready heart,
And hands that are swift and willing;
Than to snap the delicate, minute threads
Of our curious life asunder,
And then blame Heaven for the tangled ends,
And sit, and grieve, and wonder."
Have you ever stood in "Nature's temple," when the light blue lines along the horizon told of the early dawn, and listened to the song of birds, one unbroken gush of melody ? You could not separate each song, yet each sweet songster had his individual note; so, dear teachers, in our minds are blended your instructions. We cannot point to each truth and say, "You taught me that;" yet instruction was given, word by word, and line by line, all uniting to form the firmer mind.

Often shall we recall the times, when
"We glanced from theme to theme;
Discoursed the books to love or hate;
Or touched the wonders of the mind,
Or drank from music's chalice deep."
Heart influence flows from hidden fountains, that are never dry. Yea, ever will we cherish the looks we cannot see; the words we ne'er shall hear again.

Farewells have already been said: from your number, one is missing, one seat is vacant; and on yonder hill-side, the grass is growing pleasantly above the form of the absent one. We are vainly told that "loss is common to the race," and, "though friends depart, still other friends remain," it makes our own none the loss bitter. The passing word has burned its characters into the heart too deeply to be effaced.

Sister Graduates: This day marks an important event in the history of our lives. Though many have occupied this place before us, the song that to-day rises from our lips is, to its, as new and fresh as to the first ; 'tis like the song of redemption, new to all hearts that learn it for themselves.

As you, in after years, cast a retrospective glance down the arcade of the past, and behold its arches hung with the garlands of the "Bygone," may the remembrance of this day form a beautiful wreath to decorate the picture of thy school memories.

There are so many worlds in this one world; so much to do; so little done! The path we each must tread is overgrown with weeds; these must be destroyed, and in their stead sown seeds, that will yield their harvest in another world.

The little cares that cast their petty shadows o'er our way, are those by which our lives are chiefly proved. We must not expect to find happiness Elysian; that cannot be; Providence hath ordained that sinful man should never find unmingled joy. Shadows and sunshine must intermingle; thorns lurk beneath the flowers; but clear will be the eternal landscape, and no shadow can last in that bright dawn beyond the tomb.

Our earnest wish is that we each may
"Run our measured arcs, and lead
The closing cycle rich in good;
And when our hearts are full of din,
And Doubt beside the portal waits,
May we not listen at the gates,
But join the heavenly choir within."
Dear Classmates: Still another tie remains unsevered; for together have we toiled; together trod, sometimes with weary feet, the rough, yet chosen way. 'Tis hard to sever these links of friendship, — but, stay! is it necessary that every tie should be broken, every fond remembrance plunged beneath the dark waters of Lethe ? No; each heart joins in this response, and, though duty calls to varied scenes, we will not say, " Forever, fare-thee-well," but "We shall meet again."

Companion of four years:
"The path by which we twain did go,
Which led by tracts that pleased us
Though four sweet years arose and fell,
From flower to flower, from snow to snow,"
and we with singing cheered the way, — yet, dost thou not remember the hours when we each severally have gone down the dark declivity where sits the " Shadow feared by men?" have almost felt the death damp on our brows, as loved ones crossed to the other shore? Then, weary and alone, turned back to take life's burden. Do we remember? Is it necessary to probe a bleeding wound to know that it exists? Is it any marvel that we should lay aside life's burdens? Oh! 'tis joy to think that "somewhere in the waste, the Shadow sits and waits for us."

As the brilliant sun is sometimes hidden by clouds, and the earth is not always bathed in a golden flood, so, loved Principal, has been your path. Sorrow and joy, adversity and prosperity, have alternately cast their light and shade over your lifeway. Yet, behind the clouds was the sun shining.

Not mine the sweetness or the skill, to strike the notes of this our "cygnian" strain. I cannot command all the strings, and minors find a place in every chord. Is it the haze of grief, that makes former sadness seem so great? or, that "the past will always win a glory from its being far?"

When you lay aside your wornout — or, it may be, suddenly rent — garment of life, may it prove but the exchange of the laborer's vestment for the conqueror's robe; the crown of thorns for the diadem of unfading laurels!
 "Henceforth, wherever we may roam,
Your blessing, like a line of light,
Is on the waters day and night,
And like a beacon guides us home."
The broken links lie scattered around us; we touch them once more lovingly; — Friends, Schoolmates, Teachers, Classmates, Principals: a long, a last, fare—well.

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