Sidney Mathias Baxter Coulling III, the retired S. Blount Mason Jr. Professor of English at Washington and Lee University died in February of 2016 at the age of 92. I had the distinct privilege of being taught Old English Literature and Poetry by Professor Coulling in 1981 as a freshman at W&L. It was the toughest “C” I ever earned (one of only two as an undergraduate). How I made my way into a sophomore level course (also taken by many juniors) is a testament to my naiveté–an error that only a greenhorn first-year student can make.
Or, was it an error?
Even though Professor Coulling taught me for this only course during my tenure at W&L (my studies turned to physics and mathematics), his impact was powerful and enduring. Sid Coulling was the embodiment of a southern gentleman and scholar. During my four years on a small campus in southwestern Virginia, when I encountered Professor Coulling he would greet me with a big smile and a hearty “Hello, Mr. Langiulli, how are you?” His demeanor, his countenance, and the way he comported himself in and out of the classroom were an exemplar of Southern gentility and courtesy to be admired and emulated. He was a Virginian through and through, and always reminded me of one of the chivalrous knights we were learning about in the literature. I’m a better man for having known him and studied with him.
I share this tribute to Professor Coulling with you as a reminder of the impact one person can have in another person’s life, no matter how brief the encounter. It also reminds us how philanthropy can catalyze that impact. As the holder of a named, endowed chair in the English Department provided by a generous donor, Sid Coulling had the freedom to lead on campus and off. In addition to his teaching and scholarship in English Literature, Professor Coulling served in several volunteer leadership roles on campus and in the Lexington, VA community. And, he paid it forward through his philanthropy.
You can get a sense of this honorable man by navigating to https://youtu.be/G6weotlR0Gs for a video of an address that he made to the Washington and Lee Class of 1960, which he delivered in 2010 at the age of 86. His remarks are memorable not only for their depth but also for the wit with which they were made (without notes).
About 11minutes into his address on the legacy of W&L as one of America’s oldest institutions of higher education focused on the liberal arts, Professor Coulling makes a case for honor and outlines the wholly student-led process that administers and enforces the honor system at the University.
For many of you, it may be difficult to believe that the notions of honor and gentility can survive the onslaught of today’s modern society. You may be right. The advent of Title IX administrators on many American campuses would suggest that having a student-led system for adjudicating honor code violations is foolhardy. And, yet, continuing to bestow the full responsibility for seeking justice in such cases (including the ultimate punishment of expulsion) is a bold act of faith in young adult self-governance that the Trustees of W&L uphold to this day. It’s a lesson in leadership that many a millennial and Gen Z would benefit from learning early in life.
I’m happy to report that I find that there are still a few men and women of integrity (the closest analog to honor in the common vernacular) who are called to lead and serve. (My good friend and business partner, Janice Cunning, is one of them.) A minuscule number of them may encounter a man like Sid Coulling in their youth. I know that some of these leaders find their way into the fundraising profession, and they have the great privilege of working with donors who support institutions like W&L in educating the next generation of leaders.
I can say without reservation that I am grateful for being one of Professor Coulling’s students, and consider it an honor to pass along what I learned from him with some of you through my writings and teaching.
David Langiulli is an executive coach and trainer who helps nonprofit professionals and their teams flourish, thrive, and get results.