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On retiring as the president’s wife

Michael Marsland

Michael Marsland

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We find ourselves in the same position—on the brink of ending our particular time at Yale. You are about to stop being undergraduates and I, the President’s wife. And whether our experience has lasted four years or twenty, it is hard to believe that it will very soon end, even when we know it will. A moment of transition calls us to look back on what we are leaving as well as forward to what lies ahead. Of course, what we are leaving is far more vivid to us than where we are going, especially if we don’t really know where we are going. What I want to do tonight is to look back at Yale as I have seen it for the past twenty years.

Every experience has its challenges—being an undergraduate or the President’s wife. You wonder how you will get everything done—two papers that should have been started much earlier than reading period, a play going up during midterms, the Eastern Sprints in the middle of final exams, Daily articles, Political Union meetings, any kind of meeting. Or for me—a set of Directed Studies papers to grade in the middle of a Corporation retreat in Wyoming, dinners or receptions every night of the week, Rick flying off to Singapore, or Beijing, or Minneapolis. And true challenges—terrible tragedies like the death of a student.

But net-net, my experience has been amazing and I hope yours has been as well. Looking back at twenty years, I have a deep sense of how totally remarkable Yale is. “Start from where you will,” the poet tells the muse in the Odyssey. So I will start with the people. To begin, it is extraordinary that a place exists that allows people to devote their lives to the pursuit of truth, to pursue truth by so many means, in so many directions. And far more than allows this. Yale is devoted to making this project possible, by providing abundant resources of time, place, materials, staff, colleagues, and students.

I think of our beloved friend María Rosa Menocal, Sterling Professor of Humanities. She began the introduction to her study of the origins of lyric poetry, “Lucky me.…” Lucky us, to have known her—someone so brilliant, passionate, original, and alive—and to share in her discoveries. I remember her giving a lecture in Directed Studies on Don Quixote, beginning with the chapter on the torn manuscript and the narrator’s discovery of a possible continuation in the market in Toledo. “How can I tell you about Toledo?” she asked. How indeed. How to compress a lifetime of study, learning, and thought about medieval Spain into the small compass of a lecture. Or I think of Harry Attridge, New Testament scholar and Dean of the Divinity School, lecturing on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians and the place of the law after Christ. “So the question was,” Dean Attridge explained, “whether there would be ham sandwiches at the church picnic.” Or Anthony Kronman, Sterling Professor of Law, lecturing on the Odyssey and the journey of Odysseus home to Ithaca, to his kingdom, his wife, Penelope, his son, Telemachus, and his great rooted bed. And then pausing and asking dramatically, “Who could ask for anything more?” And then explaining that for Plato, we are not at home in this world.

Not only are Yale faculty amazing, but also Yale students. Teaching a course in DS or a course on Epic Poetry, I am always struck by how absolutely incredible it is that students in twenty-first-century America, coming from around the world, could want to read works written hundreds and even thousands of years ago and give these works the chance to hold them spellbound. Odysseus when he descends to the underworld is told that he must feed the shades of the dead with blood to enable them to speak. That always seems to me a metaphor not only for DS but for what happens at Yale every day, as faculty and students feed the dead past with their energy, their passion, their curiosity, and make it speak.

Academic work is at the heart of Yale, but Yale is not only about the pursuit of knowledge. It pursues excellence in many directions. I think of the many memorable moments that Yale athletics have given us. We have attended Yale hockey games for more than thirty years. We still have in our garage a collection of hockey sticks from the 1980s. Players then used wooden sticks, the blades wrapped with black adhesive tape. At the end of every game, as the team walked off the ice to the locker room, the players would give their sticks to the children, including ours, eagerly leaning over the wall.

When Jack Siedlecki coached the football team, at the end of every home game, he would gather the team in a huddle on the field, and fans could circle around the team and listen. In 1997, having lost every game except one, Yale finished the season by losing to Harvard in the Yale Bowl. But the team came alive for one last spectacular drive in the final minutes of the game. When Coach Siedlecki spoke to the team, he said, “Gentlemen, you seniors showed us how this game is played. And when we win the Ivy title, it will be because of you.” And two years later in the Yale Bowl, the team did win the Ivy title, beating Harvard with Eric Johnson’s spectacular catch in the final seconds of the game.

Just as the Iliad values both words and deeds in its brilliant young heroes, Yale values both athletics and the arts. I will always remember the Opera Theatre of Yale College performing Mozart’s Così fan tutte in the Black Box Theatre on Broadway and watching Perry So ’04 striding to the podium in white tie and tails, calm and intense, raising his baton and bringing Mozart’s music alive with passion and sensitivity, and the singers, exactly the age of Mozart’s own exuberant lovers.

