Priceless Gem

“What is it that binds us to this place as to no other? It is not the well or the bell or the stone walls. Or the crisp October nights or the memory of dogwoods blooming.”

Charles Kuralt offered his own answer to this question during his speech at the UNC Bicentennial in 1993.

That day, I was a fresh-faced, idealistic high school senior, anxious about my future, unsure of what the next step would be and where I would choose to take it. Sitting in Kenan Stadium that day, although I had grown up nestled in the Piedmont of the old North State, I became a Tar Heel. That speech had something to do with it. As did President Clinton’s. As did the enormity of the situation. But what truly sealed the deal for me that fall afternoon was the boundless, electrifying oneness of the crowd. The pride, the camaraderie, the feeling that we were all connected by this one, finite, beautiful place.

Near and far, alumni of UNC Chapel Hill all seem to carry a torch for this place. Sure, it’s college where many of us finally come into our own, discover ourselves, find a home, a friend, a love. But still. It’s so much more. I’ve seen it in a few other faces for a very small set of other schools. It’s rare. But it exists outside of Chapel Hill. When you see it, you know.

I’m not sure if it’s the brick walks, the Old Well, the stone walls, the chiming of the tower, the football stadium nestled in the pines or the dome settled in the valley below South Campus, the academics, the banners in the rafters, the accolades, the faculty, the blue cups, the chicken biscuits after the blue cups or some sprinkling of them all. But I have a feeling a lot of it for many of us has to do with what happened today.

Today, Coach Dean Smith received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. My Facebook feed has been blowing up with articles and pictures and congratulatory messages posted by my UNC-alumni friends. I started to wonder why we cared so much? Why did this honor pull so many of me and my Carolina blue brethren in? And the answer was not that we’re a basketball school and therefore fanatics about all that is Carolina basketball, although I’m sure that may be true for one or two.

What I think it really is is that same mysterious thread, that little lifeline that pulls us back to dogwoods blooming on Gimghoul and azaleas blazing around the Old Well. The same whisper that urges us to yell “PRICELESS GEM” with all our might during the alma mater.

Dean Smith exemplified a life lived with integrity. A life that was concerned more with doing what was right, not necessarily winning ball games. Although the secret is that by doing what was right, his teams ended up wining ball games. A lot of them. And his players ended up graduating college. A whole helluva lot of them.

Dean Smith was the coach who instilled the thank the passer point, the idea being that you acknowledge who helped you achieve the score. You see it as the players run backwards back down the court after a big play, fingers extended, pointing at the passer.

And that, my Carolina friends, is what I think binds us to this place. Sure, Charles’ argument that it is the University of the People is a great point. But…

Without Carolina I wouldn’t have achieved what I have today. Without Carolina I wouldn’t have the friends I have today. Without Carolina I may not have the family I have today.

Thank you Coach Smith, for living your life by such exemplary standards. Thank you for your contributions to the court, the college and the community. Thank you for reminding me through your award today that I have neglected to thank the passer for a long, long time.

So today, Chapel Hill, I’m pointing at you. Thank you.

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