An Exemplar of Civic Engagement

November 7, 2016

Earlier this fall four extraordinary alumni were awarded the Wilbur Cross Medal, the highest honor conferred by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School Alumni Association. The award is named for Wilbur Lucius Cross, Ph.D. 1889––literary scholar, dean of the graduate school, and four-term governor of Connecticut.

Few Yalies ever had a career quite like Wilbur Cross. An expert on the English novel and editor of the Yale Shakespeare, he led the graduate school from 1916 to 1930. As editor of the Yale Review, Cross revived the university journal and helped it become one of the nation’s leading outlets for literary criticism and public affairs, publishing work by Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, George Santayana, Leon Trotsky, H.G. Wells, and John Maynard Keynes, among many others. And when age forced him to retire from Yale, Dean Cross ran for governor of Connecticut––and won.

Before 1930 Cross had never held public office in his life. He ultimately served eight years as governor while helping the state weather the Great Depression. Although skeptical of government intervention––Cross had been a devoted pupil of the famous free-marketer William Graham Sumner while at Yale––he ultimately brought a “little New Deal” to Connecticut, including unemployment relief, minimum wage and child labor laws, and old-age pensions. Under his watch, Connecticut established a sweeping public works program. Construction began on the Merritt Parkway, the largest public works project in the state at that time, and a portion of the road from Milford and Meriden is named the Wilbur Cross Parkway.

Like any politician, Cross was not without his critics. Yet the self-described “Connecticut Yankee” reminds us that the life of the mind and the life of the polis need not be distinct. By all accounts, Cross brought charm, humor, and great intelligence to his work as governor. And his annual Thanksgiving Proclamations, which schoolchildren memorized and recited, were the work of a scholar in love with words. His 1936 prayer for “steadfast courage and zeal in the long, long search after truth,” calls to us still.

Tomorrow Americans will elect the next president of the United States, as well as other local, state, and national leaders. I urge every eligible member of the Yale community to vote. Please do not forego this essential rite of democracy. And when you vote, take time to remember Yale’s own Wilbur Lucius Cross, who devoted so much to this state and its people.