Atop one of Knox County’s hills sits a community of scholars who live and work in a historic collection of buildings overlooking a beautiful pastoral landscape. In Gambier, Ohio, the home of Kenyon College, I spent a very special Saturday as Sweet Briar College’s official delegate for the inauguration of Sean M. Decatur as Kenyon’s nineteenth president.
Before arriving at Kenyon in July, Decatur was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Oberlin College, as well as a professor of chemistry and biochemistry there. Since Kenyon’s power to transform individuals who go on to transform the world is what brought Decatur to this hill in Gambier, he chose “The Bonds We Form: On This Hill, From This Hill” as the theme for his inauguration.
In the week before the inauguration, members of the Kenyon community gathered for several activities showcasing the academic work that is accomplished on the hill. On Saturday morning, almost 100 delegates from other academic institutions joined them for Decatur’s installation ceremony.
Driving up Gambier Hill to the tune of A Hampshire Suite, I thought about how much this place suits me. I’ve shopped at the college’s bookstore since childhood, served as Sweet Briar’s delegate for Kenyon’s two previous presidential inaugurations and even interviewed to join its Office of Public Affairs. Every time I visit Kenyon, I find something new to love about it. This time, the object of my affection was waiting for me at the bottom of a steep hillside.
The Kenyon Athletic Center is a sleek six-year-old building with soaring glass walls, arching steel trusses and a four-acre roof dotted with 50 skylights. When I walked inside, I beheld a sea of folding chairs on the 200-meter Barrett A. Toan Indoor Track. What a sight!
After snacking on breakfast pastries and gigantic locally grown apples, it was time to robe in our institutions’ academic regalia. Delegates lined up in the order of the year in which each institution was founded and preceded Kenyon’s trustees, faculty and administration in the academic procession, walking in time to “The Earle of Oxford’s March” from Gordon Jacob’s William Byrd Suite. After an invocation given by the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio and a rendition of Amazing Grace, we listened to “The College Is Called Liberal,” an address that explored how private colleges are serving a great national purpose by educating future leaders.
Decatur then received seven different greetings from representatives of Kenyon’s community; alumni; parents; administration and staff; trades workers, custodians and groundskeepers; students; and faculty. The Kenyon College Chamber Singers performed Inter Silvas, a new composition by Kenyon faculty members Jennifer Clarvoe, professor of English and an award-winning poet, and Ross Feller, assistant professor of music and an accomplished composer and performer. The anthem’s title comes from a Latin motto displayed on a tablet on one of the stone gate posts at the original entrance to Middle Path, the 10-feet-wide gravel path that has been the heart of the college since 1841.
The 45-year-old Cleveland native was officially invested as president with a Latin formula, a historic statement read by the chair of Kenyon’s Board of Trustees. Dressed in Washington Purple velvet robes handmade by a team of Roanoke, Virginia seamstresses and standing in front of Kenyon’s presidential chair, Decatur was then presented with the Presidential Medallion by his predecessors, former Kenyon Presidents Georgia Nugent and Philip Jordan.
The medallion was made by two Gambier goldsmiths for the installation of Kenyon’s seventeenth president in 1995. The front of this emblem of office reproduces the college seal, while the back features a silhouette of Old Kenyon, the college’s original building. The chain consists of links upon which are engraved the names and dates of service of Kenyon’s presidents. Decatur also received Kenyon’s new ceremonial mace, a medieval symbol of power and authority that the president uses on formal academic occasions. Crafted by Gambier master craftsman Jack Esslinger, the mace is made out of South American purpleheart wood, symbolizing the college’s official color of purple, and local curly maple wood, representing the Kokosing River that flows around the base of the campus hill.
Decorations on the mace include an owl; a miniature of Rosse Hall, Kenyon’s original chapel from 1835; and facades of Ascension Hall, the college’s first separate classroom building that dates from 1859. After recessing to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Toccata Marziale, delegates and special guests were served a tasty lunch at festively decorated tables in the Great Hall of Peirce Hall.
