As I’ve noted in this blog before, I’m a big believer in the importance of ritual. I’m also a big believer in the importance of vacation.
In the last week, I’ve experienced both — we just got back from a few days staying with friends at Virginia Beach, Va. Good company, good seafood and two good days taking a couple of rambunctious dogs and a four-year-old boy for romps on the beach. The real world seems a little easier to handle now.
Oh yeah, the ritual part. As I’ve also noted before, I’m a creature of habit and my work as a professor hardly ever gives me what I got on a daily basis in the newspaper business — a sense that, at least for a little while, the work is finished.
Our Commencement exercises provide that kind of milestone once each year and the 2010 ceremony was held last Saturday. At Wingate, it takes place in a wonderful setting, the tree-lined and carpet-lawned Academic Quad in the middle of our campus. I’ve taught at WU for 16 years and the ceremony hasn’t been rained on even once, a much-appreciated bit of God’s handiwork.
In the last couple of years, Commencement has been moved to an earlier starting time. To accommodate the recognition of an increasing number of graduates from our professional programs in addition to our undergraduates (438 total diplomas this year) we start marching at 9 a.m.
I particularly enjoy something we started doing a couple of years after I arrived. The graduates file in between a gauntlet of faculty members, giving us the opportunity to speak to our students and share greetings, handshakes or hugs. Students and families sometimes leave quickly after everything’s over, so it’s my chance to try to speak to every one of my students that I possibly can.
Outstanding graduates are recognized with awards each year, as are two faculty members who receive recognition for exceptional teaching. I was especially pleased that the honorees this year were two of my favorite colleagues: sports sciences faculty member Dr. Christi DeWaele and art professor Marilyn Hartness.
The university made an interesting choice of Commencement speaker this year, NBC News correspondent Luke Russert, son of the late “Meet the Press” moderator Tim Russert. College graduates don’t generally get to hear from a Commencement speaker who’s almost their age — Luke Russert, 24, graduated from Boston College in 2008 — and I thought that just maybe the graduates paid a little more attention this time than in some past years.
He encouraged his fellow “millenials” to be involved citizens, whether it’s in politics, service to the community or any other worthwhile cause. He said that this generation could become an important part of what he described as a “civic reawakening” in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — the benchmark event of this graduating class’ growing up years.
“If you don’t care about your country now, when will you?” he said.
He encouraged graduates to make constructive use of technology, particularly social networking sites like Facebook, noting its power to connect people politically and in other aspects of life. “It’s one of the responsibilities of our generation to harness this technology and to use it ethically,” Russert said.
He won me — and anyone else who toils in the relative anonymity of a small college or university — over with his assertion that “the heart and soul of this country doesn’t come from Cambridge or New Haven but from places like Wingate.” And he closed by urging graduates to “stay educated, stay motivated and stay inspired.”
The university gave Russert what he said was his first (no reason not to believe him) honorary doctorate and also awarded one to Charlotte businessman and NASCAR racing team owner Rick Hendrick.
After that, the awarding of degrees to cheers and applause from families (only one person brought an air horn this year, thank goodness) as the sun climbed higher in the sky and those academic gowns started getting warmer. As the ceremony drew to a close, voice professor Dr. John Blizzard was called upon to reprise a long-time Wingate tradition.
Dr. Don Haskins — nicknamed “Deano” — was a Wingate administrator for more than 40 years, and each year he would serenade seniors with the song, “Precious Memories” at the end of graduation rehearsal. He passed away shortly after Graduation Day in 2005, but the singing of the song was re-introduced into the Commencement ceremony itself a couple of years ago. The link above is to Randy Travis’ rendition. The song has been recorded by everybody from Dolly Parton to (seriously) Bob Dylan.
I’m not sure what some of our young graduates — many of whom are from above the Mason-Dixon Line and beyond the U.S. borders — might have made of this beautiful old Southern gospel tune written more than 75 years ago, with its lyrics about “unseen angels” and “precious sacred scenes” unfolding. But it struck the perfect emotional note as the grads prepared to go their separate ways into life’s next adventure.
Precious memories, indeed. Congratulations to all 2010 graduates. And good luck.