Whitney Kimball Coe delivered these remarks to the graduating class of Tennessee Wesleyan University on May 4, 2019, in Athens, Tennessee.
Good morning! Congratulations, class of 2019!
Thank you (acknowledge all dignitaries on the stage)…
It is such an honor to stand before you today on the grounds of a place that means so much to me, to my family, to this community.
Many of you may not know that I have roots here, too. My grandparents lived on campus in the 1940s when my granddaddy, the Rev. George E. Naff served as chaplain. Many years later, after they served congregations all over the Holston Conference, my grandparents returned again so granddaddy could serve as President of Tennessee Wesleyan College from 1975 to 1984.
My grandmother, Mary Ellen Naff, was his beloved partner and collaborator and is probably best remembered for the shows and musicals she put on at Townsend Auditorium and for how she linked arms with the Athens community.
I love the official portrait of them that hangs on the wall of presidents. It’s a good story:
When it came time to have the portrait taken, Granddaddy insisted Grandmama be in the picture with him. It’s the only picture on the wall that shows a couple, I think.
So, there they sit now, so close, so cozy, practically spooning one another in the Presidential dining room in Sherman Hall.
This campus played a big role in the life of my family. My parents were married in the courtyard at the President’s home, just over there.
My mother graduated from here in 1979 and after more than 25 years at the Athens Area Council for the Arts, is now back accompanying voice students in the music department.
This makes her so, so happy, y’all. And I get it. This place is home.
I give you all this background not to offer up my credentials, but to join you in celebrating the relationships and connections you’ve built here.
The people, this place, will stay with you, even as you leave it today.
You may not remember all the moments, all the experiences you had here, but you won’t forget how this place made you feel.
I honestly don’t remember much about my own graduation ceremony.
I don’t remember what shoes I wore or where I sat.
I don’t remember who delivered the commencement address on that sunny day 2006 at Queens University of Charlotte.
My sincere apologies to that person, whom I know spent hours crafting a message they hoped would stay with me forever.
I’m sorry now that I don’t remember the details of the ceremony, but I do remember the emotions.
I remember how I felt.
So many feelings in the few hours we sat on the green in front of the nicest building on campus, in the shade of giant trees dripping pollen on our caps.
I remember the thrill of processing with my friends and my professors, of seeing them decked out in robes and hats and beautiful stoles.
The pageantry of graduation still thrills my heart–as it did again, this morning.
I remember the precious love I felt for the family and friends who’d journeyed to be with me. My parents and my godparents. My soon to be husband. My godsister, Lauren. My beloved grandmother, Mary Ellen Naff, who fell asleep halfway through the ceremony on Lauren’s shoulder. We have pictures.
My then-teenaged brother didn’t make it to my graduation because he had to go to prom. I forgive you, Andrew.
I remember the sadness I didn’t want to acknowledge—the realization that my college journey was over and that in just a few hours we would all depart from this place and from one another.
I’d spent four years with these people under these giant trees learning about great thinkers, writers, leaders, and concepts. I’d fallen in love with religion and philosophy classes…and maybe with some of my professors, too.
I’d also learned about loneliness and conflict,
How to live with a roommate
(Actually, no, that’s a lie. I didn’t. I ended up getting a room to myself).
I learned how to write emails and use a zip drive—remember, this was the early 2000s,
I learned how to stay on top of the laundry,
How to write letters home and ration cell phone minutes,
How to start a campus organization,
How to join and then exit a sorority,
How to be responsible for my own nutrition,
How to balance work and studies,
How to drive around a big city.
Left to my own counsel, I learned how to be braver than I’d ever been in my life.
I learned all these things in a community that valued community.
The Queens motto is non ministrari sed ministrare, not to be served, but to serve.
That motto was invoked on the regular to spur us to good deeds and responsible scholarship, and it was sometimes used to shame us into getting up early on the weekends to pick up litter or plant trees or host giddy high school students in our dorm rooms during homecoming weekends.
But that focus on service has stuck with me all these years later.
Do any you know the Tennessee Wesleyan motto? Shout it out! Lux et Veritas—Light & Truth. Light & truth.
Imprint that on your hearts, friends.
Back to my graduation ceremony, I remember the trepidation I felt about what was coming next.
Where would I live?
Where would I get my next meal?
What if I couldn’t find a parking space out in the real world?
How would I afford the new Harry Potter book that was about to drop?
I’d made a pretty solid plan for my immediate future, but it had some weaknesses, I knew.
My plan was to pull a Jane Austen and marry a dea
r man named Matt Coe who would support me and supplement my next adventure to graduate school.
