President, The Johns Hopkins University
Christopher B. Elser Memorial
Tuesday, April 20, 2004 | Keyser Quadrangle
[Prepared text. Not checked against delivery.]
This morning we are here to remember Chris Elser. We've come to celebrate his life. We've come to recall the pride and joy and great happiness he brought to his family, to his fraternity brothers, to his many friends. And we've come to share our shock, and the loss and the hurt we feel that he is no longer with us.
This morning we are here to remember Chris, but also, we are here to be reminded of one another.
Never are we left so alone as when someone we love — someone youthful and vital and energetic — is taken from us. It is a loss that can never be regained, an emptiness that will forever be unfilled. It leaves in us a pain that, at times, seems to be more than we can possibly withstand.
On these occasions we instinctively turn to our families. That is why we are here today. This morning we see and we feel that this community of Johns Hopkins is more than a collection of teachers and students. We are a family, tied by our aspirations, united in our sense of the possible, and in our hope for the future. And on this morning, we are bound together in our sorrow.
Abraham Lincoln once said, "In the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years." Over the weekend, at the hospital, my wife Wendy and I saw the tremendous outpouring of love and affection that came to Chris from his family, his friends and his fraternity brothers, and we thought, here is someone whose years have been full of life indeed. In celebration of that life this morning, we will hear from Chris's uncle George, from two Hopkins classmates of his father Kip, and from any of you who would care to stand before us and talk about Chris. Perhaps in talking, we will understand Chris's life a little better.
But we will never understand his death.
Many of you here today, on the cusp of adulthood, have yet to experience the roller coaster exhilaration of being parents. For those of you who one day do so, you will find there is no greater challenge--to your stamina, to your intellect, and occasionally, to your patience. Nor, for that matter, is there likely to be in your life any greater reward. Children make us aware of how much we value life, and at the same time, they remind us a thousand different times just how fragile life can be.
Not many years ago, a Hopkins physician had a six-year-old son who developed leukemia. After a valiant struggle, the boy died. And his father, reflecting that despite their very best efforts they could not save their son, came to realize the only absolutely sure thing he had in his relationship with his son was his love for him. And so he wrote about his experiences, and in particular, he wrote this to other parents who grieve: "May we all find peace in the shared hope that our children who brought us such joy with their short lives are now a host of angels, loving us still, feeling our love for them, awaiting our coming, and knowing that they are safely locked forever in our hearts."
Today, we feel intensely the loss of Chris Elser. But we can be sure that the love his family and his friends have for him will not diminish, and we take comfort in knowing that love will continue, as long as we remain.
This is a day of excruciating sadness for every one of us at Johns Hopkins. In this hour of loss, we think of the words of John Greenleaf Whittier, who so aptly described what we feel:
"For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: 'It might have been.'"
God bless you all.
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