Stephen Dunn, Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing
The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey
I am very sorry I can’t be there today, but from afar I am pleased to offer this poem on the occasion of President Saatkamp’s inauguration. Actually, it is a prose poem called "Heroes" from my 1998 collection, Riffs and Reciprocities. Naturally, I don’t think college presidents should be heroes on any grand scale but I do think they need to set examples of integrity and to demonstrate the kind of vision and persistence that show the way toward what a true and vital education might be. Things that Herman Saatkamp is wholly capable of and already has begun to do. So I read "Heroes" to both honor him and to nudge him a little further toward fulfilling the challenge that is ahead of him.
Once we welcomed the anti-, the un-, We debunked whoever was in the top bunk, tore down what wouldn’t stand up. It was just another romance, of course, Belmondo instead of Odysseus, as if the attainable with a cigarette in its mouth was a new destiny, as if heroes should resemble us. But I admired Bill Russell the basketball player, and Jean Paul Sartre, his apartment apart from de Beauvoir and, like Russell, how he looked difficulty in its dark, persistent eye. I choked up at replays of Welsh saying to McCarthy, "Have you no decency, sir?" I wanted to speak like Churchill if things were to get grim. And now when young people are asked about their heroes, they get more silent than a mouse on tiptoe or cite some rock star or Billy Graham, or, touchingly, their parents. There is nothing high up for them that scrutiny hasn’t brought down. Heroes need a moment or two slowed into memory, stopped, emblazoned. They need to be caught swimming underwater for miles when the sky has gotten crowded with lies. We must not ask what they do in their spare time, or about their failures at love, or the money they took from that till when they were young. Their job is to go further and deeper than we dare. If only, we should find ourselves thinking.
What if. . .
Congratulations Herman and good luck.