Peace Begins With You: Sewanee Peace Pole’s 15th Anniversary

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer
The 15th annual Sewanee Elementary School Peace Pole ceremony on Oct. 27 opened with Principal Kim Tucker defining peace—“Peace is when everyone gets along. Peaceful thoughts begin with you.” Every peace pole ceremony since the program began in 2002 has underscored that same message.
The SES peace pole, a former telephone pole at the rear of the building, features 31 plaques inscribed with the phrase “May Peace Prevail on Earth,” each in a different language. This year SES added Latin to the list of peace pole honorees.
Under the direction of librarian Kathryn Gotko Bruce, students from the fourth-grade class recited the emblematic peace pole phrase in Latin, “Regnet pax omnem per terram.” To prepare for the ceremony, the class toured All Saints’ Chapel with University professor Chris McDonough looking for examples of Latin text. Student presenters highlighted the Roman Empire’s history, the Roman numerals counting system, and the Latin language’s influence on the languages of countries conquered by the Romans.
In keeping with the tradition of including music in the ceremony, music teacher Cynthia Gray led the fifth grade in singing Dona Nobis Pacem, “Grant Us Peace,” in Latin, accompanied by students playing string and rhythm instruments.
The first year, 2002, student musicians from the University entertained. The Cumberland Center for Justice and Peace hosted the event under the direction of CCJP volunteer Pat Wiser. Each tier of the SES peace pole accommodates six language plaques, with six languages selected for representation that first year. CCJP contributed English, Arabic and Hebrew plaques—a testimony to the hope for peace in the Middle East. CCJP supporters contributed Spanish. And SES contributed Cherokee and Japanese, the choice of SES students.
“Librarian Cheryl King and I organized a student vote in the library,” Wiser said.
In activities leading up to the ceremony, students learned about the people who spoke the languages and talked about the meaning of peace.
“By identifying the country where the language was spoken on a map, students earned a flag sticker,” Wiser said, naming a few of the activities. She singled out one as especially important. “Teachers had students write about their wish for peace in their personal life. They’re still doing that.”
The Japanese tradition of commemorating events with text inscribed on a vertical pole inspired Japanese philosopher and spiritual leader Masahisa Goi in his quest to promote world peace. Goi created the first peace pole in 1955 with the text “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in Japanese. The idea spread worldwide, with the first peace poles outside Japan appearing in the 1980s.
Peace poles in Boulder, Colo., where Wiser formerly worked as a school librarian, prompted her to propose the peace pole project to the CCJP board. CCJP discussed locating the peace pole in the University Shakespeare Garden, but Wiser’s preferred location, SES, won out.
Former SES Principal Mike Maxon and the SES faculty unanimously endorsed the project. With the country in turmoil following the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, Maxon wisely suggested not tying the peace pole program to that date. The first ceremony occurred on Sept. 20, 2002, coinciding with the International Day of Peace on Sept. 21.
University students tutored SES students in reciting “May peace prevail on earth” in Arabic and Hebrew. Family members tutored the children who recited the phrase in Cherokee, Japanese, and Spanish, establishing a tradition of family involvement that continued in subsequent years.
Principal Maxon suggested using the out-of-service telephone pole at the rear of the school to display the plaques rather than purchasing a pole.
Wiser pointed to the 2004 ceremony as particularly memorable. “The entire student body silently spoke the words ‘May Peace Prevail on Earth’ in sign language. Library aide Amy Dye taught every child in school how to sign the phrase.”
By 2005, the SES peace pole featured 15 languages, but an unexpected controversy nearly brought the popular program to an end. Two Franklin County School Board members took issue with CCJP hosting the event. The board members cited a publication written by Sewanee theologians examining biblical references to homosexuality, which appeared on the CCJP website. In the aftermath of the dispute, SES librarian Cheryl King assumed responsibility for organizing and coordinating the annual Peace Pole ceremony. Wiser, though, continued to volunteer at the school, and she and her husband Phil Loney donated peace pole plaques for a number of years, as did CCJP supporters Scott and Phoebe Bates.
“I do things a little differently from Cheryl King,” said current SES librarian Bruce, who joined the SES staff in 2012. “I select one language and focus on the culture and history of that one country instead of two or three.”
Bruce only receives one dollar per student for books and relies on aid from the Sewanee Community Chest to fund the peace pole program. Plaques cost $45 each.
Loney mounted the plaques for the first few years, but as the display grew taller, the University took over the task. One account lists the 52-foot peace pole in Waynesville, Wisc., as the tallest, but the SES peace pole—exact height unknown—may be a contender for the title. Telephone poles average 45 feet in height.
Worldwide more than 100,000 community, small-group and school sponsored peace poles honor the wisdom underlying Goi’s vision—peace begins with you.

Wiser fondly recalls the child who inspired by the program announced, “I’m not going to hit my little brother anymore. I hit him yesterday, but I’m not going to be mean to him tonight.”