Judith Herndon was the original and best kind of influencer. Before her death at the all-too-young age of 39, Herndon had already served in the West Virginia House of Delegates and West Virginia Senate. As a partner at the law firm of Herndon, Morton, Herndon & Yaeger, she also lent her time as a board member for numerous local nonprofit organizations and was a champion of women’s rights at the state level. The words below are hers – the commencement address she gave at the 1979 Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy graduation. We’ll come back to explore more of Judith Herndon’s story from the Archives next week, but in the meantime, what better way to get to know her than in her own words? Enjoy.
Mount de Chantal Visitation, June 8, 1979
Senator Judith Herndon
I must admit to an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia as a Mount graduate being invited back as a Commencement Speaker. If I might share some of my thoughts with you on this occasion, let me first say that one reason for my ruminations is a wonder that I am here in the first place. I distinctly recall sitting where you are now and resolving with the depths of my being that I never would come back once I was sprung from this place.
I know what you are thinking. You are thinking, “How tedious to relive past history when we are in the here and now.” You think that, of course, because you are the “now” and I am, to your mind, the “then.” I don’t mean to ruin your day or your preconceptions, but what you must remember is that someday you will be the “then” to a future group of graduates. It’s simple a fact of life that the “nows” always become the “thens”. Look around you and see the proud faces. Someday you will become one of “them” and will be sitting as observers of someone else’s big day.
The Mount has changed since “then.” The graceful stairways are now functional and fireproof. “Then” the Sisters were indistinguishable from the back and disappeared at odd times behind impenetrable cloister doors. “Then,” shapeless to begin with, we donned shapeless blue serge and tied ourselves in the middle with a thick leather belt with a silver buckle, looking for all the world like Idaho potato sacks ready for shipment. With our white socks worn straight up to distinguish us from equally shapeless girls from St. Joseph’s Academy, we cut no figure whatsoever. It was our fate to be between mini and maxi – a horrible in-between. As far as the “now” is concerned, with its new style and freedom – well, we never imagined it in our wildest dreams. If we could have looked as good as you do, we surely would have. As it was, our sole hope was that we would improve with age. We, however, lived on potatoes, and, as a consequence, ended up looking like them.
Those were the days when you were expected to be a lady, and everybody seemed to know exactly what that was, except us. There was a mold into which we were expected to fit, and we either did so or suffer the consequences. “Now” it is so much better, because the mold is flexible and each one of you is allowed to become a lady as that term has meaning for you, not necessarily for someone else. You have the opportunity to become an individual restricted only by the limits of common sense and mutual respect.
Twenty years from now I wonder if you will wonder as I do now? There is always such a seeming gulf between the “then” and the “now.” In this case, however, I don’t believe that this gulf is unsurpassable. We who seem so far out of it were you at one time, and just as we have carried the products of Sister Aimee’s Candy Store on our hips to the “now,” so will you carry the Mount with you when you have become the “then” to others who will come after you.
The difficulty of giving a commencement speech lies in the knowledge that absolutely no one will remember anything you say. You know that everyone is anxious to get to the main function of graduation day – the celebration that comes after all the formalities are over and the last speech has droned to an end. I can’t give you any better or happier news than you already know. You’ve made it – you’re out, and the next time you set foot on these premises it will be a voluntary act. In my judgment that is, in a very real world, from now on, as adults, everything you choose to do or not do, every decision, every judgement becomes yours. The day is past when choices are made for you. Every action now becomes a voluntary act. Total freedom is yours. The freedom to bear the responsibility of your own life, to set your own goals, to make your own mistakes and to learn your own painful lessons.
As Mount de Chantal graduates you have had a particular element added to your education to enable you to meet this new responsibility, because you have had not only the instruction which will be the basic building blocks for all you may teach yourselves in the future, you have had the additional element of discipline which will give you the moral strength and stamina to see you through difficult times.
Of course, things are much different now than in the Middle Ages when I was a student there. You no longer bow backwards out of doors or curtsy to the nuns at musicales. In my time we believed these exercises were geared to forcing grace and deportment upon unwilling and awkward teenagers. But the Sisters were far too intelligent to think they could perform miracles. No, what they were trying to do was teach us courtesy and discipline, two elements that are becoming scarce commodities today. Today these are still the legacy of the Mount and of these good Sisters. The excellence of the academic education provided by the Visitation Sisters is known worldwide, but the spirit of Visitandine education – the discipline and courtesy exemplified by the tradition implicit in a Mount education is why you are here, why your families sacrificed to send you here, and why you are in a real sense different from other graduates.
Discipline is a strength which sustains a person in all facets of life, in education, in earning a living, in living with others. Courtesy born of a respect for others is the quality that makes life more than a lonely pilgrimage. As standards of conduct, however, they have fallen on hard times. Courtesy has been replaced by a “me first” attitude, and discipline discarded for unstructured experimentation. The Sisters and the faculty here, on the other hand, have held to the principle that courtesy to those around you is a symptom of strength, not an admission of weakness, and that self-discipline is the prime path to freedom. Mount de Chantal asserts the truth that living within limits constructed from a respect for yourself and others constitutes the real free spirit, and that all else is surrender to outside pressures and influence. Their job is now done, and the strength you have developed within yourselves to free yourselves from manipulation is yours to use if you so choose. The building of your minds and your character has been the concern of all you see around you for the past four years. And the sum total of that concern is you – what you are now and what you will become and do for the rest of your lives.
Though you may pursue varied careers, though you may and will affect many other lives as you live your own – though you use your talents in myriad ways, for positive good or against your community and your society – though you give much to the future or take from it with both hands, it will be done by the same you who sit here today. Mount de Chantal has given you the tools you require to forge your life and the discipline and courtesy to use them well. The choice from this day on is entirely yours.