Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Dr. Benjamin Akande, Dean

George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology

Full text of address at The Navy League of the United States

March 26, 2012 St. Louis Missouri

My first impression of St. Louis was formed in the mid-1980s when I watched the movie Vacation starring Chevy Chase. That impression stayed with me for a very long time. In fact it was a very scary impression. Clark Griswold and his family pulled off the highway in an area I thought was East of St. Louis. I remembered vividly what happened to them. Perhaps you do too. But when I arrived in St. Louis, in the summer of 2000, I discovered a different place, a remarkable city on the shores of the mighty Mississippi River, home to 91 municipalities. A place described by demographers as the northern most southern city, the southernmost northern city, the eastern most northern city, the eastern most western city, and the western most eastern city.  It is a city that could be described for inclusive excellence because its ethnicity, geography, and attitudes all place it uniquely in the middle of America.

This is the city that in 1904 did the impossible by hosting the World’s Fair and the Olympics simultaneously. The Show Me State showed the world that St. Louisians are creatively innovative, resilient and purposeful. Historically and culturally, St. Louis is known for many things, including the world champion Cardinals and culinary delicacies like Ted Drewes’ concretes, toasted ravioli and provel cheese. St. Louis is also renowned for a bridge, the Eads Bridge, which at one time was the largest suspension bridge in the country. Like the Brooklyn Bridge, its construction relied on sinking great caissons to unprecedented depths into the river below it.

The construction and design of the Eads Bridge set precedent in many other ways as well. It was the world´s first alloy steel bridge; the first to use tubular cords; and the first to depend entirely upon the use of the cantilever in the building of the structure. It was the first large bridge to span the Mississippi River, and the first to carry railroad tracks. This visionary spirit that brought the Eads Bridge into fruition embodied what was demonstrated dramatically nearly 90 years later with the iconic design and improbable construction of the Gateway Arch.  To this day the Arch remains the tallest man-made monument in the U.S.

On the east side of St. Louis run the Mississippi River.  Back in the day the river was considered an obstacle to progress yet rather than limiting St. Louis, it inspired the city to think big and act boldly.  It inspired city leaders to build a bridge that crosses both physical and mental divides. It became, in essence, a powerful motivating force made of metal.

I want to take a few minutes this evening to speak on what I consider to be the most important work of all and that is building bridges. The bridge for which I speak is not limited to the physical construct by definition, but one that serves as a connection between our past and the promising future. Bridges enable us to go from where we are now to where we want to be. It connects us from a state of hopelessness to hope.

Webster University has chosen to be a bridge builder by being bold, by measuring our success not by those we exclude, but by those we include. We’ve done this by providing access to an affordable high-quality education to all who seek the empowering strength of knowledge anywhere in the world. This is a mission that will never have an expiration date.

One place dear to my heart that is yearning for its own bridge over troubled waters is Africa, with its one billion and counting population, its vast natural resources and its untapped human potential.  There is a real opportunity to build a bridge in Africa that will enable this continent to become a model of equitable development, an aide to world stability.  But Africa is in the midst of turbulence created by piracy off the coast of Somalia all the way down to the west coast of Nigeria.  Not for long.  The U.S Navy African Partnership Station is serving as a much-needed bridge by providing maritime security.  This is the kind of security that enables stability, which fosters peace through tranquility and will ultimately engender prosperity.

In the turbulent times of our present where the certainty of uncertainty permeates our world, it is assuring that the United States Navy-African partnerships as well as other collaborative global efforts is the 21st century equivalent of a bridge -- a stabilizing and reliable force that is connecting Africa to the rest of the world. This bridge will help withstand the strong current of instability on the African continent.  It is not just a conventional bridge made of steel, or bricks or mortar. It is a bridge built of the strongest substance of all: humanity. Building a bridge is taking responsibility for others.

Building a bridge over troubled waters is what the U.S. Navy has done for many, many years the world over. I want to leave you with a story perhaps an urban legend which I was told was the basis for Simon and Garfunkel’s classic song Bridge Over Troubled Waters. The song tells a story of a drawbridge operator who lived near the bridge of which he was in charge. It was his responsibility to let boats pass beneath by raising the bridge and trains pass on top by lowering the bridge. One day he received the familiar signal that a train was approaching. Seeing the silver flash in the distance he reached over to pull the switch that would lower the bridge.

And then he looked down in horror to see his son who had been playing under the bridge now caught in the rigging. With no time to leave and release his son and then get back to lower the bridge, he is trapped into making a choice that none of us would ever hope to make: either lower the bridge and save the lives of hundreds of passengers on the train and crush his own child, or save the life of his child and allow the train to crash. What would you have done?

Our choices are difficult but clear. How can we choose to remain safely on our own shores knowing that we could change the lives of those on the other side by simply reaching across?

Simon and Garfunkel’s classic song, Bridge Over Troubled Waters  reaffirms my belief in the intrinsic value of bridges, and confirms my sense of conviction in helping others. I recall the lyrics vividly.  “Sail on silver girl sail on. Your time has come to shine. All your dreams are on their way. And if you need a friend, I’m sailing right behind you.  Like a bridge over troubled waters I will ease your mind.