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(4 May 2013)

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On 4 May 2013, Bill Hilton Jr. received an honorary Doctor of Science degree (D.Sci.) from Newberry College, his undergraduate alma mater (Class of 1970). Following the awarding of the doctorate by College president Dr. Maurice Scherrens and an introduction by academic vice president Dr. Tim Elston, Hilton delivered the following commencement address to the 156 graduating seniors and their guests.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center
Commencement photo courtesy The Newberry Observer

Good afternoon, and welcome to Newberry College, Newberry, South Carolina 29108. Sigillum Coll Newberriensis Car Aus 1856. Hail Scarlet and the Gray!

Thanks, Dr. Elston, for your very kind introduction. Before I begin my own address, let me congratulate band director Bill Long on retirement and receipt of his well-deserved emeritus status. He and his talented jazz band students have given me great musical pleasure through the years. Let ‘er fly, now, Bill.

I’m pleased today to speak to the Class of 2013 at my alma mater of Newberry College. The title of my remarks is:

Luck, Destiny,and Serendipity:
Confessions of a Frisbee Fanatic

You probably can’t tell by looking at me, but I am the product of a mixed marriage. Yes, my father was a staunch German Lutheran and my mother a born-again Southern Baptist—not exactly a match made in heaven but one that worked out pretty well.

My dad was from Pennsylvania and stationed at Fort Bragg during World War II. From there he hitchhiked 150 miles west to Rock Hill, South Carolina, where he bumped into my future mother at church. He fell for her immediately—and she for him—and after the war took her back north to Pittsburgh to marry and start a family.

If you’re hard-core Presbyterian you might conclude this eventful meeting of my parents-to-be was some sort of destiny, that it was predestined as God’s will. Or if you’re superstitious or a gambler you might call it dumb luck. But based on my Lutheran upbringing and my Newberry College training in science and philosophy, I don’t think that’s the way things work. I think it was a matter of serendipity.

To understand what I mean, I first want to explore the definitions of three words I just used—luck, destiny, and serendipity. Then I’d like to see how these words have applied to my own life . . . AND how they apply to yours.

For starters, let’s define luck:

LUCK is that which happens beyond your control, without regard to your will or your intention—or your desired result. Luck can be either good or bad, hence the phrase "good luck" when you wish for things to turn out well. Depending on luck is NOT a very good way to lead your life.

In contrast to luck we have destiny:

DESTINY is that which happens under the control of some outside force or being. Such happenings are determined in advance, as in predestination—a core belief of several religious denominations. Destiny is the opposite of free will and—to some folks—suggests everything happens for a reason and we humans really have no control over outcomes. The implication is that life is a giant chess game in which God calls all the shots, which to me contradicts the fact we humans have big brains and the ability to think for ourselves. God—or Satan—may offer suggestions along the way, but the choices are OURS.

And finally, a definition for serendipity:

SERENDIPITY is more difficult to define; in fact, it was voted one of the ten hardest English words to translate. The term was coined by British author Horace Walpole in the 18th century from a Persian fairy tale about three princes of Serendip, an ancient name for the Asian country of Sri Lanka. According to Walpole, the princes "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity” of things they were not seeking. In true serendipity, the individual must be alert enough to observe his surroundings and wise enough to link together apparently unrelated facts and occurrences—all in order to arrive at a useful conclusion. In other words, serendipity means you are aware of opportunities and take actions that result in eventual benefit. Instead of saying "good luck," we really should wish people "good skill" or "wise choices."

Let’s keep these definitions of luck, destiny, and serendipity in mind as I tell you my story.

As noted earlier—and to paraphrase comedian Steve Martin—I was born a poor Lutheran child. I grew up in Pittsburgh, my heroes being Martin Luther and anybody who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, especially second baseman Bill Mazeroski. In those days Pittsburgh was strictly a baseball town and the Steelers were just an afterthought, so things have changed—especially after Franco Harris and his Immaculate Reception.

Anyway, my father was a draftsman who made technical drawings of equipment at industrial plants. When jobs got scarce in the early 1960s he and my mother moved me, my brother Stan, and sisters Cindy and Patti back south to my mother’s hometown of Rock Hill.

In 1964 I graduated high school and came to Newberry College for two main reasons. For one, you’ll remember, I was Lutheran. Perhaps more important, the South Carolina Synod offered me a whopping $300 scholarship to attend Newberry. These days $300 might buy textbooks for a single class, but back then it covered a substantial part of my tuition.

I encountered some incredible professors at Newberry. Shakespearean scholar Frank Hoskins taught me how to write, Kibler Williamson showed me physics could be fun, and in successive semesters Misters Brown & Eader helped me realize I simply could NOT do calculus no matter how hard THEY tried. John Alan Presto guided me to a broad understanding of divergent world views in several philosophy courses, and campus chaplain Harry Weber gave me an understanding of the New Testament that went far beyond a superficial and literal read that seems to satisfy many so-called Christians. Although all these instructors helped me expand my mind, it wasn’t until education professor Jim Cummings took me under his wing that I really began to grow as person and to understand what my true calling in life must be.

