Sermons in Stone

April 01, 2014

By Mary Seymour

You may have walked past without noticing. Or you noticed and wondered why Aristotle and Cleopatra are buried on the Rollins campus. Maybe you vaguely recalled something about stones collected from famous people and brought to Rollins for display.

Whatever you do or don’t know about the stones circling The Green, pay close attention now.

You’re about to stroll the Rollins Walk of Fame.

Walk Softly and Carry a Big Stone

HAMILTON HOLT, ROLLINS’ LARGER-THAN-LIFE EIGHTH PRESIDENT, CAME UP WITH THE IDEA FOR THE WALK OF FAME. He’d already created a small-scale version at his summer home in Connecticut, lining a walkway with stones gathered from ancestral New England homesteads. Using a hammer and chisel, Holt and his father inscribed each stone with the name of the associated ancestor, hometown, and date of settlement. They unashamedly dubbed it the “Ancestral Walk.

Holt, always game to chase a bigger idea, decided to expand the walk’s reach. He collected 22 stones from the homes of famous Americans, including George Washington, Calvin Coolidge, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Holt debated whether to lay the stones at his Connecticut residence or give them to Rollins. He chose Rollins, and that—in the words ofWalk of Famer Robert Frost—“made all the difference.”

On October 18, 1929, Holt dedicated the Walk of Fame at Rollins, presenting the 22 stones he’d recently gathered; by the end of the year, the number of stones had more than doubled. They represented the birthplaces or former homes of an impressive litany of Anglo-Saxon men, with American Red Cross founder Clara Barton thrown in to represent the fairer sex.

Game on.

Holt and Rollins Assistant to the President A. J. Hanna began collecting stones during fundraising trips in the United States and abroad. Rollins faculty, staff, students, and alumni joined the chase; historic igneous chunks started rolling in almost daily. Buffalo Bill. Christopher Columbus. Benjamin Disraeli. Helen Keller. Edgar Allan Poe. By 1931, the path held more than 200 stones.

To keep standards high, Holt declared that the Walk of Fame’s goal was “to have every man or woman, living or dead, whose services deserve the eternal remembrances of mankind, represented in our Walk.” In other words, Holt clarified, “one must found a republic, win a war, paint a Sistine Madonna, compose Parsifal, write a Hamlet, fly over the Poles, discover the law of evolution, or preserve the human voice in wax.”

While a few skeptics dismissed the Walk of Fame as a publicity stunt, its reputation grew. The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Boston Herald, and Los Angeles Times published stories about the walkway. Mrs. Thomas Alva Edison, wife of the famed inventor, was so impressed that she built a similar walk at her winter home in Fort Myers, Florida. The first stone she placed came from Hamilton Holt’s home and bore his name.

The Big Stone

THE HUGE, UPRIGHT MILLSTONE THAT HEADS THE WALK OF FAME had a long journey to its resting place. Hamilton Holt came across it in the center of East Woodstock, Connecticut, and paid $2 for it. The stone sat in Holt’s summer house for several years, until he decided to give it to Rollins in 1933. Allen Stoddard ’36 and Franklin Wetherill ’34, two Rollins students heading to Florida to pick up citrus fruit, loaded the 3,325-pound stone on their truck—a feat that required four men, a tractor, and a team of horses. For their efforts, the students received a whopping $40 from Rollins.

Inscription on Stone:
Sermons in stones and good in everything (from Shakespeare’s As You Like It)
Arrived at Rollins: 1933
From: East Woodstock, Connecticut
Weight: 3,325 lbs
Age: Nearly 400 years old

A Gem of a Lapidarian

The Rollins campus directory lists Susan Curran ’76 as IT programmer, but that’s only half her title. She’s also College lapidarian.

Lapi-what? you ask.

She received the made-up title 25 years ago from President Thaddeus Seymour, after she expressed concern about the Walk of Fame’s deteriorating condition. Seymour, an ardent believer in the walkway’s historic value, tapped her to become record keeper, information gatherer, and sentinel of the stones. Susan took it as an opportunity to give back to her alma mater.

Being College lapidarian doesn’t come with a salary, but it has its perks. Curran has become an expert on the Walk of Fame’s stones and can identify most people whose names are inscribed on them. She gets to meet luminaries who come to campus for stone-laying dedications, such as Mister Rogers, Edward Albee, and Jackie Robinson’s daughter, Sharon.

