Faculty members, I once read, make their living comparing things that don’t need to be compared. “Similarities and differences between ant colonies and socialist governments”. “The creative principles of Andy Warhol as the basis for 20th Century land-use planning.” “The wisdom of Jesse James as applied to retirement planning.”
So let me tell you how Groundhog Day is like my thousand-mile walk across campus. Not Groundhog Day the day—February 2—but Groundhog Day the movie. Groundhog Day is one of the deepest, most important movies of all time. It is also among the most humorous. Not ha-ha funny necessarily,but deep-belly-chuckle funny. Bill Murray did well in Stripes and Caddyshack, but he reached his zenith in 1993 with Groundhog Day.
Let me refresh the plot. A slacker weatherman (Murray) from Pittsburgh is dispatched with a cameraman and female producer to broadcast from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, for the annual weather prediction by that most famous prognosticator of all, groundhog Phil. An unexpected storm causes the crew to stay in Punxsutawney a second night. When Murray awakens the next morning, to a 6 AM clock-radio blasting, “I Got You Babe,” it is February 2 again. He is reliving the day he hates the most.
And so it continues, day after day after day (Harold Ramis, the director and co-writer, claims he re-lived February 2 10,000 times). Murray evolves through the process in several stages. First he delights in hedonistic pleasures—eating what he likes, and romancing a local cutie. Next he becomes fatalistic, realizing that regardless of his behavior, he can’t get out of his fate; he tries to end it all in a variety of unique ways, never successful. Later he decides to earn the love of his producer by becoming a better man—learning to play the piano, speak French and carve chain-saw ice sculptures. During this long process, he gets to know the people of Punxsutawney and to like them. Each day, he finds himself helping out in a myriad of ways, from catching a boy falling out of a tree to performing the Heimlich maneuver on a choking man. And when he finally convinces his true love to accept him, they awaken to February 3.
For our purpose here, the relevant bit is that he admits he’s been around for so long that he just sees a lot and knows a lot (for those who can’t abide the movie, just think about the Farmers Insurance commercials, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two”).
Like Bill Murray walking around Punxsutawney, I’ve walked around the NC State campus for a long time. About seventeen years. First as dean, with a relatively small radius out from Biltmore and Jordan Halls. Then, as provost, with journeys almost every day that took me to the far reaches of campus. And then, since 2009,as a faculty member, walking to class and back. More importantly, after returning to the faculty, I started walking at lunch to get some exercise. Three miles at the least; when pushed by occasional walking buddy Dave Ranier, four or five.
So, let’s estimate that since I returned to the faculty I’ve walked 3 miles on average per day, 3 days per week and 40 weeks a year (leaving out times when I had a meeting, was out of town or the weather stunk). That’s about 360 miles per year. Seven years of this, and the total distance is a shade over 2500 miles. But let’s say 1000 miles, just to be conservative.
Keep walking around the same place day after day and, just like Bill Murray in Punxsutawney, you see a thing or two. The kind of things missed on a forced march from class to office or office to meeting, head down, legs pumping, brow furled and mind fixed on the task ahead.
I learned to observe from my friend Charlie Leffler, now retired from being Vice Chancellor for Business and Finance. Whenever we walked to a meeting together, he always made us take different routes, going and coming. That, Charlie said, let him keep an eye on campus. He’d make notes about a sidewalk that needed repair, a door that didn’t close properly, a tree that needed trimming. And he’d pick up trash that we encountered. Gotta love it when the CFO is on litter-patrol.
So, I encourage you to take a stroll around campus. Just a stroll. Walk this way or that way, try a sidewalk or path you’ve never followed. Look around, listen to the music playing around you, not in your headphones. There’s a lot to see. Some storm drains have fish forged onto them—what’s that about? What about the patterns of yellow bricks on the sidewalk along Cates Drive? Listen to the rhythm of metallic pings during batting practice at the baseball field. Ponder how much chalk gets used annually to announce club meetings on our sidewalks. Count the different license plates on cars parked on Hillsborough. I can tell you where the forsythia bushes bloom first on campus—wanna take a guess?
Those observations and many others were the stimuli for writing the stories that comprise this blog. But, of course, I’ve taken ample liberties with those stimuli to tell the stories I wanted to tell. You walk a thousand miles, you get some poetic license.
I’ve walked a lot farther than a thousand miles in my university life. I’ve spent nine years as a student, forty as an employee. Since I was seventeen, the only times I haven’t been on campus were an 16-month tour in the army and one year on sabbatical at a state agency in Wisconsin. My guess is that I’ve walked at least 10,000 miles across a career at the University of Illinois, Missouri, Cornell, Virginia Tech, Penn State and NC State.
I’ve learned, lived and loved much from all the places I’ve walked, but never so much as at NC State. If you are a veteran of NC State,I hope you feel the same way that I do. If you are anticipating rather than remembering NC State, I hope you’ll walk many pleasant miles across our campus and live for yourself some of the experiences I’ve related. And if you are just a lover of universities, I hope my journey resembles your own.
In any case, keep walking and keep learning. Otherwise, like in Groundhog Day, you might just wake up tomorrow back in today.