Harold Holzer

Harold Holzer, a renowned Abraham Lincoln expert, was the speaker during this year's Baccalaureate.

Scholar, Lincoln Expert Harold Holzer Delivers 2023 Baccalaureate Address

Baccalaureate was held Saturday in Packer Memorial Church.

Story by

Christina Tatu

Photography by

Christa Neu

Drawing on the history of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s military, political and moral leadership, renowned historian Harold Holzer used one of the late President’s favorite sayings to advise graduates during Saturday’s Baccalaureate to “pluck a thistle and plant a flower where a flower will grow” as they go out into the world after Lehigh.

Holzer, the Jonathan F. Fanton Director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College, is a leading authority on Lincoln and the political culture of the Civil War era.

“I’m delighted to be sharing the event with you, and deeply grateful that you’ve asked me to reflect a bit on my own specialty—the life of Abraham Lincoln and the history of his times—on this historic weekend in your life and times,” Holzer said to the audience gathered inside Packer Memorial Church on a cloudy spring evening.

The founding of Lehigh tells a story about the America that recalibrated itself after the Civil War, Holzer said. This postwar period shined a light on the possibilities of America’s future, one of which was making higher education available to all, as it is at Lehigh, he said.

“I’m not suggesting it became a perfect union, but it did become a more perfect union, the product of unimaginable sacrifice of life and treasure in the Civil War, expended on the Union side, to make sure we lived up to the original promise,” Holzer said. “The nation’s founders found it so easy to articulate, but so difficult to fulfill: that all people are created equal. In many ways, it’s no less challenging to live up to that elusive potential now than it was in the year of Lincoln’s death and Lehigh’s birth: 1865,” he said.

Two of Lincoln’s best-remembered speeches were delivered seven years apart: one before the war began and the other as it was winding down.

In 1858 Lincoln famously warned that “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” and he turned out to be right, Holzer said. The war came at a huge cost, yet with 750,000 people dead and slavery eradicated, Lincoln urged not retribution, but “malice toward none and charity for all.”

It’s a choice Americans of today have yet to fully make: whether to divide or unite, he said.

Die when I may, I want it said of me by those who knew me best, that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow.

Abraham Lincoln

As president, Lincoln cared about giving new life to aspiring citizens from overseas. When it came time to fight the rebellion, he recruited dozens of foreign-born officers. Lincoln also made sure Catholic priests could perform absolution on the battlefield and he appointed the first Jewish military chaplains in American history. He became the first president to recruit Black men for the army.

In what turned out to be his final speech, Lincoln called for Black voting rights, Holzer said.

The former president once said, “Die when I may, I want it said of me by those who knew me best, that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow.”

“Instrument or instrumentality—a question every graduate asks himself or herself when thinking about the future. Do we go with the flow, certain we can make no real difference, or labor as hard as we can to weed out thistles and plant flowers?” Holzer said. “We know what Lincoln ultimately did, armed with much less education than you or I have had.”

He told the graduates that they can “divide house” or, as Lincoln once put it, “light the world.”

“The world will little note nor long remember what I say here, for sure, but hopefully it will never forget what all of you do from this day forward,” Holzer said.

Words from the Traditions

The first Baccalaureate service was held in 1432 at Oxford University. It was intended as a final exam where graduates had to deliver a sermon in Latin before the faculty. Today, Baccalaureate provides an interfaith religious service that honors the spiritual traditions of the community.

Before Holzer’s address, Rabbi Steven Nathan, endowed director of student life and associate chaplain, delivered the opening remarks.

Students worked four, long, hard years to get to graduation, he said. For the Class of 2023, before that first year was over, students were met with the uncertainty of the pandemic. Many continued their studies from home for a while.

“This journey has been unusual, but it has finally brought them to graduation,” Nathan said. “May they all be blessed with peace, joy, compassion and love as they continue on this next phase of their lives.”

In addition to Holzer’s address, graduates also heard from three classmates of different faiths who each shared something of meaning from them. The students were:

Deborah Walters

Deborah Walters '23 speaks about Judaism during Baccalaureate.

Deborah Walters ’23 (Judaism), graduates with degrees in English and German. Walters recounted her time at Hillel, attending countless dinners, services and events. She served as co-president for one year.

“I couldn’t have been happier with how I spent that time—hanging with friends, chatting with Rabbi Steve and eating lots and lots of good food,” she said. “To me, that’s what being Jewish at Lehigh has meant—kindness, comfort and happiness.”

After graduation, Walters will pursue a Master’s of Science in Library and Information Science, with a focus on archives and special collections, at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Hamza Shueib

Hamza Shueib '23 speaks of his Islamic faith during Baccalaureate.

Hamza Shueib ’23 (Islam), graduates with a degree in computer engineering. Shueib recited a religious passage about the death of Muhammad (Verse 3:114).

“This message is a reminder to me, and to all, that no matter how much we wish for life to remain the way it is, it will always keep passing,” Shueib said. “A new chapter will be followed by an end. But far above the flow of life lies a being, a deity, that is present and never absent, watchful and never neglectful…”

After graduation, Shueib plans to work as a post-graduate software engineering intern at Hometown Ticketing.

F.J. Olugbodi

F.J. Olugbodi '23 speaks about Christianity during Baccalaureate.

F.J. Olugbodi ’23 (Christianity), graduates with a computer engineering degree.

“Through faith we have searched the truth. Through promise the truth has revealed His mysteries. Through experimentation, we uncover the secreted laws that govern ourselves and the universe,” said Olugbodi, who read several Bible passages.

After graduation, Olugbodi will start a position as critical systems engineer for Southwest Research Institute.

Story by

Christina Tatu

Photography by

Christa Neu

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