Berea Spotlight

Appalachian author Gurney Norman tells Berea College graduates to find wisdom in unexpected places

Posted on by Jay Buckner

Speaking at Berea College’s 139th commencement on May 8, Gurney Norman, Kentucky Poet Laureate in 2009-10 and director of the University of Kentucky’s creative writing program, challenged seniors to find wisdom in unexpected places and question whether or not accumulating data is the same as possessing knowledge in a Digital Age much different than the family farming way of life he experienced growing up.

Gurney Norman

“They [computers] do not replace the accumulation of thousands of years of human experience that have led some societies and some people to understand the deeper questions about human life,” said Norman, acknowledging that wisdom, or “common sense,” as his coal-mining grandfather put it, could be found in abundance in people who may not be formally educated or technologically savvy.

Author of “Divine Right’s Trip,” originally published in “The Last Whole Earth Catalog,” Norman made his remarks prior to the awarding of degrees to 185 seniors.  An additional 54 seniors who are expected to complete requirements for degrees by September 1, 2011, took part in the commencement. Norman also was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Berea College.

Awards Bestowed at Commencement

Awards were presented to two graduates and three college faculty and staff members at the ceremonies.  Each year, Berea College presents the Wood Achievement Awards to a top male and female in the graduating class who “have achieved outstanding scholarship and have made excellent contributions to the life of the college.”

In the class of 2011, the Hilda Welch Wood Award for outstanding achievement by a female student went to Phi Nguyen, of Han Nui, Vietnam, who received a Bachelor of Arts degree with a double major in art and mathematics.

The T.J. Wood Award for outstanding achievement by a male graduate was given to Kevin Cavins of Totz, Kentucky, who received a Bachelor of Arts degree in business.

Berea’s highest faculty honor, the Seabury Award for Excellence in Teaching, was given to Dr. Robert Suder, a professor of religion at Berea since 1985. In 1991, Suder received the Sears Roebuck Foundation Teaching Excellence and Campus Leadership Award for leadership as a private college educator. From 1994-99, Suder served as associate dean of general education at Berea. Suder earned a Bachelor of Science degree in physics from Allegheny College in 1965, a Master of Divinity degree from Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in 1969 and a master’s degree in Hebrew and cognate languages from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1971. He earned his doctorate in Hebrew and Semitic studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1973. As a scholar, he has dedicated years to archeological research in Jordan and has produced one of the most comprehensive on-line databases of Semitic writings currently available.

Dr. Billy Wooten, associate professor of communication and director of forensics, was this year’s recipient of the Paul C. Hager Award for Excellence in Advising. Wooten, who has taught at Berea since 2002, earned his bachelor’s degree from Berea in 1996, a master’s degree from Georgia State University in 2002 and a doctorate from the University of Kentucky in 2006. He served as president of the Kentucky Forensics Association in 2006, the same year the association named him coach of the year. In 2007, he earned the Dwight Freshley Outstanding New Teacher Award from the Southern States Communication Association.

The 2010 Elizabeth Perry Miles Award for Community Service was presented to Miriam David, M.D.  A physician and director of Berea College’s health service for almost a decade, Dr. David was recognized for providing health care to students, faculty, staff and their families and for her volunteer work with the board of directors for Mission Lexington, Nathanial Methodist Mission and the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary board of trustees.

Baccalaureate Service

Earlier in the day, the Right Reverend John Bryson Chane, Episcopal Bishop of Washington, D.C., spoke at the Sunday morning Baccalaureate Service held at 10:30 a.m. in Phelps Stokes Chapel. Other activities included the Nurses Pinning Service at 9 a.m. in Union Church, a luncheon for students and their families in the Alumni Building and a reception on the Quadrangle immediately following commencement.

Speaker Biographies

Gurney Norman — Born in Grundy, Virginia, and raised in southwestern Virginia and eastern Kentucky, Gurney Norman graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1959 with degrees in literature and creative writing. There, he became friends with fellow writers Wendell Berry, James Baker Hall, Ed McClanahan and Bobbie Ann Mason. After a year of graduate school, Norman received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing at Stanford University where he studied with literary critic Malcolm Cowley.

