Dear Alfred University students, staff, and faculty:
While meeting with members of the presidential search committee roughly two years ago, I first became acquainted with how much the threads of kindness are woven into Alfred University’s DNA. Since that initial meeting, I have become ever more convinced that something truly special transpires at our Alfred University intersection.
Tomorrow is the premiere of the movie Wonder, based on a 2012 best-selling children’s book by the same name, written by R.J. Palacios. It’s about a boy, Augie Pullman, who was born with Treacher Collins Syndrome, which causes craniofacial deformations, resulting from bones failing to develop in utero. The Children’s Craniofacial Association, which was founded by parents of children who were born with such problems, has a campaign called “Choose Kind,” urging everyone to choose to be kind, whether it is expressed as a smile, a hug or an Alfred University “hello,” versus indifference, meanness, or worse, bullying and cruelty.
For one Alfred University alumnus, Russel Newman ’90 and his wife Magdalena, “Wonder” and the “Choose Kind” campaign have a very personal meaning because their son Nathaniel was born with Treacher Collins Syndrome. They will share their story in a ABC News 20/20 segment to be aired at 10:00 p.m. Friday, November 17. In the trailer promoting the show (now available on the “20/20” web site), Russel says that from birth, Nathaniel has been beautiful to him. Thanks to the support of Trustee Kristen Klabin ’92, our campus community is getting suitably attired, in our Choose Kind t-shirts, to watch the show and assist the good cause.
As Thanksgiving approaches, we can be ever so grateful that the first inclination of the Alfred University community—faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends—is to Choose Kind. Over the past two years, I have seen this time and again. For example:
- The outpouring of support for Julio Fuentes, who as a sophomore football player sustained a life-threatening spinal injury. He was told he would never walk again, yet, last year, 10 years after he was carried off Merrill Field on a stretcher, Julio walked off the field aided only by a walker. Today, Julio continues to make remarkable progress in his recovery, thanks to help from Team Julio composed of many alumni, friends, staff, and faculty. He is enrolled in an Alfred University class, the first step toward his goal of earning his degree. We are thankful for the fortitude demonstrated by this remarkable young man.
- The resounding assent by our community when the University in May awarded an honorary degree to Warren Sutton, a member of the Class of 1961, who left Alfred University in the fall of 1959 under pressure from the administration at the time because Warren, an African American, was dating a white woman, the daughter of the University treasurer. Warren received his degree to a standing ovation from those attending commencement. Before and since then, we have heard from many people about how proud they are of our University for acknowledging and then righting an egregious wrong from more than 50 years ago.
- The warmth with which our community greeted the words of Kristin Beck '89, a year ago when she urged us all to "Be kind to each other," and the pride our community displayed when she was among the first to speak out against the proposed ban against transgender soldiers serving in the military. Kristin, born Christopher, was a 20-year veteran of the Navy Seals.
- The instinctive response of our Alfred University community when tragedy strikes, whether it is a natural disaster, like the hurricanes that struck Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean islands over the past several months, or the catastrophic fires that left thousands, including the family of one of our current graduate students, homeless in our Western states.
- The reaching out in compassion to those who need our help, whether it is the family of an employee, Cathy Johnson, who died unexpectedly last week, or members of our community who struggle to put food on the table.
That Choosing Kind is part of our Alfred University DNA was affirmed by a media release earlier this week. A new novel, The Hidden Light of Northern Fires, by Daren Wang, tells the story of Mary Willis, the only single woman who ran a stop on the Underground Railroad, helping runaway slaves reach freedom. Wang grew up in Town Line, New York, a small community in Erie County, in the same house in which Mary Willis once lived. Willis’ actions were especially daring given that her town was the only one in the northern United States to secede from the Union during the Civil War.
In an interview on WBUR, Wang recounts how he became fascinated by the story of Mary Willis:
" She graduated from Alfred University, which was only the second school in the country to accept women on a co-ed basis. And she came home and started running this Underground Railroad station in 1858, 1859, and that's such a radical thing for a young woman to do if you—I have a list of confirmed Underground Railroad operators in western New York, and it's couples or it's gentlemen, and then there's one single woman on the list. So the idea of her as, kind of, this radical feminist abolitionist kind of came together, because that's what her biography says. It's a radical thing for a woman to go to college in 1858. "
Laurie Lounsberry McFadden ’91, our University archivist, relays that Mary Willis attended Alfred University for a single semester, but that was evidently enough time to acquaint her with the anti-slavery sentiments of Jonathan and Abigail Allen, our former president and his wife, who were such seminal figures in the history of Alfred University.
As the holiday season approaches, let us remember both our community’s proud history when it comes to Choosing Kind and our responsibility to build upon that legacy going forward. When it comes to the past, present, and future, we truly have a great deal to be grateful for.