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Remember the Well-digger: Roberta Green Ahmanson

Commencement Address
Iowa State University
7 May 2005

In the 60s when I was a kid growing up 30 miles from here, Ames was a place to drive to on Friday and Saturday nights. Sixty-five years ago my mother studied Home Economics here for two years. So, it is a surprise and an honor to be standing here with you today.

My theme for today is a Chinese proverb: When you drink from the well, remember the well-digger. What does that mean? First of all, wells are necessary for life. They give us water, the deeper the well, the sweeter and longer lasting the water. Of course, well-digging takes tools and the knowledge to use them.

So, my plan is to begin by setting the scene and describing some of the well-diggers who made this day possible. Then, I'll ask you to see yourselves as well-diggers and give you some tools to help you dig. For, we are all here because of the choices made by men and women whose names we may never know and whose faces we may never see, the well-diggers.

First we must consider where we are, the setting from which we begin. We find ourselves in a college town on a prairie that is home to some one quarter of the richest soil on this planet. We are surrounded by space that is green in summer, deep tan and orange in fall, dark chocolate and white in winter. I didn't realize how much growing up able to hop on my bike and be out of town in two minutes meant to me until I moved to the endless suburbia that is Southern California. Some nights I would just get itchy. I needed space, and I would drive 45 minutes to either the beach or the desert to get it. Then one day I read a book by Ames native Susan Allen Toth and I understood what was going on. Listen to this description from Ivy Days: Making My Way Out East.

Although I never lived in the actual country, it was the context in which Ames existed, the sea in which our small town was an important island. Smaller towns were smaller islands, Des Moines a large one. But the land surrounded them all. Driving Highway 30, straight through Ames, one left the endless fields of corn for perhaps ten minutes of houses, gas stations, and stores, and then plunged into the ocean of corn again.... everywhere my mother drove me I absorbed the same sense of space. Outside the towns was a reassuring repetition of fields and farm, fields and farm.

This place, this space, leads us to the well-diggers, the men and women whose decisions and actions made this university possible. To understand them, think back with me to 1846. The Sac, Fox, and Sioux had signed treaties and moved West. Iowa had just become a state. Easterners and other European settlers had begun to move in. Just 12 years later the Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm was chartered. Then four years later, in 1862, just after the start of the Civil War, Congress passed the Morrill Land-Grant College Act, aimed at teaching subjects "related to agriculture and the mechanic arts" but not excluding the general sciences and classical studies. The act granted every state establishing such a college 30,000 acres of public land for each of its lawmakers in Congress. Today Iowa State University of Science and Technology is one of 70 flourishing land-grant colleges.

As you know, the general sciences and classical studies have grown into nine colleges, ranging from Agriculture and Business to Design and Family and Consumer Sciences. The college, which opened in 1868, graduated its first 26 students in 1872. Since then 241,335 others have joined them, and your class along and those receiving graduate degrees this weekend will bring the number to more than 244,000. You are part of a university of 26,000 students from all 50 American states and more than 110 nations around the world. This wide spot in the prairie touches the world. And, it was built and continues to grow because the of the men and women who were well-diggers in this place.

Clearly well-diggers are risk takers. It's a risk to go to college. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, in 1910 a mere 2.7 percent of all Americans had completed four or more years of college. In 1950, the percentage was 6.2; in 1990, 21.3 percent; in 2004, 27.7 percent. Joining that minority, you are trusting that hard work and learning will give you a way not only to make a living but to create a meaningful life. Your university has given the world quite a few well-diggers. George Washington Carver earned his B.S. here in 1894, his M.A. in 1898, and went on to unravel the mysteries inherent in the peanut. Carrie Chapman Catt, founder of the League of Women Voters and an important force behind the 19th Amendment that granted women the right to vote, graduated as Valedictorian of the Class of 1880. John Vincent Atanasoff invented the electronic digital computer here in the 1930s. That's only a beginning. But, what qualities does it take to be a well-digger, to make such contributions? What tools do you need?

The factors are undoubtedly complex, but let me suggest three starting places, three intellectual tools. First, to make sense of our lives we need to be able to step out of ourselves and our own time. How do we do that? The British scholar and author C.S. Lewis suggests we read old books. In 1944 in an introduction to a very old book, the fourth century On the Incarnation by Athanasius, Lewis writes that every age is especially good at seeing certain truths and making certain mistakes. People in any age have more in common with each other, even when they disagree, than they do with people who come before or after. The only antidote, Lewis says, is to meet minds from another time. Though he says books of the future would do, they aren't available to us. So, it is necessary to read old books.

"Not, of course," he says, "that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes."

In 1961 Lewis published a book called The Discarded Image about the way the men and women of the Middle Ages saw the world. In it, he gives a striking example of what we can learn from old books. The medievals, Lewis points out, saw themselves as standing on the periphery, on the edge of the universe, looking in. We moderns, he says, see ourselves standing in the middle of the universe, looking out. A very different understanding. One can only wonder what he would say about our postmodern era. Closer to home, another example might be the image many Americans from the coasts have of the Midwest as a backwater, unconnected to the world. Anyone involved with this university knows that agriculture has been globalized for centuries. Iowa farmers know farmers from Russia, Argentina, China, and Iowa's products can be found all over the world.

Next, part of learning to see the blind spots in our thinking, in our view of reality, is coming to understand what motivates us each day, what drives us to do the things we do. In 1944 King's College, University of London, invited Lewis to give the annual "Commemoration Oration." He called that speech "The Inner Ring." His point, our second tool, is that there is a motive more powerful than money or sex or even ambition. It is the desire to be one of the people who run things, the "in" group, the people in the know, the Inner Ring.

