From the earliest of times, people have thought, worried or even obsessed about the way they will be remembered. Some have attempted to build monuments or ornate gravestones; others have been satisfied with more modest means of leaving their marks on this earth.
A visitor to the University of Illinois campus at Urbana-Champaign might be struck by the fact that its founding president, John Milton Gregory, is buried in the ground between the Henry Administration Building and Altgeld Hall. More striking is the simple, eloquent epitaph on his grave marker: "If you seek my memorial, look about you."
In just eight words, Gregory captured the essence of his life and how he wanted to be remembered. It is easy to walk away from his grave with a sense of awe. As the founding president (then called "regent") of the Illinois Industrial University, Gregory had been charged with transforming a vision of a school specializing in agriculture into reality. When the new school opened in March 1868, it had just 70 students. Within five years, the student body had grown to 400, including 74 women.
Gregory, the former superintendent of public instruction in Michigan and former president of Kalamazoo College, lobbied hard to expand the agricultural focus to include engineering and the liberal arts and sciences. For 13 years he provided the leadership and laid the foundation for the world-class status the University of Illinois enjoys today.
Few therefore would question the point expressed in Gregory's epitaph. However, his originality is another matter.
It turns out that Gregory's words are virtually identical to the epitaph penned by Sir Christopher Wren more than a century earlier.
Wren, who lived from 1632-1723, was one of England's most honored architects. He was most noted for designing St. Paul's Cathedral in London, which remains one of the world's largest and most distinguished churches. In addition to St. Paul's, Wren designed more than 50 other churches and many other structures.
What makes his work even more remarkable was the fact that he was not trained as an architect. His background was primarily math and science, with a particular interest in astronomy. Wren was buried in a crypt in St. Paul's in the company of many of England's great men and women. Carved on his crypt: "If you seek his monument, look around you."
Whether Wren's words were original, and whether or not others have used them subsequently, they convey a fitting and lasting tribute.