Recognized as an authority on the literary and cultural history of the Appalachian region, Norman began his career in the U.S. Army before returning to his hometown of Hazard, Kentucky, in 1963 to work as a newspaper reporter.

In 1965, he returned to California where he wrote his two published books “Divine Right’s Trip,” originally published in “The Last Whole Earth Catalog” and later as a book, and “Kinfolks,” which earned the Weatherford Award in 1977 from Berea College and the Appalachian Studies Association. Two years later, Norman joined the faculty at the University of Kentucky as an associate professor of English, a position he has held for more than 30 years.

In the late 1980s, Norman’s work moved from fiction to non-fiction and from print to television. Kentucky Educational Television premiered three one-hour documentary programs written and presented on-screen by Norman in collaboration with director John Morgan. “Time on the River” (1987) is a study of the history and landscape of the Kentucky River Valley. In “From This Valley,” (1989) Norman explores the history of the Big Sandy River Valley, with a focus on the valley’s rich literary tradition. “Wilderness Road” (1991) traces Daniel Boone’s route from the New River near Radford, Virginia, through Cumberland Gap to the banks of the Kentucky River in Madison County, Kentucky.

In addition to his work with television, Gurney Norman collaborated with independent filmmaker Andy Garrison, who directed three films based on Norman’s short stories. One of Norman’s short stories, “Fat Monroe,” was made into a film starring Ned Beatty in 1990.

In 2002, the Eastern Kentucky Leadership Conference honored Norman for his outstanding contributions to advancing regional arts and culture. In 2007, the Appalachian Studies Association awarded Norman the Helen M. Lewis Community Service Award, recognizing significant contributions to Appalachia. Norman continues to serve as senior writer-in-residence at Hindman Settlement School’s annual Appalachian Writers Workshop.

Rev. John Bryson ChaneRight Reverend John Bryson Chane — Rev. Chane, who was consecrated the eighth Bishop of Washington on June 1, 2002, serves a diverse diocese of 91 congregations, nearly two dozen church-related schools and 45,000 members in the District of Columbia and Maryland. As president and CEO of the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation, Chane oversees the operations of Washington National Cathedral and the three cathedral schools: Saint Alban’s, National Cathedral School for Girls and Beauvoir School.

Named by Washingtonian Magazine as one of the 150 most influential leaders in the District of Columbia and recognized by the London Telegraph as one of the 50 most prominent leaders in the worldwide Anglican Communion, Chane continues to address local District of Columbia issues surrounding low-cost housing, advocacy for the homeless, the aged, those discriminated against because of sexual orientation and those who suffer from anti-immigration legislation.

He is the co-founder of the Episcopal Church’s “Bishops Working for a Just World” that seeks solutions to domestic and global poverty, universal health care and the environmental crisis. Chane continues to search for ways in which religion and international diplomacy can partner to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, especially focusing on the Middle East. In addition, Chane initiated companion partnerships with the Anglican Province of Southern Africa and the Diocese of Jerusalem with the Diocese of Washington. The work of the diocese targets health care and women’s issues in the Kingdom of Swaziland, HIV/AIDS care and prevention in South Africa and malaria prevention in Mozambique.

Chane has contributed to the Washington Post’s “On Faith” series and has appeared on ABC Television’s “Good Morning America,” National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” International Public Radio’s “Inter-faith Voices,” the BBC’s Radio and Television Network, CNN, Fox News, CBS and NBC television news. He has appeared on CSPAN focusing on Christian/Islamic relations and was featured in a three part PBS Television series entitled “Three Faiths, One God.” He is a featured writer in the recently published book “Iraq Uncensored.” He is a recipient of the “Inter-Faith Bridge Builders Award” presented by the Inter-Faith Council of Washington and was recognized by The George Washington University for his inter-faith work by being awarded the President’s Medal.

Prior to his election as Bishop, he served as dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, in San Diego, served parishes in New Jersey and Massachusetts and was Canon Pastor of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in Erie, Pennsylvania. From 2003-2005, he served in the dual role of Bishop of Washington and interim dean of Washington National Cathedral.

A graduate of Boston University and the Berkeley Center at Yale Divinity School, Chane has received honorary doctorates from Virginia Theological Seminary, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge.


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