In Memory of Dr. Jim Aune

We are saddened today to share the news of Prof. Aune’s untimely death.

 In tribute to the countless students whose minds he challenged and helped to become the people they were meant to become, here are the remarks he delivered at the Honors Recognition Ceremony on May 8, 2008.

Howdy! Thank you for the kind words. A few years ago, some students and I wanted to propose that Texas A&M create a new tradition, that of electing a Faculty Yell Leader, and, strangely enough, Professor Ritter didn’t want to be nominated. There’s a common expression we all have probably used after meeting someone and that person later comes up in conversation with a friend: “What’s that guy’s story, anyway?” To me, Kurt’s story is that of someone who more than any faculty member I know lives out the Spirit of Aggieland–a distinguished scholar of presidential speechwriting, an inspiring teacher, and someone who puts the good of his university community ahead of himself. The great Jewish writer and survivor of Auschwitz Elie Wiesel once wrote, “God made human beings because he loves stories.” So, as the organizing theme of this speech, I want to pose this question to our honors graduates: What’s your story? How would you want someone to answer that question about you, now and at the end of your life?

Because you are Aggies, there are Aggie stories you will tell about yourself and about Aggie traditions. Some of them you won’t want to tell your parents, at least until they’re enjoying your struggles with your own children. Some you will forget, especially the episodes you worried too much about at the time–usually having to do with a grade. Many you will cherish. My own Aggie story began in the fall of 1996. I had spent my first 16 years of full-time teaching in the small private college setting, mostly in Minnesota, my home state. One of my frustrations with that setting was the growing expectation of my students, who seemed to grow richer each year, that since they were paying tuition that cost more than my first mortgage, I really would ruin their lives if I gave them a B plus. As I was calculating my final grades at the end of my first semester year, a young man came into my office and asked if he could see his final grade. I thought to myself, “Here it comes. I wonder how you whine in Texan?” I showed him the numbers, and the final letter grade. He looked at me and said, “A C? thank you, Sir!” After he left, I thought to myself, I could really get used to this.

In addition to your Aggie stories, you are part of a continuing family story. The characters and plot lines may differ slightly from family to family, but the questions the characters ask are remarkably similar. If you are a parent, like I am, you might ask: When am I ever going to stop worrying about him or her? If you’re a father of a young woman graduate, you might ask: How am I going pay for this wedding that seems to be taking on the proportions of Operation Desert Storm? If you are a graduate, you might ask: can I stop worrying about my grades now? Will they ever let me grow up? Am I ever going to get over this hangover? The family story I cherish was told to me late in life by my paternal grandmother, who emigrated from rural Norway with her family in the 1880’s, at age 12, and rode with them in a boxcar across Canada in the dead of winter before landing in central Minnesota on the land they were to farm. My grandmother was scared to death during the journey, because in the boxcar there was a pile of what Americans call corn, which she had never seen before, and which she assumed were the teeth of dead Indians. I know now the sort of poverty and desperation that causes families to seek opportunity in a new land, and that she could never have imagined just how much opportunity this country could provide for her children and grandchildren.

Because you see, our Aggie and our family stories are part of America’s story, and this university, more than any other I know, helps us remember that we are part of that larger American narrative about freedom, opportunity, and sacrifice. We are now in the middle of what one historian called “our great autumnal madness” of selecting a President. A Texas story: my father died the year my family moved to Texas. A distinguished teacher himself, my father was most proud of his service in the Army Air Corps during WWII as a B-17 navigator. As was his right as a veteran, he received an American flag for his funeral, a flag that now sits in a triangular case on our mantelpiece. A while back, my next-door neighbor, a good friend of my wife’s, walked into our living room and noticed the flag for the first time. She looked at the flag, at my wife, then back again, with a puzzled look on her face. She said, “Why do you have a flag? Y’all are Dimocrats!” I’d like to think she was kidding, but I am reminded every day during this election season that somehow we have lost our sense of a common story, that we seem to have forgotten that sense of civic friendship, going back to ancient Athens, which means that people who are part of a common story can disagree passionately, even angrily at times, without viewing our neighbor as the enemy.

Which leads me, finally, to your personal story. I spend a lot of time, inside and outside of the classroom, thinking about the legacy of the ancient Greeks. One line that haunts me still from my undergraduate education is the line of the Greek poet Pindar, in the Pythian Ode: “Know what you are, and that become.” My own continuing education now is mostly about co-authoring a story that answers Pindar’s injunction–as I learn from my community, my family, my neighbors, and especially from my students. Put another way, the Jewish sage Rabbi Zusya once said, “When I reach the next world, God will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ Instead, he will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?'” Why were you not the person you were meant to be? My hope is that you, like me, continue to struggle, with courage and with joy, to tell the right story about yourself, before your family, your community, and with the Almighty.

All stories, Rabbi Zusya reminds us, have an end. A punctuation. A period. Since coming to Aggieland, I have learned a new form of punctuation. It is called a Whoop! Those of us who have been successful studying, reading books, working in a lab or a studio, and slaving away at the computer, often spend too much time postponing joy, as if it might make us look foolish. And we didn’t get where we are by looking foolish. Or so we think. If you forget everyting else I’ve said, and you will, just remember this. Now’s the time to Whoop! Congratulations! You’ve earned it. And let that Whoop ring from the rafters.


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