Two Saturdays ago marked the inauguration of President Joseph Urgo with a ceremony which combined the usual pomp and circumstance with a unique combination of laughter, celebration, and fiscal modesty.
According to Board of Trustees Chair Molly Mahoney Matthews, the inauguration was about two things: in relation to the College as a whole, asserting the “value of a liberal arts education..as part of the University of Maryland system,” and, in relation to Urgo, “celebrating what has already been a great fit for the College.” She added that she felt Urgo’s eight months prior to the inauguration provided an excellent track record and that Urgo has surpassed her already high expectations.
Urgo, who was highly involved with planning the event, said, “we want to recommit to residential liberal arts education.” He also emphasized he wanted, especially through other events surrounding the inauguration, to foster a community “where students have a tremendous obligation to contribute to the College and help maintain its standard.”
The event started around 3:30 p.m. with a processional and took place on the Townhouse Greens. According to Vice President of Trustee Relations Kathy Grimes, students could be heard whispering “There he is!” as Urgo walked passed students viewing from outside their homes.
The installation ceremony began with remarks from Senior Alexandra Todak, Vice President of the Class of 2011. She, along with President of the Class of 2014 First-year Shelby Perkins, acted as “book-ends” to the experience. Grimes said, “I really liked starting and ending with students. That was [Urgo’s] idea.”
After Todak’s opening remarks were remarks from the Co-chairs of the inauguration committee and College trustees Peg Duchesne and Tom Daugherty. Both co-chairs noted how this inauguration, both in timing and theme, was tied to Maryland Day and the “many firsts” which occurred in St. Mary’s City, especially in regards to inclusion and civil rights.
Comments by Duchesne and Daugherty were followed by the reading of “At the Bend in the River,” written by Professor Emeritus and former Poet Laureate of Maryland Michael Glaser, and a performance by the Gospel Choir.
Glaser’s poem, written for the inauguration and read at inauguration for the first time, read in part: “Here on St. Mary’s shore, we are ready to renew the dream,/ the imagined and still unimagined promise of this place,/ the stirring of our hearts’ desires, the sweet crescendo/ of transforming fires soaring like the Seahawk/ in bold and joyous flight, singing on the wind/ ‘new life, new life.’”
The ceremony then continued with remarks from Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, Israel Patoka, Executive Director of the Governor’s Office of Community Initiatives (representing the office of Governor Martin O’ Malley), and President of St. Mary’s County Commissioners Jack Russell. Hoyer noted how happy he was that Urgo’s presidency had been received so positively, and said, “[Urgo’s] been here but a short time…but [everyone] is saying ‘Well done!’” Russell, in a comical anecdote referencing both Urgo’s down-to-Earth demeanor and a quintessential Maryland past-time, noted how his first time meeting Urgo was at a picnic while they were both eating hard crabs.
Following these greetings, Matthews took the stage to formally charge Urgo with six responsibilities entrusted to him by the Board of Trustees, including “to serve St. Mary’s to the best of your abilities” and “to face the challenges of the future while upholding the fundamental values that underpin this institution.”
Urgo then took the stage to deliver his inaugural address, sharing his allotted time with mentors from his past and people who inform his present, in order to address the notion that “none of us is self-made.”
First to speak was George Montinero, Professor Emeritus of the English Department and Adjunct Professor of Portugese and Brazilian Studies at Brown University. Montiero spoke about his experiences advising the pre-doctorate Urgo. He reminisced, for example, about their first meeting: “I had an odd feeling about this…perfunctory meeting.” He added, “he had not come to my office…to be himself interviewed. I realized later that he was interviewing me.”
As a testament to his character, Montiero also talked about how Urgo handled a group of hecklers in the class on William Faulkner the future President had been teaching at the time. Montiero said, “he stood his ground with no sense of rancor or impatience.”
Referring to Urgo, Montiero said, “we need champions in the liberal arts…we need teachers who believe in civilization, in civilized people, and in civility itself.” He concluded, “Urgo, this man of civility; he has time [to teach]. So listen up!”
Next to speak was Cecelia Tichi, a professor of American Studies at Vanderbilt University. According to Urgo, she “became a mentor and guide [at my stay in Vanderbilt], and for reasons I am not certain I know, took an interest in me, saw me through difficult early career times, and continued as confidant through the next decade of career decisions.”