I only had one course from Dr. Cummings, but where he made the biggest impact on me was during Sunday morning discussion groups in a basement lounge in Wiles Chapel. There Dr. Cummings challenged me to think outside the box, to contemplate who I was, and to decide teaching others may be the grandest and most important thing one can do.

I must confess I took a little longer than four years to get my Philosophy degree from Newberry College, in part because of that dreaded calculus and also because the green expanse of grass in front of Holland Hall called loudly to me each spring and autumn afternoon, begging me to play Frisbee on the quad instead of going to biology lab. Roommate Doug Dietz and I actually became the first official Frisbee Masters in South Carolina, a somewhat less lucrative accomplishment than the undergraduate degree I was supposed to be working on. Yes, Frisbee and the notorious Lewis brothers—Mike & Charlie—created a variety of distractions for me, as did Merri C. Bandy—all three here for today’s ceremony.

When not playing Frisbee I further avoided my studies by serving as editor-in-chief of Newberry’s campus newspaper, through which I seemed to butt heads with the administration on a regular basis. As editor and a strong independent I also disagreed sometimes with sororities and fraternities, but I was a “fair and balanced” newsman and am proud to say I was Kappa Delta’s first unofficial Snowman. This may have happened because I was good friends with Laura “Possum” Neath—now a member of the Newberry College board of trustees—or more likely because I was dating KD president Sue Ballard—who I eventually married and has been my spouse for 42 wonderful years. In any case, to all you KDs out there, I say “AOT”—even though I have no idea what that means.

But to get back to my story, after five years in residence at Newberry and another couple of courses at Winthrop College, I finally got to walk the graduation walk as you will do today. When people ask I tell them I am philosophically a member of the Class of 1968, I’m theoretically in the Class of 1969, but legally—according to my diploma—I’m a 1970 graduate.

So what does a Newberry College graduate who edited the campus paper and has a degree in philosophy with minors in biology and chemistry do when he graduates? SOME philosophy majors like Allison Martin down there on the second row might apply to law school. In my own case, I went to work as a reporter and photographer for The Evening Herald newspaper back in Rock Hill. While there my assignment was to write about breaking news and to cover monthly school board meetings in neighboring Fort Mill, South Carolina.

I came to understand the Fort Mill school district pretty well. I was on a first-name basis with administrators and board members and wrote many articles about them for the local newspaper. But after nine months I asked my editor for a summer leave of absence so I could work on staff at a national science honors program in West Virginia. The editor said he could make no promises and, sure enough, when I returned in August after the science camp session I found had been replaced at the newspaper office.

Somewhat desperate for a job, I took the initiative of scheduling a meeting in Fort Mill with the superintendent of schools, who knew me well from covering his school board meetings. The superintendent, a grand southern gentleman named Hoss Nesbitt, wanted to know where I’d been all summer. He also inquired what I wanted, so I told him I needed employment. He asked if I could teach 8th grade math and I naively responded I guessed I could teach most anything. Perhaps out of desperation Hoss Nesbitt hired me on the spot just a week before school started and I plunged headlong into the world of professional education. Needless to say, I learned a lot of math that first year, barely staying one step ahead of my eighth grade students.

The next year I moved to the high school and taught physical science to most of those same kids. And I had them again in Biology One. A few like Dr. Jayne Pettus McClain who’s here today were lab assistants during their junior year and then as seniors enrolled in my advanced biology class. I literally grew up with these students in my classroom for five straight years, and they’re like family.

While teaching in Fort Mill under a provisional certificate I worked on “getting legal” by taking education courses at Winthrop, with an M.A.T. in biology as my goal. Along the way I took a summer course in ornithology during which I captured wild songbirds and put numbered bands on their legs as a way to track them in migration. I immediately realized a bird in the hand was a tremendous teaching tool for all sorts of science facts and concepts and ended up moving my wife and infant son Billy III to the University of Minnesota. There I began work on another masters degree in bird behavior and ecology.

I spent four very cold, very long, very dark winters in Minnesota, studying Blue Jays and yearning for a return to the South, so after completing my grad work we moved the family back to York, South Carolina and purchased an old farmhouse on 11 acres. In 1982 I established this property as a non-profit nature preserve we called Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History and began what has become an on-going 32-year study of plants, birds, and other wildlife.

Soon after moving back to York I became very interested in Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, tiny little creatures the size of your thumb that eat flower nectar and migrate up to 2,000 miles each fall into Central America—and back again the following spring!

After studying and banding hummers at Hilton Pond for a number of years, I was invited to Florida to give a program at a science teachers convention. There, as I wandered through the vendor area, a woman representing an educational travel company recognized me from photos in a magazine article about birds. She asked if I might be willing to lead a group expedition to Costa Rica to study hummingbirds, to which I responded: “Twist my arm.” The hang-up was I was interested only in Ruby-throated Hummingbirds—the species I studied at Hilton Pond—so we had to find out when and where ruby-throats occur in Costa Rica.

