The death of Hank Aaron on January 22 reminded me of his receiving an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Emory at Commencement in 1995. When the University celebrated the man who broke racial barriers along with Babe Ruth’s home run record, the occasion seemed to call for the citation writer — me — to swing for the fences too. And if I couldn’t hit the ball over the fence with my words, at least I could summon an echo of poetry. Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” came to mind, with its line that “good fences make good neighbors.”
Home-Run King, Diligent Citizen:
A young man not yet able to vote,
you left family and home to follow your life’s great calling.
North and South you pursued, as well,
your nation’s destiny of colorblind opportunity.
Along the way you entered the large and consequential realm
of American myth. Through perseverance and fortitude,
you showed good fences make good targets.
In our springtime of anxiety about America’s pastime and future,
your career—in baseball and since—reminds us that,
however simple the games of our youth,
our collective history has no simple eras.
For your heart—its strength and striving toward good—
and for your hands—their power and building of good—
we confer on you the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.
You can see more about Hank Aaron and his relationship with Emory here.
In a day when plenty of fences still divide us, our country owes great thanks to this American hero. Thank you, Henry Louis Aaron, for helping us to see that we can change society for the better without violence, but with courage, truth, and hope.
Emory Historian Emeritus