By Merrett Stierheim '55
In 1953, after my sophomore year at Bucknell University, I left that lovely campus after being accepted into the U.S. Air Force Cadet program. Four years later, as a first lieutenant, crew navigator, I requested and received an “early out” from the Air Force to complete my college education under the G.I. Bill, which I achieved after returning to Bucknell. As a Baptist-founded University, but fully nondenominational, Bucknell had a requirement that, to graduate, every student had to attend at least 15 nondenominational chapels on campus, which for me meant that I had to attend almost all of them before graduating after the 1958 spring and summer sessions.
Being highly motivated, I was quite religious about my chapel attendance record, but 59 years later, there is only one of those many chapels that I vividly recall and will never forget. It was in late April 1958 and, as usual, I didn't know who would be speaking, nor did I pay attention as the speaker was introduced. He began his comments in a low voice that I found myself straining to hear, but he had what seemed to be a magnetism about him that drew his audience to his words. We were all listening intently. The intensity of his rhetoric increased gradually and before he finished, he was truly oratorical, with a booming voice that seemed to rattle the chapel rafters. I was awestruck. I remember walking out of that chapel building somewhat stupefied, squinting in the bright sunlight. I simply had to know who that man was and asked the student next to me. The reply was “Martin Luther King.”
At my 50th class reunion in 2008, I revisited Bucknell for the first time. I particularly wanted to confirm my memory of that chapel speaker and made it a point to visit the campus library, where I requested to view the microfilms of the The Bucknellian for spring 1958. I soon found the reference, written May 1, 1958, by Jan Powers '61. Dr. King's remarks were titled “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” Powers wrote, “Dr. King concluded by saying that we must love the Self to gain length but must not stop there. We should ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself' to gain breadth. The fulfillment of a complete life is an upward reach to God achieved by loving ‘The Lord thy God, with all thy heart, soul and mind.' Every Life must have its sky.” I was happy and reinvigorated when I left the campus library, having revisited King's profound words from that long ago day in 1958.
On the occasion when we celebrate Dr. King's mission in life it is deeply distressing for me that racism is still flourishing in America. Some of my fellow Americans are brazen and make no secret of their prejudices and animus for people of color or different ethnicities and religions. Far too many conceal those prejudices and would deny them, but in the sanctity of the voting booth or in private places among like-minded people they are free and unfettered. I feel pity, for them and would respectfully urge that they read the “Statement by Alabama Clergy,” which prompted Dr. King, while in jail, to write in pencil on the edges of newspapers, his response, which is titled “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” How anyone of good conscience can read that historically profound letter and not empathize and be moved by the immensity of his written logic and truthful eloquence is beyond me. For those of good conscience who haven't read it, I urge you to spend a few minutes reading it. You will be rewarded, enriched, and pleased that you did.
Merrett Stierheim '55 has had a distinguished career in public service, including as county manager of Miami-Dade County, Fla., CEO of the Women's Tennis Association and the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. He currently chairs the Leroy Collins Center for Public Policy and serves on many boards.