This wouldn’t be the last time Matt Coe played this particular supporting role. (I love you, Matt.)
We were going to Appalachian State so I could get a masters in Appalachian studies, which, honestly, I can’t tell you what I meant to do with a master’s in Appalachian studies. Truly.
I knew it was risky, jumping into a program with no long-term strategy for its practical application. I knew it was risky getting married so young, just out of college.
But, looking back all these years later, I’m glad I took the leap and followed my intuition. I can tell you that those years were well spent.
I learned how to live with a roommate. Finally. Bless you, Matt Coe.
I learned how to manage money–mostly.
I learned how to make adult friends and to drink responsibly.
I learned how to square dance and about the differences between Bluegrass, Old Time, and country music. (There’s a difference…)
I learned the history of our region—the Appalachian region—and how this culture and these mountains are woven into the identities of those of us who live here.
I learned I was more religious than I thought, that I needed a church family, that I needed to worship with a community so I could feel whole and brave out in the world.
I learned that it’s not all about me.
Matt and I finished our two years in Boone a little scruffier and a little wiser, and my Appalachian studies experience fortified a calling I’d felt ever since I was a little girl—the call to community, to relationships in my region, to my hometown.
Again, my intuition was pushing me to consent to a half-baked idea—to make my way home and see if I could make a difference there.
It was 2008 and all signs pointed to the fraying of our social fabric and the decline of small towns and communities, so this calling was kind of inconvenient.
In case you don’t remember 2008, here’s some context:
I graduated just in time for the Great Recession and the rise of corporate monopolies.
I came of age with the ascension of Facebook and social media, Fox News and the decline of local newspapers.
I came into adulthood just as we were starting to collectively recognize the effects of climate change,
Just as we were beginning to continence extremist rhetoric,
repeal voting rights legislation,
and pour money into SuperPACs.
I came of age when the economies that defined our region—mining, manufacturing, farming—were hurting and community life as we knew it was coming apart under the pressure.
I left Appalachian State just as technology and a growing wealth gap collided, spurring a culture of consumerism, individualism over community, fame over service, and politics over the body politic.
But this calling of mine, to community and home wouldn’t be quieted.
I had to test the radical idea that the antidote to our 21st century discord was to get closer to our neighbors rather than sorting ourselves out of the neighborhood.
The best place to try that was back in Athens, in my hometown with people who’d been practicing adventurous civility longer than I’d been alive.
My idea was to pursue the radical notion of staying within sight and sound of people you love AND to not dismiss the people who drive you crazy.
The quickest way to get proximate, I decided, was to run for public office.
The 2016 presidential election and local elections put my theories about diving in to the test.
That was the year our country split for real and it’s also the year I lost a bid for a seat on Athens City Council.
There is nothing more joyous or more humbling than running and losing an election in your hometown.
If you lose right then you fall more in love with the people around you.
What a gift it was to lose that race, in large part because it confirmed for me the transcendent power of relationships. I may not have won the race, but I fell in deeper with my neighbors than ever.
Because a candidate for public office, I’d learned more about who we are and what we want, what brings us joy and what scares us.
I learned we have so much more in common than we think.
We are participating in what Rev. Dr. King called an “inescapable network of mutuality”—our lives are intertwined. We depend on one another.
If this is true then it means we don’t have to be held hostage by the forces that conspire to drive us apart. We don’t have to declare sides because we should be on the same side.
These are the building blocks our country needs so desperately right now.
So that’s why I’m in Athens with Matt and our two daughters, and together we have launched a tiny counter-cultural revolution that actually looks a lot more like a series of board meetings, volunteer efforts, church on Sundays, grocery store encounters, potlucks, coffee dates, community theatre, school programs, and commencement addresses on grounds that nurtured me as a child.
Please don’t hear me telling you that Athens is destiny—yours or mine.
I’m just saying community—where ever you find it or create it—is a laboratory for discovering how to live a life that is so rich, so full, and so connected.
Your experience at Tennessee Wesleyan is a microcosm of that—it’s taught you something about what it means to be accountable to others, to show up, create, celebrate and mourn with people who’ve known you these four years.
Extend those practices to your next stop. And maybe experiment with relational skills like compassion, curiosity, vulnerability, humor, wonder, and honesty.
The hardest, most rewarding work we can do right now is consent to sharing this life together.
It’s okay if you don’t remember everything I’ve said today, but I hope I’ve made you feel some urgency, some hope, some sense that you are equipped to push back against the narrative that we are meant to
travel this world alone, without obligation or companionship.
Because that’s just not true. We are hardwired for connection and companions to light and truth.
It’s all time well spent when we are together.