Installation Oration by Allan Gurganus, October 12, 2008
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Whenever I lose my car keys, I consider calling Holden Thorp. The calm he trails is quantum. And, whenever I lose my car keys and my house keys? I really come close to phoning him, but haven't. ...Yet.
Why do some folks realign the ions that make our world feel organized, purposeful, even ‘fun'? We all know talented people. We know some virtuous ones. We might even recognize a few who're visionary. But getting all three categories into a single pair of size ten-and-a-half loafers, now that's unusual, friends. And that's why we always want Holden on our life raft, don't we? The Titanic has just sunk; someone sits at the prow of your battered dinghy. He looks as cool as if he planned this mess. And he can also tell you where your car keys are.
Why our euphoria today? Why did we know there would be all this sun? Why did I so want to learn the life-story of the man who just parked my car? Because we're having a Group Symptom. It's one unusual for the Twenty-First Century. No, not an acid flashback. Yes, loved ones, this we are feeling is CIVIC PRIDE. Wonderful 19th-century sensation!
Like the opening game of a National Championship season. Like, after Thanksgiving Dinner, reaching beneath the table to unfasten that top trouser-button. We are getting a sufficiency at last and this is how it feels!
We're about to experience another luxury: North Carolina-born leadership of our own state's greatest institution for the first time in sixty years. A gifted leader, homegrown, humane and ethical, who knows where the car keys are.
As someone who writes novels, I feel odd saying it but: Holden Thorp will never make a believable fictional character. Flaws are a storyteller's spice-rack. You want to create someone on the page? First choose a few merits; then set those right beside the many little faults required to make human goodness credible on the page. By those standards, Holden Thorp ain't a rounded character.
I mean, who, in fiction, gets to be both Artist-scientist, Citizen-statesman? Who so smart and diligent also wins a Yale drama-school partner as lovely and gifted as Patti? And then has two kids so bright and independent as John and Emma? When people say Holden Thorp is ‘unbelievable', they're not kidding.
I've known him all his life and his faults keep NOT emerging. It's almost disappointing! I mean: He listens. Then remembers. The busiest of people, he always has time for your latest corny joke. A working scientist, he's an inspiring teacher, a loving father, a rock musician, a believer in God who still reads fiction for fun. Thank you, Jesus.
Holden Thorp has been called a Renaissance Man so often, seconds afterwards, he's not sure if you said that or, "How ‘bout those Tarheels?"
Since I'm a North Carolinian, I believe family history helps explain everyone. Holden is a Thorp: that's both a name and a noun. On his Momma's side, he's also first cousin to Cardinal Bernardin, another organizational genius, and one of the few true princes of the church. Holden's high-energy parents enjoyed their first date at the Scuttlebutt just yards from here.
His much-missed dad, Herbert, was a lawyer from down Fayetteville way, a democrat in every sense. Herbert made everyone he met feel smarter, better, more important; we could therefore never get enough of him.
Holden's mother, Bo, (very present today) is a director-actress-theatrical impresario. She did not so much give birth to her firstborn son, she held a casting-call and he was the only one who turned up. – He got the part.
I first met Holden when he was five. His pants were shorter, his glasses rounder and a bit more Harry Potter-ish. But he then looked...well, he looked very much the way he looks today.
We were at his Aunt Daisy's house in Rocky Mount. Twenty-odd other Thorps were over-decorating a huge Christmas tree. Arguments brought out till one smart child finally called, "I believe the tinsel usually goes on last, peop-le!" And there he stood, short, (being a kid) part Huck Finn, part Yoda and, visibly, already the likely future author of his 1992 hit: "Electrochemistry of Proton-Coupled Redox Reactions: Role of the Electrode Surface." He was still five years old. But, I swear, already our chancellor in miniature. This boy-child gave me a look of calm, amused, half-Buddhist tolerance. (Now, some persons are said to have ancient souls. If there is reincarnation, this might be Holden's hundredth return-trip.) That Christmas we talked of what? UNC basketball? His playing ‘Tiny Tim' yet again in Mom's musical of Dickens' ‘Christmas Carol'? But Holden was already himself, unflappable, complete. Even then he calmed adults toward feeling singular, centered, somehow eager to be useful.
His brilliance had been announced to me by his Aunt Daisy, a born fairy godmother to us both. Talent scout, art history professor, the smartest young woman in a superstitious town, Daisy was bent on taking bright children, her own and others', and aiming us, fitting us, for some worthy purpose in the larger waiting world. Daisy Thorp never doubted there would be perfect visible spots out there for each of us. Out here. Daisy's knowing that Holden's day would come, allowed us to believe it. Great teaching is always both a prophecy and a miracle. Her dying at eighty-two, her not being visible today, might sadden some. Fact is we miss her daily; we consult her daily.
And our Civic Pride must include this last glory: A North Carolinian is again Chancellor of this state's greatest university. Surely this proves we've dropped our wish never to belong to any club that would have the likes of us in charge of us! So, born in 1793, today, brothers and sisters, we're finally mature.
Holden has resisted far more lucrative offers to head other states' universities; he's refused these tempting sure-fire posts, and simply for the prospect of someday getting good at this one.
Do I sound over-proud of North Carolina, fellow citizens? If so, forgive just this once. I've got my car keys here, and my ideals right up here in front. How rare, in these times, to stand up straight and talk about ideals! Imagine what our nation might again become if all Democrats and Republicans agreed on a single candidate and then just let him get to work? Know that at this University, such a Candidate today takes his oath of office. What might he not achieve, that one? Could I get an Amen? Oh yes, that helps. Today, we're all Beholden.
Gertrude Stein wrote, "We must dare to be happy." Odd, this implies we have a choice. We do, of course. So let's just gloat some, shall we? Because: our state's hardest job comes today to the one person blessedly ready and singularly prepared to most brilliantly fulfill it.
Given bureaucracy, what are the chances? What are the chances? in our current America, ruled by amateurs, with predictable results.
When the one citizen on earth best able to run a University, turns out to be a stellar graduate of that very University, we must be doing something right! North Carolina is famously modest. So let me brag for us to us – (behind closed doors, just us chickens).
When a great state is also, quietly, a very good state, I reckon it sometimes follows that – one of its very good young men should show himself to also be...a great young man.
"Greatness," everywhere in short-supply. But...not...today... thank God...in North Carolina.
– Our Chancellor is Holden Thorp.