Former US President Barack Obama is one of the best orators in history

Washington and Lee University is the ninth oldest university in the United States. George Washington himself gave money for the University’s development, and the institution has a reputation for excellence. Compared to Harvard or NYU W&L has a small campus, but it’s beautiful. Sprawling lawns and colonial buildings with huge ground-to-ceiling pillars come together to form an idyllic postcard image of an institution of knowledge and power. 

One of the largest buildings on campus is the Doremus Gymnasium. It is huge. The size of about three of the office blocks at Airport City put together. It has about four floors and is equipped with facilities for every possible sport you can imagine on earth. The whole massive edifice was built in 1914, and it didn’t cost the University a single penny.

Now, why must you care how a college got a free gym? I’ll tell you in a moment, but first, let me tell you what happened to me yesterday when I walked into a certain well-known shop in Osu. I’m still trying to decide whether I should name the shop, but while I think about it, here’s what happened.

I walked in and went straight to the part of the shop where I would normally find the item I wanted. It was not there. Things had been moved around and I was a little disoriented. As I stood there, swiveling this way and that, trying to find my bearings, the shop assistant was at the counter, a few feet away from me, talking on her phone.

I was the only customer in the shop, so she had definitely seen me come in, but she just kept on talking, while I stood there in dire need of assistance. I tried to get her attention with a polite “Excuse me, Madam”. She didn’t even turn to face me when she yelled over her shoulder, “Krakye, can’t you see I’m on the phone?”

I was so shocked, I exclaimed, “I beg your pardon?” at which point she turned to look at me properly. She rolled her eyes at me, told whoever was on the phone to hold on, and then asked me in the rudest voice you can imagine, “What?” I calmly turned on my heels, walked out of the shop and drove six miles through traffic to the Accra Mall to buy the same item from their competitors.

Shocking story, right? Ok, so what has this got to do with a gargantuan Gymnasium on the other side of the world? Well, let me tell you.

In the year 1913, New Yorkers, Robert and Jesse Doremus were travelling through Lexington, Virginia. They found themselves at the entrance to the campus of Washington and Lee University, and like curious visitors, decided to take a look around. As soon as they set foot on campus, a young student walked up to the couple, introduced himself, and offered to show them around.

During the tour, every person they met – student, staff or faculty – said hello to them in the same polite manner as their tour guide. By the end of the tour, the couple were so impressed by the polite and solicitous welcome extended to them that they decided to make a “small donation” to the school before they left. The Doremuses gave $1.5 million.

This money was used by the University to build their gymnasium, which they named after the benevolent couple.

The reason why the Doremuses received such a hearty welcome was because of something called The Speaking Tradition, which is practiced on the campus of Washington and Lee University. Every person who works or studies there follows this tradition, which requires you to speak to every person you meet.

It may be a simple “Hello”, or a full-fledged conversation, but either way, the tradition enjoins you to speak to everyone you encounter, whether you know them or not. The belief is that every encounter leads to learning and the exchange of ideas.

I was on the campus of Washington and Lee University a few years ago, and for the six days I was there; I must have walked past no less than a thousand people. Not one of them went past without saying Hello. Not one. Even those on their phones found the time to give me a nod and a smile. None of them were being paid to do this. It’s just their tradition.

My friends, I know the lessons here do not need to be spelt out to you. Wherever you are, whatever you do, whoever you meet, please place a value on them, and treat them with respect. Every encounter leads to learning. Sometimes it might even lead to 1.5 million dollars. My name is Kojo Yankson, and I recommend for Ghana, the Speaking Tradition. What we’ll gain with it, I don’t know, but I do know what we’re losing without it.