Designed by architect Alfred Granger, Kenyon Class of 1887, Peirce Hall was dedicated in 1929. Influenced by medieval Oxford and Cambridge, the building features stone walls, wooden beams and Arts and Crafts motifs. Stained glass windows by artist Charles J. Connick evoke scenes from classic literary works like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Alice in Wonderland, The Canterbury Tales, Gulliver’s Travels, Ivanhoe and Paradise Lost. The windows in the alcove, traditionally reserved for Kenyon’s president and deans, feature the Gettysburg Address.
More stained glass windows on the stair landings in the hall’s Chase Memorial Tower illustrate scenes from the life of Philander Chase, the Episcopal bishop and Worthington resident who founded Kenyon in 1824 to train ministers and prepare teachers for service in the Northwest Territory.
After lunch, Tom Stamp, college historian and keeper of Kenyoniana, led some of us on a walking tour to see some outstanding examples of Collegiate Gothic architecture on Kenyon’s 1,000-acre campus, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As I listened to Tom, I remembered how much I admire this well-spoken man who shares my appreciation for college and university architecture.
Inside the Church of the Holy Spirit, the campus chapel and home of the local Harcourt Episcopal parish, we admired more of Connick’s stained glass windows… … and decorative wall paintings of Scriptural passages in a style right from the pages of Owen Jones’s The Grammar of Ornament. Whenever I read this one, I think about Princess Diana’s cortège leaving Westminster Abbey to the tune of John Tavener’s Alleluia.
We passed Cromwell Cottage, the president’s residence since 1911, which Granger also designed… and counted the gargoyles on Samuel Mather Hall, the academic building designed by Abram Garfield, the son of President James Garfield, which opened in 1926.
A group of sculpted crows perch on the roof of Ransom Hall, a play on the middle name of Kenyon poet John Crowe Ransom, for whom the building is named. The crows are the work of sculptor Peter Woytuk, a 1980 Kenyon graduate.
In 1939, Ransom founded The Kenyon Review, a quarterly literary magazine that continues to publish poetry, short stories and essays by authors like Seamus Heaney, Billy Collins, Joyce Carol Oates and Flannery O’Connor from its headquarters in a terrific Steamboat Gothic building known as Finn House.
we saw five sculptures depicting angels playing musical instruments, each balanced on a circle of columns. The sculptures are the work of Carl Milles, the Swedish sculptor who arrived at Cranbrook, another favorite educational community of mine in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, in 1931 and stayed there as a resident artist for 20 years. Inside Storer Hall, we stood underneath a gilded silver and aquamarine chandelier by glass sculptor Dale Chihuly as Tom described how the high-ceilinged lobby was designed to resemble the inside of a violin. Can you see why I love this place?
At Old Kenyon, the school’s first building constructed between 1827 and 1829, we heard how the residence hall with four-feet-thick stone walls was destroyed by fire in 1949 but was reconstructed with the external stones set in their original places.
On Saturday evening, the Church of the Holy Spirit’s bell pealed 19 times in honor of Kenyon’s 19th president while Old Kenyon was illuminated as a formal greeting for Decatur. Since July 24, 1833, when the college welcomed its second president, Old Kenyon illuminations have celebrated presidential inaugurations; visits from distinguished guests like President Rutherford B. Hayes, an 1842 Kenyon graduate; and major football victories. Eighty radio-controlled, battery-powered light packs were used for Saturday’s illumination, while Old Kenyon residents made gel letters for a window display that spelled out a welcome message for Decatur and his family.
See photos of Old Kenyon’s illumination and other highlights of the inauguration here.
The day I spent at Kenyon watching someone one year older than me become a college president has ramped up my personal transformational campaign. While I’m strategizing my next steps, read more about Kenyon College and its history in Kenyon College: Its First Century, by George Franklin Smythe; The College in the Forest: 1824, by Gordon Keith Chalmers, president of Kenyon and a member of The Newcomen Society of England; and Stained Glass of Peirce Hall, Kenyon College, edited by Dan Laskin and Shawn Presley. Also try to track down How the Bishop Built His College in the Woods, by John James Piatt, a Kenyon student who became a newspaperman, librarian of the U.S. House of Representatives, an American consul in Ireland, and a poet who co-authored Poems of Two Friends in 1860 with William Dean Howells.