And what of Shades, performing every year at Halloween in the President’s House, to hundreds of costumed students. And now that I am a grandmother, I myself aspire to the goal achieved in their signature song by Sweet Honey in the Rock, “There were no mirrors in my Nana’s house … and the beauty in everything was in her eyes.” Or Sam Tsui ’11, a Classics major and member of the Duke’s Men, who produced and starred in the brilliant “College Musical” and became famous on YouTube with his Michael Jackson cover, which has now had 30 million views.

It is impossible to think about Yale without thinking about it as a place—a place that brings people together to talk, study, learn, teach, compete, share in real time and real space. The architecture of Yale is one of its most distinctive features. Architecture, observed Gerhard Casper, former President of Stanford and Fellow of the Yale Corporation, is the preeminent form of art that people experience in their daily life. Everything about Yale’s architecture says that what goes on at Yale is important, that it matters, that it deserves spaces that far exceed simple need. Yale’s architecture celebrates the human spirit and provides a worthy place for it to flourish. How remarkable the center of Yale is. That the places where you have tried to understand why marginal cost equals marginal revenue, or hoped you would be tapped for New Blue or the Baker’s Dozen, or found a boyfriend or a girlfriend, or a lost iPhone, should be these splendid collegiate gothic buildings. Being at Yale, we continually see the world with a double vision. Immersed in the present of our daily lives, walking to a lecture on Tolstoy, hanging out in the dining hall, we are reminded of a tradition that reaches back to medieval Europe and beyond, a tradition we inherit and enlarge.

This December saw the reopening of the renovated Yale Art Gallery, the fruit of fourteen years of thought and planning. With the economic downturn of 2008, the Art Gallery, along with the new colleges, the biology building on Whitney Avenue, and other capital projects, was put on hold. It was so sad to see the Art Gallery from the vantage of Starbucks, covered in scaffolding, half-finished. But Jock Reynolds, the incandescent director of the Gallery, and the committed members of the Art Gallery Governing Board, stepped up and brought the project home. When we walked onto Chapel Street from the dinner celebrating the reopening, the Gallery seemed to be the perfect emblem of the worth of the university.

Of course, constructing, renovating, and maintaining Yale’s buildings takes an enormous amount of money. More than $5 billion has been invested in the campus over the past twenty years, most of it donated by graduates and friends of Yale or earned by the extraordinary work of David Swensen and the Yale Investments Office.

It often strikes me with wonder that a place like Yale continues to exist—that so many people over more than three hundred years should have worked so hard, given so much, to make it flourish. Richard Brodhead, now President of Duke University, but formerly Dean of Yale College, and a distinguished scholar of American literature, often quoted Melville as one of his readings at Baccalaureate. Melville writes, “This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!” And Yale too is always a work in progress, never complete, continually depending on the time, energy, ideas, and cash of its graduates and friends to thrive. How remarkable really that someone who spent four years at Yale should decide fifty or even sixty years later to give his or her time, money, art, and energy to Yale. This fall, after the Princeton game, we went to the Class of ’54 reception. Even by Yale standards, this is a remarkable class. The Yale Bowl was recently renovated by the Class of ’54. The reception was held at the Smilow Field Center, renovated by Joel Smilow ’54, who also endowed the position of the football coach and most recently gave the Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven. Also at that reception was Richard Gilder ’54, who received an honorary degree from Yale celebrating his philanthropy to Yale—where he founded the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition and, with his daughter, an Olympic rower, built the boathouse—and New York, with the Central Park Conservancy and the American Museum of Natural History.

Melville wrote this book is but the draft of a draft, and this talk too is but a draft, woefully incomplete in its celebration of Yale and those who every day for more than 300 years have helped her thrive. So much has been left out and left unsaid. But what an extraordinary privilege it has been to be part of this, to have had the opportunity to help Yale flourish.

This talk, as I’m sure you have noticed, has a Whitmanesque structure, to compare a minnow to a whale as Sterling Professor of Humanities Harold Bloom would say. In Song of Myself, Whitman invites the reader to stop this day and night with him. And we have gotten to stop this day or four years or twenty at Yale. But at the end of the poem, Whitman reminds us that it is time for us to set out on the open road, to accustom ourselves to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of our lives. He bequeaths himself to the dirt, to grow from the grass he loves. And like Whitman, Yale will always be the grass under our feet.

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