The late Donald (Don) Hoagland delivered one of the most powerful, entertaining, and erudite speeches at the Graland graduation on June 8, 1977. When I found this speech in the archives, I could not recall who had delivered it, but the beauty of the speech had lingered in my mind even forty years later. Rereading it brought me back to my first Graland graduation. It is a long speech, but one worth reading; it is also a fitting way to end this rather lengthy series on the early years of Graland School. My goal in this series was not to reduce the history of this school to a mere chronological series of events -- yes, I am misquoting Boswell. Now, I quote accurately, a favorite poet of mine, John Greenleaf Whittier: “The great eventful Present hides the Past; but through the din of its loud life hints and echoes from the life behind steal in.”
“Thank you, Mr. Chairman, members of the Board of Trustees, Mr. Teitelman, members of the graduating class, Annie, chairs, ropes, clocks, blackboards-- there’s something wrong with that set, isn’t there? It started out processional and tedious the way ceremonies are supposed to sound -- but some other things got in there that didn’t sound like they were supposed to be there. And yet, who says so? All those things and people are here in this place at this time. How do you decide what belongs in a set of things and what doesn’t?
You probably start with what you’re used to, or what someone told you, but you, graduating ninth graders, you are beyond that now. You’ve moved up one major rank in the army of questioners, and this is a good time to think about how you decide important questions.
One good question to work with is the question, who are your heroes? I am going to describe three sets of possible heroes to you and see what we think of them-- see what heroism really is and which people deserve to be called heroes.
I’ll call these three sets the classical set, the athletic set, and the mystery set. There will be four people in each one, and I want you to be thinking about what characteristics the members of each set have in common, whether they really are a set, whether one set seems more deserving of the heroic label than another, and generally what you think about heroism.
The classical set includes Leonidas, Galahad, Frederic Barbarossa, and Hercules. Leonidas is remembered because when Xerxes and his Persians were bearing down on the Spartan towns of Greece, Leonidas and a sparse band of friends stationed themselves in the mountain pass at Thermopylae and fought to the last man and the bitter end. This is classical heroism-- he risked and lost his life (perhaps, he was going to lose it anyway) in a battle with crude weapons in hand-to-hand fighting against hordes of foreigners. The second-- Galahad-- was a knight of the Round Table -- in shiny armor-- who also fought with cutting and piercing weapons. The specific events of his combat experience are exciting and include a long string of victories in jousting with long spears and clubbing with two-handed swords. He was known to be a person so pure in heart that no one of lesser virtue could expect to defeat him in battle, and I suppose this gave him what we might now think an unfair advantage. Nevertheless, both he and Leonidas did a lot of virtuous killing with cold steel and clearly belong in a set of classical heroes. Galahad did introduce a general aura of virtue and mysticism into the composition of the classical hero.
This spirit leads us to the Crusades and my third hero named Frederick Barbarossa. He was a medieval king who after the spiritual and military fashion of that time gathered his followers, servants, and fellow believers into a small army which worked its way from Germany across Europe following the cross to retrieve the Holy Lands from the infidels. He unquestionably risked his life, he unquestioningly performed noble deeds, and he unquestionably looked the part of a hero on his big horse in his full armor with his flaming red beard. By the time he got to the last river separating Asia Minor from the Holy Land, he was well on its way toward becoming a classical hero of the first order. At that point, however, he teaches us a lesson about classical heroism. He rode his grandly into the river, fell off into two feet of water, and drowned because he could not get back up with all that heavy armor on. Well, this tells us not only that a classical hero has to fight for a noble cause, but he also has to die nobly.
The final member of this group is Hercules who is mainly known for his muscular heroism. Hercules handled a series of ordeals and labors and was undefeated in every kind of mortal combat known to the writers of this period. He strangled snakes from his cradle, but he never graduated from this level of unpremeditated and unsophisticated heroism-- living a sort of deadly decathlon.
This leads us easily into the athletic set. Candidates for the second set-- the athletic heroes-- are rather easy to collect -- selection is the problem. The papers are full of the exploits of my front four-- Rick Upchurch, Bruce Jenner, Billie Jean King, and Julius Irving. These are people who fling themselves around at varying but considerable degrees of physical, run back punts, win decathlon medals, win tennis tournaments, or just show us plain old one-on-one slam dunk genius. They perform wonderful feats of coordination, strength, endurance, and savvy, and attract our attention almost every weekend, if not more often. They are getting pretty big paychecks these days, and it’s tempting to pick them as the preferred models. But is this theatrical stuff heroism? Spencer Haywood, one of the finest basketball players ever to play in Denver, saw this clearly when he said just last week that he was no hero-- the real heroes are the families are the families trying to raise six children on $150 a week.