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In 1950, an elderly retired gentleman named Witherbee paid me a visit when I was temporarily covering practice for a doctor in Woodbury, New Jersey, in locum tenens, as we say. His medical problem was easily tended, so we chatted.
He told me that he had attended Harvard Divinity School many years before, and one day was about to graduate as an ordained minister. His family and many other proud families were gathered on folding chairs on the lawn in Cambridge to watch the graduation ceremonies. The graduates were called up one by one, in alphabetic order.
Since Witherbee is at the end of the alphabet, he had a lot of time to think over the significance of what the members of his class were doing. In time, thinking over the personal defects of each classmate who preceded him, he became overwhelmed with a personal question. "How can I tell others how to behave, when I don't know how to behave, myself?"
And so, when his turn came, his name was called out, and he rose in his seat. "I decline to graduate."
The consternation of his family can be imagined, along with the stir in the audience, the astonished face of the Dean, and his own confusion about the uproar he had just caused. But although the die was cast, and the action a final one, it had a surprising outcome. The next day, he received a telegram from the Girard College in Philadelphia, inviting him to be considered for the position of Director of Religious Studies. It seems that Stephen Girard had provided in his will that no ordained minister might set foot within the walls of Girard College, and yet they felt they needed someone to oversee the religious study. Witherbee was perfect: he had the credentials, but he did not have the ordination curse.
And so he happily remained in that capacity for the rest of his employed life.
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Originally published: Tuesday, December 21, 2004; most-recently modified: Tuesday, September 07, 2021