Erdrich speaks, but declines honors

by Maura Henninger | 9/24/97 5:00am

Distinguished author and College alumna Louise Erdrich '76 warned students not to be afraid of failure in her keynote address at yesterday's Convocation ceremonies, the 228th in Dartmouth history.

The audience in Leede Arena, which included several hundred students and members of the faculty, also heard addresses by College President James Freedman and Student Assembly President Frode Eilertsen '99.

Convocation is a Fall tradition and marks the official beginning of the academic year. Faculty members dress in a vivid array of robes which signify their scholarly attainment. It is the only occasion during the year when the president of the College addresses both the faculty and students together.

Yesterday's Convocation was especially significant because it kicked off the College's celebration of its 25th anniversary of coeducation.

Erdrich, the former wife of the late Michael Dorris, declined the honorary doctor of letters degree she was scheduled to receive. She said that a different time and place would be more appropriate for receiving such an honor.

Dorris -- who helped found the College's Native American Studies program -- took his own life in April. Erdrich was scheduled to speak at yesterday's ceremonies before the suicide or any of the attention that she received as a result.

At the beginning of her address, Erdrich talked about her choice to be the featured speaker at convocation. At the time she accepted the invitation to be convocation speaker, her family life was intact, she said.

Since Dorris' suicide, however, she said she had considered "canceling and retreating from public life. But I'd lose the chance to share my experiences with those who experience setbacks and failures."

Erdrich spoke of her experiences as a member of the first class which included women at the College.

She said she did not have to struggle enormously because she found people who felt and thought like her. Rather, she found the struggle with failure more difficult, but ultimately rewarding.

"My biggest accomplishment is to have failed and failed with all my heart in many things. There is an art to failure," she said.

Embarking on a career as a poet while an undergraduate, she said, involved much experience with failure. What kept her going was her work-study job at Thayer Dining Hall.

"I was the first woman at Dartmouth entrusted with making the special pancake breakfast. My boss taught me everything about making breakfast."

From this experience, she learned, there are people at the College other than professors who can be instructors. She stressed how important it is to seek these people out.

"Acquiring true knowledge, deep knowledge includes both the pains and joys of life," she said.

Throughout the experiences life as a college student may present, Erdrich advised her audience to reach out to others and cultivate inner strength. She warned of the dangers of depression, an allusion to her own pain in dealing with her former husband's suicide.

"Everyone has a way of dealing with setbacks. I found someone inside whom I call Nurse Louise. She's a realist, an inner grandma who tells me to keep going with life."

Erdrich closed her address with a message in Ojibway, her native Indian tongue, which she said Dorris had helped her appreciate. Invoking the image of a road prepared by the College and filled with others' tracks who had come before, she urged the new Class of 2001 and all the other students to leave their own tracks too.

"Women and men of Dartmouth, I hope you learn in the deepest way to live a good life of compassion and knowledge," she translated.

Appearing at his 11th Convocation, Freedman began his speech by dedicating it to the memory of John G. Kemeny, who was the president of the College when the first coed class matriculated in 1972. Kemeny's wife and daughter were in attendance yesterday.

Freedman quoted Kemeny as saying, "Dartmouth would be incomplete without women and on its way to becoming a second-rate institution without them."

Freedman then talked about facing philosophical, moral, and social questions and translating them into daily life.

"'How shall I live my life?' This is a question we must constantly ask ourselves," he said.

He also alluded to Dorothy Day, an activist who was dedicated to the Christian ideals of pacifism, racial equality, and social justice.

Though Day criticized the Catholic Church for its political stances and indulgence in certain luxuries, Freedman said, she felt that the Catholic faith was truly dedicated to the cause of the poor.

"I am impressed by her strength of faith and compassion for others. She answered 'How can I live my life?' with conviction and compassion, displaying an idealism and character."

For the Class of 2001, Freedman said, he hoped that they and all students would find a wealth of opportunities to enforce this same idealism and humanity in their own lives.

Speaking for the first time as Student Assembly President, Eilertsen offered some advice to the freshman about the ups and downs of the first year.

"You are surrounded by amazing people who you should treasure this time with, explore with. Never stop being curious."

Eilertsen urged students to get involved in the community of the College. By reaching out to others, he said, students will be better, wiser, and more complete human beings.

"Nurture passion for people, places, and learning.

And never stop enjoying the little, everyday things. This is my hope for you."

Provost James Wright presided over the Convocation exercises, introducing Christian Chaplain Gwendolyn King, who offered the opening prayer, as well as the ceremony's speakers.

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