Bearings: A Monthly Column
September 10, 2021
Dear Ursinus Family,
I recently came across an old photo of a few friends with me here at Ursinus during our senior year. There we were, sitting on the porch of Keigwin, smiling broadly and just being in the moment. I cherish that picture.
As I step into this presidency, I’m reminded of those snapshots in time—and how they come to define us. Ursinus contributes to that personal memory book in a way that only grows richer with the passing of time. Perhaps this is why, as I searched for sentiments to share as we begin this semester, the words “Grateful, Grace and Greatness” came to mind.
They become even more meaningful this weekend as we mark yet another September 11.
My snapshot of the morning of 9-11-2001 finds me riding in the back of a cab on Liberty Street in Lower Manhattan on what appeared to be the brightest of blue sky fall days. It was just about fifteen minutes before nine, and as I took out my wallet to pay the fare, the freeze frame occurred. I later captured it in a Facebook post, which read something like this:
“I will never forget the sound of a plane crashing as I went to pay the driver, stopping near One Liberty Place, the location of my first appointment on that deceptively glorious September day. I will never forget looking out the cab window to see One World Trade Center and the 105th floor that was my ultimate destination an hour later and for the rest of the day—in flames. I will never forget that by the time I turned around I was sitting alone in an idling cab, the driver departed, and the skies raining everything from American Express receipts to I don’t know what. I will never forget ultimately stepping out of the cab and into the nightmare that was reality and feeling for the first time in my life that no place was safe…”
I closed that post with a promise—the one common thread that still unites millions of people across the world: “I will never forget. I will always remember.”
Since then, Septembers have never been the same. As a young girl, I loved the start of school. I still have the dress I picked out to go to kindergarten at Quarry Hill Elementary School in Yardley, Pa., when I was 4 years old! I still can picture the books and my classmates, and other sounds and smells remain vivid: teacher perfumes and bus diesels, the clicking of lunchboxes opening to reveal delicious treasures. Until 2001, September was a month I anticipated with great joy.
Now, each September starts out feeling the same. I come to terms with the loss of summer, my favorite season, only to find renewed excitement as I anticipate another school year. But then it comes … it always comes. That nagging reminder that something is not fully formed, like an undeveloped Polaroid, just waiting to shake itself into being. It is then that the freeze frame re-emerges and strikes me cold; it is then that I remember, and enter into one more year in which I do not forget.
I imagine the pandemic has had many of you feeling much as I did that 9-11 day: scared, unsafe, alone, and more. And just like that September moment, COVID came out of nowhere and, in the blink of an eye, changed all that was familiar: our way of living, of loving and of learning.
And that is why these words seem even more important for me to share. Because as we focus on all the hopes and possibilities of a new year, I want to encourage each one of you be grateful, find grace, and pursue your greatness.
GRATEFUL. I never understood how fortunate I was to be an American until I was wandering around, a single mother covered in gray ash, in New York City, desperately trying to find a helpful connection in the midst of something so inconceivable. We may not know yet how this year unfolds, but let’s find time to be grateful for each other and for whatever it is that makes you smile as you start a new day. There is ALWAYS SOMETHING to be grateful for. Search your heart for it. It will be a vitamin for your soul.
GRACE: Just after 9-11, I saw many men sob in a Penn Station restaurant in New York just watching the opening ceremonies of Yankee baseball. It was a touch of the familiar and, yes, a bit of “grace” in the midst of an unspeakable and unprecedented tragedy. We showed each other the grace of humanity in the midst of an inhumane world. Being mindful of each other, understanding one another, and speaking through and across differences is at the core of Ursinus and its four open questions. Let the big questions lift each of us up. And offer up grace whenever you can.
GREATNESS: Just as our country has shown resilience time and time and time again, nothing quite challenged us like 9-11. We remember those who perished—the resolute courage and acceptance and selflessness and sacrifice of those lives lost that morning. There is a little greatness in every single one of us. Remember that. And be reminded that one of the greatest aspects of our mission here at Ursinus is to bring out that greatness, to find that “still small voice” within and around us, which can emerge from words in a classroom, a listening ear, an arm around the shoulder, a simple something.
This Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of that unimaginable, impossible day. We will never forget. For it is part of who we were and who we are now. Let us all learn from those enduring snapshots and take to heart those three small but powerful words: Grateful. Grace. Greatness. May they remind all of us why it is so very important for Ursinus to be living its mission.
Jill Leauber Marsteller ’78, P’18
This is the first in a series of monthly columns from President Marsteller titled, “Bearings.” If you’d like to share your thoughts or reflections on this piece, or those moments in time that have shaped who you’ve become, please feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.