Lewis says that there are two problems with the lure of the Inner Ring: First, the desire can make not very bad people do very bad things. Second, it sets a person up to expect something that can never be had. As he put it: "Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain."

But, Lewis does offer a remedy. He suggests that if we make work our end, if we strive to do the very best we can in the work we have chosen to do, we will find ourselves in the only circle in any profession that really matters, the circle of sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen and women will know it.

Then he tells us there is something more. If we spend our free time with the people we like, we will find ourselves in "a real inside," a place that looks like an Inner Ring but isn't. The difference is the secrecy is accidental, the exclusiveness a by-product. It is, after all, only a few people getting together to do things they enjoy. "This," Lewis says, "is friendship. Aristotle placed it among the virtues. It causes perhaps half the happiness in the world, and no Inner Ringer can ever have it."

Let me give an example, a 1962 graduate of this university. This man grew up here in Ames, went to graduate school at Nebraska, took up a job for an insurance company where he rose to vice president, and wrote poetry early in the morning. His work was published, but many saw him as only a "regional poet." Eventually, others began to read his work. In 2004, Ted Kooser was named Poet Laureate of the United States and this year he won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his book Delights and Shadows. A sound craftsman recognized by his peers. That recognition came not from pursuing the Inner Ring but from doing good work day by day.

The final well-digger's tool comes from the 16th century divine John Calvin, a man whose modern reputation has not been good. Marilynne Robinson, this year's winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and professor at the University of Iowa, disagrees with contemporary assumptions about Calvin. In her book The Death of Adam, she argues that much of Calvin's current reputation for repression, priggishness, and even brutality is based on the writings of people prejudiced against him for their own reasons. Robinson went back to the original texts and came to a very different conclusion, arguing that perhaps we could use a little Calvinism today. Of Calvin she wrote, "If, as is often said, he was the greatest theologian of the Reformation, it is because he was not primarily a theologian, but a humanist, a man of letters, an admiring student of this world."

So, this final suggestion for how to be a well-digger comes from Calvin's writing about how to see and to use the material things in our lives. Once you've paid your school loans, you will be launched on a new phase of your life's work. You will also step into a greater ability to earn money and accumulate things. What value you place on those things will shape your lives.

In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin explains that we are faced with two obvious choices but need to find a third way. The first option is total abstinence, rejection of things. In his time, certain religious orders ate only bread and water and dressed in rough clothing, all to renounce the temptations of this world. When I sat where you are sitting, many hippies took the same approach to the materialism of their parents. The second option, Calvin said, was to worship things - gourmet foods, expensive clothing, jewels, precious and costly pieces of art. Today we'd have to add fast cars, foreign travel, sailboats, designer watches, you name it. People then as now kept score, evaluating their success by what they had, the clothes they wore, the people they knew.

Calvin would say that neither of these options gets us anywhere that offers lasting joy or satisfaction. So, he says, there is a third way. We are to understand material things as gifts of God, created as Calvin says "for our good, not for our ruin." We should hold them lightly, enjoying them and sharing them with others, not denying them or measuring our life or the lives of others by them. How do we manage this? Calvin says we do it by understanding our calling, knowing the work we are cut out to do, the work you have been preparing yourselves for over the past few years. Calvin says that God knows "with what great restlessness human nature flames, with what fickleness it is borne hither and thither, how its ambition longs to embrace various things at once. Therefore, lest through our stupidity and rashness everything be turned topsy-turvy," Calvin says, we have been given particular gifts and talents and by understanding those we find our calling, the work of our lives.

Two different men, two different centuries, both saying that our work matters as does the company we keep. In my life I have been surprised often and found myself facing things I never expected to face. I grew up in a working class railroad family. In the 1970s in Canada I lived on unemployment insurance for eight months until I could earn enough to live on freelance writing. I knew what it was to wonder if a check would come in time to pay the rent. Years later I married a very wealthy man and outward things changed radically. I tell you this story for two reasons. First, I am living proof that you really have no idea where your life will take you. So, get ready and hang on for the ride. Second, the problem of knowing how to value the things in life is no different for me now, surprisingly, than it was when I had access to far fewer of them.

So, I am with you today because of well-diggers who made this state and this university possible, well-diggers who taught us and gave us insight into our callings. And, thanks to C.S. Lewis and John Calvin, we have some tools to help us think about our own well-digging. It's up to you to decide where you will dig, how deep and lasting your well will be.

Last year Ted Kooser wrote a poem about Midwestern well-diggers for "Reconfiguration," the arches made by Albert Paley out of found objects from the railroads, the factories, the farms here in Iowa. I close with that poem.

Bell, gong, and cymbal clang when struck,
raising within them the old music of labor,

vast choirs of molecules praising
the artisans' hands on the burning ladle

their backs bent sore at the ringing anvil,
forging chords with hammer and tong.

For all things beaten into shape, or cast,
or welded together, auger and plowshare,

bridge and rail, cling always to the music
that went into making them, the notes

that fell with every drop of sweat,
even the plunk of a lunch pail set down

among the curls of shavings on a bench,
and the clink of the wrench knocked off

onto the oily floor. Every cough and curse,
every laugh, good joke and bad, the snap

of the spark at the tip of the torch, the chirp
of the foreman's whistle, every sound

of life lies in the girders, rods and rails
that shelter us, that carry us across the years

working and singing, talking and laughing,
telling our stories, passing through.

And so, as you work and sing and tell your stories, keep these challenges in mind.

Take risks.

Look beyond the blind spots, the assumptions of your time.

Make good work your aim and find true friendship.

Hold things lightly and refuse to measure your life by them.

Be a well-digger.

Thank you.