Remarks delivered by Clarence Thomas ’71, associate justice of the United States, upon receiving an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Holy Cross at a special Academic Convocation on Jan. 26, 2012.
Thank you, Father Boroughs. Well, this is a little tough to be here. I’d like to first thank Father Brooks. I’d like to certainly thank my friends and classmates who are here.
I’ll be brief. But I have to say when it takes this long to get a degree, it means a lot. I’d like to thank all of you for this tremendous honor. I must say that I am a little embarrassed and uncomfortable receiving this honor for doing what I am expected to do as a graduate of Holy Cross and required to do as a citizen of this great country. I am appreciative, humbled and I’m unworthy. Yet I’m profoundly and deeply honored. It is I who should be honoring Holy Cross and all the wonderful teachers, administrators and staff who helped me more than four decades ago. And it is I, who should be boldly expressing my gratitude for all that they did for me.
In the summer of 1968, I had no place to go and no idea what I was going to do. I had applied to Holy Cross during a tumultuous time in this country, in our country, and in my life. In a sense, the broader tumult helped to fuel my personal confusion and anger. The final straw was the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Impetuously, I quit the seminary, abandoning my vocation and, unfortunately, my faith. I was booted immediately out of my grandfather’s house as I returned home. I was 19.
My only hope was Holy Cross, a place I had never seen, and had barely heard of. Though there was some uncertainty about financial aid and transfers of credit from my first year of college at Immaculate Conception Seminary, I was assured that it all could and would be worked out. I made many, many anxious calls to Holy Cross that summer of 1968, a terrible summer in our country; having been informed by the operator that there was no such place as “Worchester,” Massachusetts. Only Woos-tah. You work out that spelling.
I arrived by bus in the fall, apprehensive but hopeful. As we passed Holy Cross on our way to the bus station downtown, I caught my first distant glimpse of Holy Cross . But, I had no appreciation of just how big a difference three years here would make on my life.
I dare not attempt to chronicle the challenges and difficulties during those three fateful years; suffice it to say that, there were quite a few. But through it all, the Cross was a constant. Yes, like all institutions during challenging times, it buckled, it swayed, and it creaked. But the Cross held steady, and in doing so it steadied those of us who were buffeted about by our collective and respective difficulties. Academically, the then-seemingly too rigid structure of the core requirements forced education on me rather than abandoning me to my own unguided devices. For me, there were many hard lessons to be learned; sentiment and emotion are no substitute for analysis and reason. Fleeting fads and causes du jour are not the same as enduring principles. From predestination to existentialism, and from natural law to nihilism.
Holy Cross required that I travel the disciplined and rugged terrain of theory and thought of the transcendent and the palpable. It is here that I enjoyed the first brief glimpses of what it meant to be educated. It is here that I came to enjoy classical music and reading. It is here that I tried to exchange the cloak of animus and self-pity for that of hopefulness and charity. It is here that I tried to sort out the difference between collectivism and individualism and came to treasure the latter and abhor the former. It is here that I came to more fully understand deferred gratification, struggle and commitment. It is here that I took one long, painful step to becoming a man. Here, where faith was lost, the seeds for its restoration were planted. And it was here, directly in front of the chapel on the morning of April 16, 1970, that I promised Almighty God that if he took hate out of my heart I would never hate again. He did, and I have not.
Holy Cross has been good to me and for me. It is I who owe the debt of eternal gratitude. I owe a very particular debt of gratitude to Father. Brooks. Father, I thank you, I thank God you were born, I thank God you became a priest and that you came to Holy Cross. I know I speak for many, when I say that had there been no Father Brooks we would not be where we are. I certainly wouldn’t. You are a sine qua non in my life. I know that I am the better for you having lived. You were paternal but never paternalistic. You saw each of us as a person not a project. You wanted the fullness of humanity for all of us, our thoughts, our mistakes, our triumphs, our redemption. You loved us. God bless you, Father, for your wonderful, wonderful life.
In parting, let me say this: When all is quiet at the end of this life I hope that those few, those very few, who might have cause to remember that one day, long ago, a lonely kid from Georgia had no place to go. And when they wonder who took him in and helped him to heal and to prosper, let them hear their answer in the quiet whispers of the wind sweeping across Mount St. James: The Cross, the Cross, always the Cross.
Reading this reminds me of watching the confirmation hearings and hearing Joe Biden asking the Sister who directed young Clarence to Holy Cross ” Sister tell me why you sent him to Holy Cross– why not Georgetown or Notre Dame?” Thank you God for the Sister and for Father Brooks.
Incredible remarks by Justice Thomas! To fully understand the depth of what he said, please read “My Grandfather’s Son – A Memoir” by Clarence Thomas. It should be required reading for all past and present Holy Cross students.