A Place to Learn, a Place to Grieve … a Place to Thrive
It was 1972. I had completed my freshman year at Emory in Atlanta. My father had passed away that September and I’d transferred to Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green to help with our family construction business, James N. Gray Co.
In October, I applied to Vanderbilt. I offer everlasting thanks to my mother for insisting I fill out that application in the fall of ’72. After being accepted to the College of Arts and Science, I transferred to Nashville and began to spend a lot of time on the road back and forth to my hometown of Glasgow, Ky., which lies just across the Kentucky line from Tennessee.As a transfer student, it was hard. It was hard to make friends, hard to focus on classes, and hard because I was trying to adjust to life without my father and to help with the business as well.
But Vanderbilt provided a sanctuary and taught me a lot about discipline, persistence and determination.
I got some extraordinary instruction too … especially in an English composition course, where a full grade point was the penalty for any one (yes, just one!) grammatical error. That’s when I learned to write … and the difference between a colon and a semicolon, and how to identify split infinitives and dangling participles. I learned who Kate Turabian was, too, and about her legendary guidebook, A Manual for Writers.
The campus itself was like a private park. I discovered something remarkably inviting, uplifting and motivating about the walk leading to the library. I remember that walk down the hill, then into the building and to my favorite study hall, the Fugitive Poets room in the basement. The building itself, with its Gothic Revival architecture, represented a touchstone, an inspirational bricks-and-mortar dimension of Vanderbilt’s mission and purpose.
As mayor, I can see clearly why the humanities and the sciences are fired together in a liberal arts college, how creativity influences technology and art influences engineering.
Philosophy classes taught by John Lachs and Charles Scott aided my grieving and deepened my curiosity for studying the puzzles in life, whether personal or business ones, or those I work on today: political and policy puzzles.
So, in shorthand, what did Vanderbilt give a kid from a small town in Kentucky?
It gave me what education at a great institution is supposed to do: the tools, discipline and fascination for lifelong learning and—I like to think—a little courage as well.
When I made other transitions later in life—through financial adversity in a family business, through coming out and into public service, first as vice mayor of the city of Lexington and later as mayor—I would often go back to papers I wrote at Vanderbilt, papers I kept in a file at my office, and just read those papers for meaning and for value and encouragement that I needed at the time.Today, in my role as mayor, I can see clearly why the humanities and the sciences are fired together in a liberal arts college, how creativity influences technology and art influences engineering. Steve Jobs got it right when, at the end of a new product launch, he would show a slide that showed a sign at the intersection of Liberal Arts and Technology Streets. That’s what Vanderbilt is all about. Creating the framework for learning and connecting the dots.
Years after I graduated, I was happy when my niece, Rebekah Hinson Gray, BA’03, chose Vanderbilt and studied art history, the same major her grandmother—my late mother, Lois Howard Gray, MA’42—studied almost 70 years ago at Peabody. That niece has joined our family business today. Rebekah got the full four years in at Vanderbilt and gained friends and relationships that will help her throughout life.
My college experience was different. But even though I didn’t gain the host of lifelong friendships others may in a Vanderbilt experience, I thrived in other ways. Vanderbilt offered a cloister for reflection at a time I needed it. It helped me build strength. It helped me build the fortitude and capacity to recognize that the human spirit triumphs during times of adversity—it doesn’t fail us.
That’s a big lesson. And Vanderbilt helped in a big way.
photo credit: Brad Biliter, Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government; John Russell; Jeff Rogers, Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau