When the letter came I was certain there had to be some kind of mistake. A young scholar from Tifton, Bailey Guest, had addressed the missive to "Dr. Huckaby." Now I am a lot of things but, sadly, doctor is not one of them.
Mr. Guest was inviting me to speak at the UGA Pharmacy School's "pinning ceremony," a very formal event intended to mark the third-year Pharmacy students' completion of their formal instruction and to send them out into the real world for a year of actual clinical experience.
"Formal education" is my word. Bailey called it "didactic," but I didn't know what that word meant.
In his invitation Mr. Guest, who is president of his class, also explained that it has been the custom for the past decade or so for the class to invite a "practitioner" to present an inspirational message as the students prepare to cross the proverbial bridge from "book learning" (my words) to real life experience.
Not only am I not a doctor, I am also not a practitioner - at least not of anything remotely associated with pharmaceuticals. And the academic achievements of the 125 students who assembled in Athens' Classic Center Tuesday night, along with their families, teachers and other dignitaries, to enjoy a good meal, receive their pins and suffer through my remarks, are so superior to my own that I probably shouldn't have even been allowed to attend the gathering - much less serve as the keynote speaker.
And yet, there I was, standing behind the rostrum, gazing out at one of the most impressive groups of people I have ever seen gathered in one place.
Now understand something here. I am not stranger to rostrums and large gatherings. I am frequently invited to address all sorts of functions and am usually quite comfortable in any situation. Tuesday night - not so much. I had more butterflies in my stomach than the glass and screen pavilion at Callaway Gardens and was certain that when I tried to speak that my tongue would be tied in more knots than are diagramed in the Boy Scout Handbook.
I believe that the best that can be said is that I struggled through. I shared a little of my Southern humor and got a polite laugh or two, and I made a point or two that I hope the students will be able to recall when they look back on the evening. But as is always the case in these situations, I gained a lot more than I gave and came away with more wisdom and knowledge than I imparted.
For instance, I learned that Flynn Warren, long time UGA Pharmacy instructor and one of my personal heroes, played basketball for the great Al McGuire - he of Marquette Warrior and NCAA Championship fame. No, Flynn didn't attend Marquette. He was a member of one of McGuire's early squads at Belmont-Abbey. Who would have ever guessed that? (In case you don't know Flynn, he looks a lot more like me than he looks like Michael Jordon - and no one would ever suspect me of having been a college hoopster.)
I also learned, from talking to the administrators and sponsors seated at my table, that there are lots and lots of ways to make a living with a pharmacy degree. It's not all standing behind a counter and dispensing pills.
And in addition to gleaning new insights through my experience I was also reminded of something that I already knew - that there is simply no better place for a student to pursue an education than the University of Georgia. As I watched the professors interact with their students it was obvious that the students genuinely liked their teachers and - just as importantly, if not more - the faculty genuinely liked the students. They knew who they were and knew their likes and dislikes; they were aware of their students' dreams and hopes and ambitions.
And they had imparted an enormous amount of knowledge upon the students over the past three years.
What an honor to have been a part of such an occasion. I have seldom been more proud, or more humble, than I was as I watched the students walk across the stage and greet Dean Svein Oie - especially the beautiful blonde-haired student that I named Jamie Leigh Huckaby, 23 years ago.
Glory to old Georgia, indeed.
There's just one thing, though. I still don't quite grasp the concept of having a banquet to celebrate leaving Athens. I have spent the past 35 years looking for excuses to get back.