Presented by Senior Vice President Edwin G. Wilson
Wake Forest University
June 22, 2001
I do not know of any life story in the annals of Wake Forest that compares—in lifelong commitment, in selfless dedication, in wholesome influence—with Bill Starling’s. How can even those of us who knew him best—even those who worked with him every day—begin to count and to consider the thousands of young college-bound men and women whom he, with a welcome and a handshake, met and then patiently listened to and wisely counseled? Their numbers are beyond our reckoning. And what was uniquely remarkable about Bill was that the high school student who came expectantly to his office last week saw, when he looked into Bill’s face, the same smiling, enthusiastic, youthful person seen by that first prospective Wake Forest student—by now, perhaps, a grandparent—who had Bill’s first admissions appointment in 1958—forty-three years ago.
Even those of us who applauded the selection of Bill as Director of Admissions on that long-ago day could not have foreseen that he was destined to have a career unparalleled, as far as I know, in American colleges and universities. Even Dean Bill Archie, who, with little more than intuition but with uncannily accurate vision, picked Bill out of the class of 1957, could not have known the ultimate wisdom of his choice. We knew that Bill was a leader: in his fraternity and in student government he had been elected to high office, and he was both respected and popular. We knew that he was smart: I had taught him in four English courses, and each time he had made an A—in a field not his own.
But Bill was more than smart or talented. He did not parade his intellect or lead by commandment. Rather, he had a quiet confidence that he could do what had to be done, and that confidence never left him. He was shrewd in his judgments and fair in giving voice to them, and in his work and in his life he was incorruptible. He knew who he was, and that self-knowledge gave him strength to succeed and, in William Faulkner’s great words, to “endure and prevail.”
We will not honor Bill if today we praise him and tomorrow we forsake his legacy. We too, like Bill, must have faith: faith in our calling and in the useful possibilities of every day and every conversation. And we must have hope: hope for the young, however unpromising or immature they might be. And every decision we make about another human being must, if possible, be sprinkled by love. For faith is more important than rank. And hope is more important than statistics. And love is more important than achievement. Those convictions are at the foundation of Wake Forest and are what have made Wake Forest—at its best and noblest—a place worthy of our service and our affection.
For Bill truly loved Wake Forest, and he loved his friends: those who worked with him, those who used to work with him, those whom he remembered from bygone days, those whom he played golf with or went to the beach with, old friends from Smithfield, newer friends from across the nation who, one day in his office, were touched by the interest he took in them.
And, most of all, he loved his family. Elinor, his hometown bride of forty-four years, devoted and calm and still beautiful. His daughter Jennie. His son Gray. His brother Mike. And his four grandchildren: Rebecca, Benjamin, Elizabeth and Virginia. I think there was not a time during these last few years, when Bill and I talked, that the conversation did not turn to his grandchildren. Because of them and because of Elinor and Jennie and Gray he looked ahead joyfully to years of retirement.
And now we know that those years will not come, and we are saddened—and we grieve—in a way that defies easy consolation. (Certainly, no words from a mere layman like me can suffice to explain or to justify or to wipe away tears.) The poet Yeats, reacting to the sudden death of a young and “dear” friend, said that, although he had become “accustomed” to the fact of eventual death, he could not believe that this young man he so much admired and loved could “share” in what he called the “discourtesy of death.” Similarly, death came discourteously—without warning—to Bill, and we are heart-broken.
This afternoon, in talking about Bill, I have often used the word “young.” But, after all, Bill was 65, and he was a grandfather. And yet the word “young” is right, I think, and perhaps it is in stressing that word “young” that we can better understand what happened to Bill four days ago. Maybe, in some providential way, Bill was not meant to grow old. Maybe we will be strangely blessed to be able always to see him as busy, active, talkative, cheerful, forward-looking, amused about life, and therefore truly “young.” We can always see that boyish look he had when he crinkled his eyes and smiled.
The first time I met Bill, I think, he was sitting at a counter in Dick Frye’s restaurant in old Wake Forest, having supper. He was 18 and a new freshman, and I introduced myself and said, “Welcome to Wake Forest.” “Welcome to Wake Forest!” How many times in after years must Bill have said those same words to an eighteen-year-old student? And how appropriate and right it was that the words came from Bill—because, as if in defiance of time, Bill was—somehow—to the last—still eighteen years old himself.
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.
Welcome to the sunrise, Bill!
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