Lighting the Torch

Paige Parvin

One of my favorite places in the world is my living room in winter, where there's usually a fire burning in the fireplace.

I don't know what it is about a fire that I find so beguiling, but there is something about the glow, the warmth, and the crackle that lures me to sit for hours—reading, drinking coffee (like now) or tea or wine, working (like now), or just daydreaming, staring at the flames as though they're spinning a story and I might miss the ending if I don't keep watch.

The other thing about a fire, of course, is that it requires tending. For about three years running, in the fall when it gets cold, I have made a spirited pitch for the installation of gas logs in our fireplace—you know, the kind where you flip a switch and a picturesque fire appears like magic, and when you need to go run errands or cook dinner or walk the dog, you flip it off again and the grate goes dark.

Obviously, this is an argument I have repeatedly lost. So here I am, jumping up every few minutes to poke at the wood or add another log. Fire building and tending is a skill that does not come particularly easily to me, but I admit I'm secretly happy to have been overruled on the question of gas logs, which are long on convenience but a little shorter on reward.

When I began, earlier today, to read through the near-complete issue of Emory Magazine, I was thinking that one of its central themes is passion: a burning drive, focus, and dedication to purpose. We spotlight eleven student researchers (and there are many more) who are so eager to learn and discover that they have pursued complex research projects as undergraduates, achieving concrete outcomes before they even finish college. We meet faculty and students in Goizueta Business School who have formed deep connections in Nicaragua and become so inspired that they've launched a socially conscious business, directly marketing and selling coffee with the aim of returning a fair price to the Nicaraguan farmers whom they've come to know.

Our cover subject, Ben F. Johnson III 65C, has set an example of steady determination and sound character for most of his life—as a student at Emory and then Harvard, as an attorney and later managing partner at his top-flight Atlanta firm, as a civic leader, as a husband and father, and as an Emory trustee, chairing the board for the past thirteen years. He is described as unflappable, curious, disciplined, and driven by a passion for public service that "runs in the family bloodline."

Passion, yes; no one accomplishes this much without devotion to the cause, be it a place, a project, a business, a career, or a belief. But in taking a closer look at these stories, I was struck by another theme: patience.

As a boy, Johnson spent many quiet Saturdays at the office with his dad, then dean of Emory's School of Law—watching, learning, and as writer Kimber Williams puts it, preparing. The late Ben F. Johnson Jr. 40L had himself been a freshman at Emory before the Depression made his scholarship, and therefore his attendance, impossible; he dropped out and worked at a five-and-dime store, eventually completing his degree at the University of Georgia and then graduating from Emory's law school. After serving in the navy during World War II, he decided that he wanted to teach others, and joined Emory's law faculty.

Both father and son seem to have moved through life with unhurried perseverance, guided by an inner compass and motivated not by personal gain or glory, but the nearly opposite desire to tend to the things they cared about—which included Emory. When the elder Johnson helped win the landmark case that effectively allowed African American students to attend private Georgia universities, it gave deserving students the opportunity to shine and created a culture of diversity in the law school that continues today; similarly, Ben Johnson III has said that one of his talents is putting bright people into the right roles and then stepping out of the way, supporting their work from the sidelines.

It's a philosophy that demands both fortitude and grace—a willingness to nurture what is deemed worthy over time rather than seeking speedy solutions or dramatic triumphs. Much like growing coffee on a farm in Nicaragua, or spending months on a research project with no certainty of success, the Johnsons demonstrate devotion to a grander enterprise and the simple confidence that work in service of progress is often its own reward.

Guiding the destiny of a university is a little like tending a fire. It takes patience, and skill, and an appreciation for authenticity and tradition, and for the enjoyment of basking in its bright, warm glow. It won't make you rich or famous. You tend a fire for the pure pleasure of watching its flames dance.

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