Monday, October 5, 2009

Tragedy and The Mountain

When I was a student at The University of the South, very little was worse than opening my student email account and seeing an email from Dean Pearigen with the title “Death Notice.” My class was particularly harshly inducted into this rite when one of our classmates, Philip Cole, was senselessly gunned down in Athens, Ga. Over the years, we would receive several more, though thankfully no more were students. Seeing that ambiguously titled email always caught my breath, accompanied by a sick feeling waiting for the email to open, always afraid it would be a friend, and knowing that our small community had lost a member.

Thursday morning, that feeling returned through a new medium. As I was walking to a lunch in downtown Raleigh, I checked twitter on my phone. I was greeted with a sickening message from @univofthesouth...

“University mourns students killed in early-morning accident,

Though I graduated in ’07, I still have many friends on the Mountain, including my girlfriend’s little brother, whom I am quite close with, and indeed, strongly encouraged to attend our Alma Mater, and those feelings came rushing back. As I hurried to click the link, all I could think about was how awful things were and were going to be on The Mountain.

When I read the article, I immediately re-tweeted it and posted it on Facebook. I did that knowing that I had several followers who were Sewanee Alumni, and obviously many Facebook friends who were Alums that I knew would be interested. Like James Lum (C’ 09) who wrote eloquently on this event here, I was amazed by the rapidity with which the word spread among my friends, and at the sincerity of the outpouring of thoughts and prayers.

Lum wrote so well on that, I don’t feel there is much to add. What I have to offer is my take on why I, and perhaps others, feel so connected to the place.

Sewanee is small. It is small enough that it is possible to know in passing, if not well, nearly every person on campus. More than its size, however, what stands out most about it is its civility. We are, for the most part, kind to one another. We work together, we see each other frequently and we live together and socialize together. Even though we frequently comment on divisions within the school, they are minute when compared to those at most other universities. This familial feeling enables us to have an even more empathetic response when there is a great tragedy like the one we experienced last week. When something horrific happens, it is not just to a student attending the University we attended, but it’s one of our friends. No matter who they are, we remember someone from our time at Sewanee of whom they would remind us.

Sewanee is Arcadian. It’s tranquil idyll feels safe. Doors are unlocked, bikes are left unchained, and backpacks are left by the door. We attribute this to the honor code, but it is really more due to the feeling of community that permeates the place. There is a sense of safety, and comfort, a sense of protection and congregation, that I have yet to see anywhere else. This only serves to increase the shock when tragedy happens, but it also help to soften the blow as we all realize, even those of us no longer physically on the mountain, what a fantastic communion we share.

There are no words to adequately describe the hurt and pain the families of Katy Christianson and Kathleen Beach are going through. There is no way to describe the events other than tragic beyond measure. They were acutely felt by the entire Sewanee Community.

But therein lies our hope. If we are to try to truly live into a community that respects and values each member, if we are going to do our best to respect each person, and “do unto others” we have a great, albeit not perfect, example of that community on top of a Mountain in Tennessee. We have seen that in the reaction of the Sewanee diaspora to events on The Mountain time and time again. Those who have lived there recognize that and carry it with them. That is why Sewanee has been, and will forever be, home to me and to many others who have spent time there.

As I prepare to head up this weekend for Homecoming, to the place I love more than any other, it will be with something of a heavy heart. We, as a community, lost two of our own, and we all felt it, from whatever distance. But even that feeling of loss leaves me grateful that there is somewhere so special, so dearly loved, that so many with only a shared sense of place could feel so deeply this loss.

And I remember what my father, who has only visited Sewanee a few times, said upon learning of the events of last Thursday. They struck me as worth remembering, not only in hard times, but in those which are happier.

“Sewanee gets into the blood of ALL who go there whether for four years or four days.”

May Sewanee stay in our blood and in our hearts, good times and bad, and may it always remind us what is possible when brethren live and dwell together in unity.

Ecce Quam Bonum


  1. You words are beautiful and heartfelt.
    Thank you for them.
    A sewanee community member.

  2. I graduated in 1988. Your father's words are wise, and your writing is effortless. May God bless the souls of all who pass through the Gates.

    Ritchie Prince
    Class of 1988