After extensive inquiries, the travel company found a young Costa Rican naturalist named Ernesto Carman Jr.—who turned out to be the ONLY person in his country who knew ANYthing about Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Ernesto had discovered a population of ruby-throats on wintering grounds in western Costa Rica, so in December 2004 I recruited a group of 12 teachers and birdwatchers for our first expedition to the Neotropics.

This all turned out to be one of the most interesting and productive experiences of my life. Ernesto, who’s here today from Costa Rica, started out as my guide and Spanish-language interpreter but has morphed into a colleague, close friend, and full partner in my Central American hummingbird research. Together, Ernesto and I and more than 150 citizen scientists from the U.S., Canada, and Europe have taken 21 Operation RubyThroat expeditions to Costa Rica, Belize, Nicaragua & Guatemala. I’m still the only scientist studying Ruby-throated Hummingbirds on their wintering grounds, where we’ve made some amazing discoveries about these birds that spend six months in North America and cold months in the tropics. You can read all about them on my hummingbird Web site: www.rubythroat.org.

And that pretty much brings us up to today. I was just getting ready to go to study hummingbirds in Nicaragua in early February when Dr. Scherrens called me with news my alma mater wished to award me an honorary doctorate and wanted me to give the commencement address for the Newberry College class of 2013. I was stunned and humbled and very, very pleased, and I am immeasurably honored by the opportunity to speak to you as this year’s graduates. Thank you, Dr. Scherrens, and thanks also to the rest of the administration, to the esteemed faculty, and to the board of trustees.

So what, you ask, does my life story recounted so far have to do with those words mentioned in the title of this address?

I think I’ve already explained my subtitle “Confessions of a Frisbee Fanatic”—that my addiction to flinging the plastic disk on the quad was nearly my academic undoing.

But what about “luck,” “destiny,” and “serendipity.” What do these concepts have to do with you as a soon-to-be graduate of Newberry College? Well, the answer is actually pretty simple and maybe even self-evident.

Was it a matter of “luck” my father thumbed 150 miles from Fort Bragg to Rock Hill and met my future mother? I don’t think so? He made the trip because he heard there were pretty women in Rock Hill and he was out to find one. Was it luck my parents had five children, four of whom graduated from Newberry? I don’t think so. My mom and dad knew exactly what they were doing and what the biological outcome would be. It certainly wasn’t luck.

Was it destiny I came to Newberry College? And played Frisbee a lot? And changed my major my senior year from biology to philosophy? That I became editor of the student newspaper? Again, I don’t believe it was luck, or destiny.. I chose to do all these things—right or wrong—of my own free will, not because it was determined in advance that I do them.

So how is it I became a teacher? That I married soul mate Susan who bore our two terrific sons Billy and Garry AND that I got the added bonuses of Norma (the best mother-in-law in the world) and Aunt Carmen and brother-in-law Wes with Annetta? That son Billy and his wife Amanda gave us granddaughter McKinley? Or that I’m “Favorite Uncle Bill” to Lizzie and James? How could it be I became an expert on Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and the only person to study them in Central America? Or that I acquired Ernesto as an international friend and colleague? I tell you, these were NOT matters of luck, or of destiny.

In my judgment, all this—my life experiences whether good or bad, detrimental or beneficial, costly or profitable—came from serendipity. Indeed, most were chance happenings in which I chose to implement certain specific actions. Although I made some unwise choices along the way, situations that turned out well came NOT from luck or destiny but because I was prepared by past experience to make a sound judgment on the course of action I should take, and THAT is precisely what YOUR own years at Newberry College have been all about.

Your professors, your teammates and lab partners, your roomies, your fraternity brothers or sorority sisters, your buddies in the chorus or the band or the theater group—all these contacts have contributed to your own growth and development as a human being. Like the people I’ve mentioned in my comments, all these folks have helped prepare you for serendipity—for the chance to to analyze whatever situation may present itself and then take an appropriate course of action. I’ll wager you never could have gotten better preparation to deal with serendipity than you received at this small, nurturing, top-quality Lutheran institution called Newberry College, so don’t forget to repay the favor when you leave campus as a new graduate. This school needs and deserves your love, your faith, your loyalty—and a percentage of your first paycheck.

Baseball great Yogi Berra once said "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." That’s what serendipity and life are all about. When a situation presents itself, call upon all your experiences and take that fork. It might not end up being the right choice, but as age and new scenarios accumulate you’ll find your choices become easier and wiser. What’s important is that YOU actually make the choice, that you DO take that fork in the road whenever there is one. NEVER let others make life decisions for you, and don’t EVER leave yourself to luck or destiny.

If you’ve listened closely to my remarks, I know you won’t expect me to tell you “Good luck!” or encourage you to go out to meet your destiny. Instead I’ll simply congratulate every member of the Class of 2013 for your significant academic achievements, and then I’ll suggest you go play Frisbee and look for your own serendipity.

Hail Scarlet and the Gray, and in the words of our late president Dr. George Holland, "God bless Newberry College."

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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"This Week at Hilton Pond" is written and photographed by Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History

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