Jim Lehrer speaking at Convocation 2016
Jim Lehrer speaking at Convocation 2016

The so-called dean of American presidential debate moderators expressed his hope at Convocation that Americans will work to heal political divisions after the presidential election this fall.

“No matter who wins and who loses, please, let’s everybody do what we can to make slightly better our discourse, slightly better our functioning of government, and make this truly a changed time,” said Jim Lehrer, who has moderated 12 presidential and vice presidential debates. His talk marked the official opening of the academic year and was addressed to the seniors and others who gathered for Convocation Sept. 8 on Wheeler Mall.

“We have a division among us as citizens and as voters that is horrendous, or if not horrendous, at least large,” said Lehrer. “This election could—might, hopefully, maybe, prayerfully—change things and help heal some of the breaches in our country right now. It also could make the divisions and the hostility worse. But there is the possibility that it could make things a little better.”

The legendary PBS NewsHour host, who retired in 2011, praised Longwood for hosting the Vice Presidential Debate. “This is a huge, huge happening. Participants and volunteers will be part of something that truly matters,” he said.

Convocation was held three days before the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, whose enduring legacy Lehrer cited.

“On that day, everything changed,” he said. “What happened to our country and to us as Americans and to everybody throughout the world is still happening. It changed our transportation system and the way we do security, the military, government and politics. Today’s campaign for president, whether spoken or unspoken, is being driven by many of the same things that were first driven by what happened 15 years ago at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and on an open field in Pennsylvania. 9/11 underlies a lot of the awfulness that is going on.”

Lehrer, a lifelong bus aficionado, said this was his first trip to Farmville, which he had always wanted to visit. As a boy, he regularly read a monthly magazine called Bus Transportation, in which the largest of the classified ads was for Brickert Oil Company in Farmville, which “always had hundreds of buses for sale.”

“I finally got here, and the buses are all gone,” joked Lehrer.

While attending Victoria College in Texas, he worked evenings as a ticket agent at the local Continental Trailways bus depot. One of his duties was to call the buses on the PA system, and his re-creation of one of those calls drew a round of applause.

“That was the first time I was paid money to speak into a microphone, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” he said.

Convocation was held on a sunny and unusually hot day. “It’s a little toasty, so we’ll be brisk as well as stately,” said President Reveley, adding that he hoped the seniors will graduate on a  “somewhat cooler day.”

Following tradition, the senior class president, Drew Pelkey, was capped on stage by Longwood’s top academic officer. Dr. Joan Neff, provost and vice president for academic affairs, who hoisted the mortarboard onto Pelkey’s head with help from Pelkey’s friend Marci Logsdon ’18. A few minutes later, Lehrer was capped by President Reveley—his mortarboard was debate-themed.

Six faculty awards are given at Convocation. This year’s recipients were: 

  • Maria Bristow Starke Faculty Excellence Award:
    Leigh Lunsford, professor of mathematics
  • Maude Glenn Raiford Award:
    Tim Holmstrom, associate professor of physics
  • Maude Glenn Raiford Junior Faculty Teaching Award:
    Brett Martz, assistant professor of German
  • Provost’s Scholarship Award:
    Sean Ruday, assistant professor of English education
  • William David Stuart Leadership and Service Award:
    Charles White, assistant dean in the College of Business and Economics
  • Junior Faculty Award:
    JoEllen Pederson, assistant professor of sociology

Also at Convocation, Dr. Steven Isaac, professor of medieval history, was announced as Longwood’s second Simpson Distinguished Professor.

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