Tichi remarked primarily on the need for liberal arts educations and students from the liberal arts. She said, “many ask ‘What can you do with a liberal arts education?’ The question [really] is, ‘what are people with liberal arts degrees doing?’” Her answer: “everything.”
Tichi also commented on Urgo’s civility, noting his ability to mediate within Vanderbilt University’s notoriously uncivil English department.
Perhaps the most unorthodox choice of “speakers” is someone who didn’t speak much at all: Urgo’s son, George Urgo. Instead of giving a speech as Montiero and Tichi had, the blues guitarist and singer gave a blaring rendition of Willie Dixon’s “I’m Ready”, which was received with cheering and clapping by the audience.
The piece’s lyrics acted as a segue into Urgo’s own speech. He started, “to borrow from the cadences of our students, ‘I do, I do believe, I do believe I am ready to be the president of St. Mary’s College’ – and yes, I hope you are ready for me!” He added, “In the past nine months there has gestated in me a love for this college and a passion for its mission. And now I am ready to talk to you about it.”
Urgo continued his speech by using the line “and now we’re going to talk about love” from Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! to make the point that, “understanding, unlike regurgitation, demands emotional investment, and more, requires interpersonal, collaborative creativity.” He noted that he wished to make this model of emotional investment and personal interaction, “the core value of what we do here…in learning, in teaching, in research and creativity, in daily work and in the responsibilities we share.”
Urgo focused a great deal on the notion of inclusiveness and “an elite education that is not elitist.” “My goal is to make the academic rigor of an elite residential liberal arts education available to all members of the coming generation who possess the will and the capacity to meet its challenge. At St. Mary’s College we do not make class distinctions for education deemed as ‘appropriate’ to the wealthy as apart from that ‘appropriate’ to the general population.”
Urgo also talked about how member of the College community could in large part sustain this possibility by creating sustainable systems which “[consider] future generations to be our partners, not our creditors”, as well as by taking on the charge of Faulkner’s “old virtues” of love, passion, and sacrifice in the face of the “important things [that need] to be done.”
“Learning to love what you do is a signal achievement of a lifetime. Finding the important thing that needs to be done, and investing yourself in that significance, sacrificing for it, and loving where it leads—this is the essence of a liberal arts education.”
Urgo concluded, “I ask you, gathered here today: Are you ready? Because I am ready–ready for the future of St. Mary’s College of Maryland.”
This speech, followed by a standing ovation and chants of Urgo’s campus nickname, “Jurgo”, was followed by the response by Matthews and the final installation of Urgo as President, after which occurred the performance of Stephen Paulus’ “The Road Home” and the premiere performance of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, arranged by Professor of Music David Froom and written by Professor of English Jennifer Cognard-Black.
The ceremony concluded with words of thanks by Perkins and the forming of a “gauntlet” on either side of the recessional as a surprise welcoming gesture by the student body for Urgo.
Duchesne said, especially considering the amount of time the committee and others put into the inauguration, she was very pleased with how things worked out. She also emphasized the inauguration was conducted in as cost-effective a way as possible.
“We tried every which way to keep costs down. Each and every decision we made we thought [about] if we could do it in a more reasonable way.” She noted, for example, that instead of giving out more expensive gift bag to attendees they instead received a packet of seeds for Black-eyed Susans from the St. Mary’s Arboretum.
In an email to the campus community, Urgo stated that the inauguration cost about half the price of what many of the College’s peer institutions have paid for their recent inaugurations.
Duchesne also said that she felt the inauguration reflected very well on the College and that it demonstrated that, “we do it, we do it right, but we have fun while we’re doing it.”
Grimes echoed the sentiment, and said she was very pleased to hear people having a good time and laughing at points during the ceremony. She also said that many veteran representatives from other colleges commented on the fact that this was the first inauguration which they had actually had fun at, and added, “alumni said [the inauguration] made them remember why they went to St. Mary’s.”
The formal inauguration was the culmination of a collection of activities throughout the weekend, including an academic symposium which focused on the past 40 years, and future 40 years of the College (see adjacent); the ribbon-cutting for the St. Mary’s Arboretum Association (see page three), Maryland Day (see page three), and student entertainment both Friday and Saturday night (see page six).
These events, with the exception of Maryland Day (which this year purposefully coincided with the inauguration and is held annually in Historic St. Mary’s City), were coordinated by an inaugural committee created by Grimes shortly after Urgo started this past summer. The committee which was headed by Duchesne and Daugherty. The committee also included staff, students, alumni, and faculty, as well as Urgo himself.