At the 1912 Commencement, A Father Writes to His Son of the Value of Education

Commencement Procession, 1910Thousands of students and their families have experienced the vivid emotions of the awarding of a college or university degree and passage into what is referred by today's students as the "real world." Scores of commencement speakers have attempted to place a value on the student experience while challenging the graduates to use their hard-won knowledge to conquer the problems of the day.

While public ceremonies properly reflect collective joy, perhaps the true meaning behind graduation is more of an individual or family affair. A universal feeling is one of pride. Documentation of this sentiment is difficult to come by especially as letter writing increasingly has become a lost art. Some years ago, the University Archives received a poignantly prideful letter written at graduation from Trinity College in 1912. At that time, graduation from college was a rare event. The vast majority of graduates, especially in the south, were the first members of their family to earn diplomas, either from a high school or a college. The recipient of the letter was Edwin L. Jones, Sr. from Charlotte, North Carolina, a member of Trinity's senior class who had won the Orator's Medal of the Hesperian Literary Society. He had mailed a copy of the notice of the award from the student newspaper, the Chronicle, to his parents along with the schedule of the commencement weekend. His father replied, expressing a universal sentiment not uncommon today. The writer's evident limited education adds significantly to the personal importance of the occasion.

Edwin L. Jones, Sr. made the most of his family's priceless gift. The listing of activities under his senior portrait in The Chanticleer, the college yearbook, notes academic honors; varied literary society, YMCA, and debate club activities; positions of responsibility on The Chronicle's business staff; letters in track and basketball; and membership in the highest campus honorary organization, "9019." Perhaps equally as important, Jones met, courted, and later married classmate Annabel Lambeth, magna cum laude,graduate with Honors in French, from Thomasville, North Carolina. Their marriage marks the beginning of generations of Duke graduates from the Jones family. Edwin L. Jones, Jr.'s later service on the Board of Trustees and generosity in support of his alma mater likewise inspired service and support throughout the university by numerous family members. "My Dear Son," the letter began. "I cant tell you how glad I was to know that you had won the metal[.] now you can see that God has give you a delivery of voice. it does my heart good to see that you are taking advantage of a opertunity that I diden have[.] I wanted Education when I was a boy. but I diden have the chance to get some. I am glad that you have made good at college[.] I have worked hard every sence I have ben a little boy. but I dont mind working hard as I have to get you through College[.] As I rid the a count in your little paper of you winning the metal, it repaid me for all that I have spent on your schooling[.] I & mama do want to get up for your gratuation but I dont see how both of us will get to go as the children is so small to leave by themselves. Good by, Your Papa."

With the growth of higher education in the twentieth century, the earning of a college degree is sometimes taken for granted. Duke University, however, likely still has graduates who are the first members of their families to receive a degree. A university education remains an accomplishment of the highest order worthy of pride by parents and students alike.

Related Resources

© 1992. William E. King, University Archivist, 1972-2002.
This article is reprinted from If Gargoyles Could Talk: Sketches of Duke University by William E. King. Carolina Academic Press, 1997.