New chancellor’s words link past with the present

This article was originally published in North County News.

Tucked inside the Falls Road corridor, the magnificent Monticello-like entrance lit up the dusk as the long, onyx pathway invited me to my alma mater’s soiree.

Nearing the steps, the path’s details startled me as I stopped and stared. A double-decker, dual-level, 15-foot set of stairs had been ramped and draped in preparation for my attendance. In my five years in this danged wheelchair, I had never been welcomed in such a dramatic fashion.

Inside, I wheeled easily among the reception’s guests. Southern charm exuded from freshly cut flowers and homemade ham biscuits. Conversations melted into a relaxed hum as strangers spoke and discovered common roots from an uncommonly memorable place – the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

It’s that time of year, and that season of economy, that re-energize most universities’ development staffs. That evening, Baltimore alums met UNC’s new chancellor, Dr. James Moeser, and learned about the latest fund-raising campaign.

Before he reviewed the ambitious plan and answered questions about the now famous freshman summer reading assignment – a book about Islam _ he reflected on his first months as chancellor.

“What excites me about this school are two things –its history and its potential,” he simply stated.

He reminded us that UNC was America’s first public university, established in 1789, and one of the first major Southern universities to open its doors to women and African-American students.

Then he turned to our potential, focusing on putting “Carolina First” among public universities. Although many of his remarks tied the future to funding requirements, his philosophy of linking the past with potential intrigued me.

“Don’t look back,” is an oft-heard phrase. “Let the past pass,” we are coached, especially when going through difficult times. “Keep moving,” we’re told. “You can get stuck in your past if you keep looking back.”


Maybe not.

Linking the past with the present can be a powerful connection. Snippets of who we were can spark the dreams of who we want to be. Our firsts can fuel our goals for the future.

Yet, that’s easier said than done, especially if life has taken you places you did not plan to go. Dreams vanish quickly when acute becomes chronic, remission becomes recurrence, treatable becomes terminal, acceptance becomes rejection and unwanted likelihoods become undeniable probabilities.

And life can become a nightmare.

But the past remains. We can, however, reserve the right to interpret our history. I chuckle when my mom and dad reminisce about parenting my blonde-bombshell sister, Rachel, who loved to push any limit imposed upon her.

With each stage of Rachel’s own parenting journey, our parents’ recollection of her willful antics grew more vivid and heinous whenever she sought advice.

“My childhood troubles get worse every year,” Rachel jokes. “Soon I’ll be a delinquent.” But the tales give her perspective, a context to her current parenting battles.

We can take literary license with our lives, putting a spin on our past, especially if it helps us find our way in the present. Revisiting the past can create a connection with concrete events, quieting the abstract chaos that comes with unknown futures.

I remember the comment of one 17-year-old after she’d received several acceptance letters from prestigious colleges. An older friend had congratulated her.

“Your future is so bright,” he raved. “You have so much potential.”

The young woman smiled, thanking the man as she turned to sit with me. With steel-blue eyes brimming, she spoke quietly.

“Sometimes it’s a burden to have so much potential,” she whispered. “I feel such a responsibility to live up to what is expected,” she confessed and paused. “It’s hard work having potential.”

I’ve often remembered those honest words and uncanny wisdom of the young woman. She was right. Potential is hard work. Potential has the promise of great things, but walks hand in hand with an equally powerful partner-disappointment. The tension between those extremes can be overwhelming unless we can find a manageable neutral gear. Creative planning, I’ve learned, is that active, hard-working, neutral gear that can link our past with our potential.

Folks in development work know that. Evening soirees with the chancellor are not random events. I’m sure the guest list was not by lottery, or the chancellor’s remarks off-the-cuff. And I know that incredible double-decker promenade was not a whimsical last-minute thought.

Potential is hard work. And the past, a loaded launching pad that can help us find our way in the present.