It Starts with Hello
I recently met with Doug Clarke, a technician in our Biology Division, a 2001 alumnus of Alfred University with a B.A. degree in Environmental Studies, and someone who is well-versed on the history of the Seventh Day Baptist Church, whose members founded Alfred University in 1836. The Clarke family has long-standing ties with the Seventh Day Baptist Church, and the interweaving of their histories sheds light on our University’s DNA and what makes it so distinct.
One of Doug’s antecedents (nine generations removed) was his great-uncle Dr. John Clarke, who spent twelve years persuading King Charles II of England to issue a charter creating the Rhode Island colony in 1678, the first of the 13 original colonies to promote complete freedom of political thought and religion. John, along with Roger Williams and their followers, founded the colony of Rhode Island beginning in Newport. The egalitarian nature of their colony’s charter is what attracted the Seventh Day Baptists from England. In turn, it was a band of Seventh Day Baptist settlers from Rhode Island who traveled westward to Alfred, New York, and founded what was first called the Alfred Select School, the first institution of higher learning in the nation to admit women on a fully-equal basis with men. In fact, our University’s first class had 22 women and 15 men.
Doug’s great-grandfather, Alpheus Burdick Kenyon, came to Alfred University in the 1860s to attend school, intending to return to Rhode Island after completing his studies, to become a shipbuilder at what is now Mystic Seaport. His intentions dissipated when he fell in love with his future wife, and found a passion for teaching, through the mentoring of Abigail Allen and her husband Jonathan Allen, our second president, both graduates of our University as well (Abigail started in 1839 while Jonathan was in our first entering class of 1836). Alpheus’ talent for mathematics led him to teach that subject. During his tenure, he became our registrar, our acting president when Jonathan Allen died, and again, when Boothe Colwell Davis took a leave of absence from our University. Doug’s parents were the Reverend David Stillman Clarke ’41 and Frances Polan Clarke ’42, both bearing names that reflect the genealogy of the Seventh Day Baptist Church and Alfred University. Doug’s brother, D. Sherman Clarke is a reference librarian at Scholes Library. His former wife, Jeanette, is a 1990 Master's graduate of our University, and their son, Ian is a member of our class of 2018, majoring in Biology and minoring in Chemistry.
Given that background, what Doug says about the history of the University bears weight, so I paid attention when he said “It starts with hello” as so aptly defining Alfred University, our community, and our heritage. The Seventh Day Baptists were fervent in their belief in equality, in acceptance of all people and all manner of thought. They were friendly, welcoming of strangers, and had an inborn commitment to social justice, all hallmarks, still, of our Alfred University community.
“It starts with hello” expresses all those sentiments so succinctly. At Alfred University, and throughout the community, people actually greet each other with genuine smiles and genuine warmth. On my morning runs through campus and our village, for example, I am struck by the exceptionally high percentage of passersby that greet me with a pleasant hello—a much higher percentage than I experienced on similar runs during earlier times in my life in locales such as Rochester, Tucson, Los Angeles, Boston, and Columbus.
The “Alfred hello” has been a long-standing tradition and is well-known among our alumni. For a time, it was one of the official “rules” for our new students and detailed in our handbook. First-year students were asked to “greet all faculty members, students, and campus guests with the customary “hello” or similar greeting.” This rule first appeared in 1938 but the previous rules required students to show respect and courtesy to their faculty and other students, which would have included greeting them.
At Alfred University, we accept people for who they are and empower their dreams for making our world a better place, rather than focus on the differences between us. Alumni still recall it; students still feel it; and staff and faculty still live it.
As president of Alfred University, just beginning my second year here, I am proud of the history that led to the founding of this special place, and commit to a future that upholds all those principles.
Thanks, Doug, for making the connection between our history and our future so clear.