Curran enjoys connecting the Walk of Fame to historic and campus events. On the Fourth of July, she posts a sign and a map to stones representing Declaration of Independence signers, then garnishes each stone with blue markers. For the 70th anniversary of the Annie Russell Theatre, she highlighted the stones of playwrights and actors. When Rollins President Rita Bornstein ’04H retired in 2004, Curran marked all 16 stones laid during her tenure.

Asked to name a favorite stone, Curran can’t commit. “They all intrigue me in different ways. For some, I admire the person represented. For others, I was present at the stone setting. Or I have no idea who they are, but there’s an interesting story in Hamilton Holt’s notebook.”

She is especially fond of the stone representing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, having played a starring role in its acquisition. Scroll back to summer 1990, when Curran—a longtime member of the Chapel Choir and MozartFest singer—traveled to Salzburg, Austria. Armed with a letter of introduction from President Seymour, she went to Mozart’s birthplace and, with official permission, acquired a fragment from a below-ground wall. The stone was dedicated during Rollins’ 1991 MozartFest.

Being College lapidarian means fielding a lot of stone-related questions—some incisive, some less so. One of the most frequent questions is “Are these people buried in the Walk of Fame?” says Curran. “My first response is, ‘Yes, they’re buried standing up—and Shakespeare is [pointing] there, there, and over there.’ Then I gave them Hamilton Holt’s philosophy on the walk and who merits to be part of it.”

10 Stones on the College Lapidarian's Wishlist

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings ’39H

Marjory Stoneman Douglas
Defender of the Everglades

John Glenn
1st American to orbit Earth

Sally Ride
1st American woman in space

Sandra Day O’Connor
1st woman appointed to the Supreme Court Justice

Althea Gibson
1st African American tennis player to compete at Wimbledon

Jesse Owens
Track-and-field athlete

Babe Didrikson Zaharias
1st woman to achieve success in multiple sports, including golf, basketball, and track and field

Arnold Palmer

Leonard Bernstein

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
Founder of modern Turkey (Curran graduated from high school in Ankara)

What stones would you add to the Walk of Fame?

Time Machine

Back in the day, President Hamilton Holt used a wooden contraption to drop stones into place during dedication ceremonies. During the decades following his retirement in 1949, the mechanism went missing—most likely jettisoned from a college storeroom as an oddball piece of junk.

When Thaddeus Seymour assumed the Rollins presidency in 1978, he became a great admirer of Holt and the Walk of Fame. One of his early ceremonial acts was to lay a stone from Holt’s Connecticut home next to the millstone that heads the Walk of Fame.

Seymour wanted to use Holt’s stone-laying mechanism for the ceremony, but it no longer existed. Fortunately, a witness to history stepped in to help. President Emeritus Hugh McKean ’30 ’72H, a Rollins student as well as a professor under Holt’s tenure, remembered the device clearly. He sketched it from memory; Rollins carpenters then took his pencil drawing and created a replica.

“It’s even more basic than the wheel,” says Seymour of the design. “The machine is just a cross bar and a rope. When you pull on the rope, the stone falls into place.”

This 1970s-era re-creation of Holt’s original mechanism is still in use today, a unique throwback to the Holt-ian Stone Age.

Vandalism or Historic Preservation?

Most Walk of Fame stones come from birthplaces, former homes, and gravesites of the honorees. Street cobbles, garden rocks, bricks, chimney stones—all have been fair game. But did the stone seekers always ask if they could take a chunk of history away?

College lapidarian Susan Curran assumes the vast majority of stones were acquired with permission. “Sometimes the person being honored provided the stone himself. Some were acquired during remodeling or renovation, such as the stone from Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, or demolition of a site. Some were picked up on the property with permission of a caretaker.”

Rollins President Emeritus Thaddeus Seymour ’82H suspects there may be some ill-gotten stones in the mix. “I’ve never seen a bill of sale in the Walk of Fame’s records,” he points out. However, he prefers not to think of the walkway as a monument to organized vandalism but rather as a reminder of a time when everyone felt entitled to a tangible piece of history. “I know of one college that boasts a piece of the stone where the Pilgrims landed. If every college chipped away such a souvenir, you’d have to use a ladder to go down to see Plymouth Rock!”

Want to Learn More About the Walk of Fame, Including the History of Each Stone?

Walk of Fame: A Rollins Legacy is available for $10 at the Rollins bookstore.

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