An Essay on Idealism
By Robert Braile ’77 • Photo by Matthew Lutts
I imagine you remember your 1977 yearbook essay. It was a letter, like this one, to then Bucknell President Dennis O'Brien, following his first convocation address in 1976 and a later conversation you'd had with him. Reflecting on your four years at Bucknell, and on whether O'Brien's lofty vision of a Bucknell education prepared us for the hard realities of life after graduation, you questioned whether you could sustain after Bucknell the idealism he preached as our new president, and you'd lived as a student.
Your essay was as thoughtful as it was fiery, as meditative as it was pointed, much like our time and especially like that moment, with our departure from Bucknell nearing, and with the need to make sense of it all imperative. "My biggest fear is that my idealism will fade beyond the walls of Bucknell, where convocation addresses, philosophy classes and grade point averages can no longer shield me in quite the same fashion," you wrote.
You expressed an anxiety many of us felt at Bucknell, and I recall how grateful I was for your doing so. But your essay didn't come to mind again until I saw you, not at a class reunion or two along the way, but emblazoned across my television screen last July.
There you were, besieged by reporters over yet another American nightmare, this one in your home of Aurora, Colo., on your watch as police chief. A gunman had entered a movie theater at the start of a midnight premiere and opened fire, killing 12 of your neighbors and wounding 58 more. They were boyfriends and girlfriends on dates, mothers and fathers with their children, a Navy vet, a Target employee, an aspiring sports journalist, a former Gateway High School baseball catcher, a counseling intern at a school for special needs students, a 6-year-old girl excited about having just learned to swim. They were real people with real names — Micayla Medek, John Larimer — whose only desire that night was to enjoy a movie, and whose only misfortune that night was to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, a theater just minutes from the one in which your own daughter was watching the very same movie, at the very same time.
In interview after interview, you fielded questions about the shooting, the victims, the weapons, the suspect, even the suspect's apartment, which was laden with explosives, imperiling the lives of investigating police officers. But your answers differed from those our media-anesthetized culture has come to expect, a difference most evident when the questions turned personal, especially with regard to your officers and to your daughter. A passion within you emerged, one born of fury and grief, as your eyes began to tear, your lips began to tighten and your voice began to crack, a passion reminiscent of your essay long ago. In a press conference, you said, "If you think we're angry, we sure as hell are angry about what has happened to our city, what has happened to these wonderful people who live here, and also what he threatened to do to one of our police officers."
In the horrific year since, your home has not been alone in its anguish, its good name and those of other towns across America having become wrongfully synonymous with gun violence, as has America itself.
In your yearbook essay, you wondered for us all whether our idealism would wither after Bucknell, whether we could sustain it amidst life's inevitable hardships, sacrifices and tragedies. But neither yours nor ours has done so, Dan. For passion is the measure of idealism. As you stared into the cameras, your eyes would not have begun to tear, your lips would not have begun to tighten and your voice would not have begun to crack, had you lost the idealism to evoke such passion, the unwavering expectation of decency that enabled you to say what had to be said in that press conference and in other appearances, an idealism you feared in 1977 we might lose, but you affirmed in 2012 we still have.
I'm certain, because as we watched you with pride, our eyes began to tear, our lips began to tighten and our voices began to crack. Thank you, Dan.
Robert Braile '77 lives and writes in New England. His last essay for Bucknell Magazine, "Long and Winding Roads, On the Nature of Reunions and Returning," appeared in the Spring 2012 issue. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.