Yesterday a very strange thing happened to me.
I was asked to attend a meeting in the University of Edinburgh’s International Office. Edinburgh’s North American outreach officers wanted to meet with me to discuss the university’s strategic policy for recruiting American students. Like all such meetings, we started with small chat. Introductions. When prompted, I let slip that I graduated from William & Mary this past year. One of the international officers remarked “excellent school,” while his colleague let slip something I almost wouldn’t have caught if I wasn’t paying attention. He said “you know William & Mary’s founder graduated from Edinburgh.”
This whole week has been more than a little strange for me as I’ve read messages, seen pictures, and been bombarded by excited tweets (#wmcharterday) as friends across an ocean from me exchange their excitement and plans for Charter Day weekend. If I were still at William & Mary, this week would have been the busiest of my entire year. Over here, though, it’s a week like any other.
This simple fact underscores the precise reason why the comment out of the blue that I heard in my meeting yesterday made me feel like I had cotton in my ears. How had I not known that the founder of my own alma mater had attended my graduate school? And how had this come up just two days before Charter Day? In all honesty, I’d never thought to ask. The groundwork for the making of William & Mary before 1693 was never stressed at Charter Day. Everything beyond 319 years ago is fuzzy, right?
Well, as history would have it, the Reverend James Blair – just James then – attended the University of Edinburgh from 1669-1773. It’s where he received his formal education. After graduation, Blair, a Scot, remained in Edinburgh studying theology. In fact, he studied right where I now live on the Mound. When he was placed in the colonies, Blair took his appreciation for education gained at Edinburgh – the world’s first true civic, public university – with him to Virginia, where his ascent within colonial society was meteoric. Less than twenty years after Blair graduated from Edinburgh, he stood – as influential Reverend – before King William and Queen Mary at Kensington Palace asking for a royal charter that would allow him to establish “a certain place of universal study.”
Well, we all know Blair got that charter, and 319 years later, Blair’s vision – this College – is stronger than ever.
It’s safe to say that without William & Mary – the alma mater of a nation – our country would probably look a lot different than it does today. Yesterday I learned that without Edinburgh, and my future fellow alumni James Blair’s education here, there might never have been a William & Mary.
There’s no doubt: the world works in strange ways. Perhaps you believe in fate, or signs, or both – and perhaps you don’t. Regardless, there’s no denying that my connection with William & Mary has grown and matured this year through the strangest of serendipities. I’m writing this blog post from my dorm, which adjoins the University’s divinity school, where my alma mater’s founder studied and grew intellectually over 340 years ago. Just as I am now.
Perhaps it’s here, amongst the stones and passageways that I walk every day, in the ancient lecture halls, and in the reflections of centuries old stained glass in the theology library that I spent my morning in, that the very first foundations of William & Mary were truly laid in a young man’s head.
I cannot be in Williamsburg to celebrate the College’s 319th birthday this weekend like I’d like – but the past 24 hours have taught me that William & Mary has an incredible way of never leaving your side. Despite distance, my connection with the Tribe this weekend – and the man responsible for it – feels stronger than ever.
Friday afternoon, the entire William & Mary family will gather in W&M Hall to celebrate an institution that is truly unlike any other university in the United States.
At that same time I’ll be here – exactly where a young James Blair of my same age was four centuries ago – amidst the books and lecture halls where William & Mary’s founding was really given possibility.
There’s something really special for me in that.
Go Tribe and Hark Upon the Gale,
A portrait of James Blair that hangs in the College's Wren Great Hall