Opinion: Alumnus Weighs in on Garthwait Resignation
By Chris Roemer ’82
It is impossible to know how many lives Bob Garthwait has impacted for the good because of his generosity and leadership in the forty years since graduating from Gettysburg College. There are probably very few alumni who have benefitted students to the degree achieved by Mr. Garthwait. Yet now, because someone recently discovered a picture in his sophomore yearbook, Mr. Garthwait is likely to be remembered not for his altruism, but for a costume he donned for a fraternity party when still a teenager.
I attended Gettysburg College during the same years Mr. Garthwait was there as a student. As a History Major, I was taught the dangers of judging historical figures through the prism of current standards and mores. Societal norms change over time, and what was accepted in years past is often considered wrong to subsequent generations. The rate at which norms are changing today should give all of us pause. What do we believe today that will be condemned ten years from now? Twenty years? Forty years?
By today’s standards, Mr. Garthwait’s choice of costume was clearly offensive. The fact that it was in the school’s yearbook at all in 1980 suggests it wasn’t considered terribly offensive then. Should the school be judged today for the choices its students made in 1980? Should the years of service and financial support provided by Mr. Garthwait be erased by a decision he made four decades ago? Judging by the attention this matter has raised in recent days it appears many believe the answer to those questions is, yes.
Mr. Garthwait has apologized for a juvenile decision he made a long time ago. The fact that he has resigned from the college’s Board of Trustees is evidence of his continued concern for the school. But that’s not enough for some. It is my understanding there are faculty members pressuring the school to return the donations Mr. Garthwait has made over the years. For some it seems the kind of person Mr. Garthwait is today is irrelevant. All that matters is who he was while a student forty years ago. Even then, Mr. Garthwait was not racist or anti-Semitic, but simply ignorant of why some might find his choice of costume offensive, if not then, forty years after the fact.
This is a teachable moment. It’s a time for courageous discussion, not retribution. If Mr. Garthwait is still in the habit of attending costume parties wearing a Nazi uniform, then by all means his name should be dragged through the mud. If not, we should accept his apology and use his past mistake to educate today’s students. It seems to me, losing his proven leadership skills by accepting his resignation from Board of Trustees, and draining college resources by returning the significant donations made by Mr. Garthwait over the years will have the opposite effect. It will feel good to some, though. Revenge often does.
What are the lessons we want the current generation of students to derive from all of this?