June 7, 2004

One Emory parent’s joy


Gary Teal is associate vice president for health affairs.

The summer of 1986 was a watershed point in time for me. I accepted a position at Emory and eagerly began a new career. My older son, Toby, had just reached his fifth birthday. As soon as he knew I would be working here, he said, “Dad, I want to go to Emory.”

I simply assumed he meant he wanted to go and see where my job was located. But, upon questioning him, I realized that he wanted to attend the University. Again, he was 5.

Toby’s desire to enroll at Emory continued throughout elementary school. In fact, it inspired him to rise to the top of his class; his mother and I made it very clear that he could only come here if he had outstanding academic achievements. Many of my friends at work, church, etc., would listen to me talk of Toby’s desire to attend Emory and would say that this was just a child’s capricious wish of going somewhere that seemed “magical.” He would change his mind, they said, when he entered middle school, succumbing to all the usual points of peer pressure.

Middle school came, and Toby continued pursuing his plan. Though he was a Duke TIP Scholar in middle school, it did nothing to dissuade him from Emory. Then came high school. He was a multisport athlete, excelling at football. With the size of a lineman and numerous academic accomplishments, it seemed natural that he would accept a scholarship to play football at one of the Southern Conference schools such as Furman or Appalachian State. And though he won player-of-the-week awards, all-county and similar recognitions, he made it clear that Emory was his destination of choice (I think President Jim Wagner would like that Toby used those words some five or six years ago).

Finally in 2000—almost 14 years after I had arrived on campus—Toby applied and was accepted into Emory College. As he began school, I wondered if he came here because of his dad and not because he really wanted it. What if he had really wanted to go (as did so many of his friends) to the University of Georgia, or to Auburn or Clemson, or to any of the other large southeastern schools? It became a burden of conscience for me, and I wondered if and how I might help undo this if he had indeed made a well-meaning mistake.

Toby roomed in Alabama Hall and immediately took pride and pleasure in being able to roll out of bed and step almost directly into Cox Hall (and Chick-fil-A), or onto the Quadrangle, reaching his classes in less than five minutes. He made numerous friends; that first fall we met friends of Toby’s from Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Texas, New York, many from Georgia and even one from London, England. We caught on quickly to monikers like “Steve from Philly,” or “Dan from Avon” and “British Chris.”

This was diversity at a whole new level for all of us. At our house that year we hosted a number of Emory freshmen for holidays, long weekends, etc. The consistent thread among them was a competitive intellectual curiosity that extended well beyond the classroom. And, to a person, they all appeared to have fallen in love with Emory and Atlanta.

The next year, Sept. 11 happened. Those young men who had become intrepid college sophomores were suddenly experiencing a world turned upside down. I will never forget arriving home that Tuesday afternoon to find Toby and six of his fraternity brothers at our house. They were all scared and unsure of what the future would hold for them and their families. Given that they were hundreds (even thousands) of miles from home, they found great refuge in the “Teal House” that day and night. They suddenly lost their sophomore arrogance and returned to the innocence of a group of fifth-grade boys.

All I could think was how I would feel if Toby were so far away from home at such a time of horror and disbelief. Toby’s mother and I took comfort in serving hot meals, allowing music to play loudly and listening to the wild yells and laughs that accompanied video games.

As Toby moved into his junior year, it became clear that he was changing rapidly. He spoke as a well-educated young man. His thought process became one of critical reflection. His views were no longer based only on observation and experience, but also upon many great writers and statesmen. He began to quote his professors, such as Dr. Merle Black. Toby spoke of political views that belied his young age; he not only knew what happened in history but how and, more importantly, why it happened.

He also began to replace his cadre of close high school friends with his fraternity brothers and other friends at Emory. He was quick to point out that he still cared very much for people from high school, but he realized he had less in common with them and more in common with his Emory friends.

During that year, Toby’s younger brother, Andy, was a high school senior deciding which college to attend. It was never a contest. He had watched Toby’s experience, his friends, his college life, and decided that Emory was the only choice. And, like his older brother, Andy had worked diligently to prepare himself academically.

Toby spent much of his senior year working in the Office of the General Counsel, and the professional friendships he developed solidified his post-Emory plans: attending law school. His undergraduate experience had prepared him well, and Toby’s LSAT scores reflected this. Finally, with Andy on campus and pledging the same fraternity as Toby, their mom and I took great joy in knowing that not only was Emory a great choice for both our sons, but quite possibly the most perfect of choices.

Toby graduated last month, and this fall Andy will begin his sophomore year. Toby was accepted to a number of law schools and was offered significant scholarship awards. A bragging father? You bet. A proud Emory parent? Absolutely.

With great respect to Robert Frost, I must say that Toby took the road less traveled when he came to Emory. As Frost concluded, it has made all the difference. The joy I’ve experienced over the past four years as an Emory parent can never be adequately repaid to this great institution—and the fact that I have three more years of it makes the horizon ever so bright.