Amherst Magazine

Tradition

By Emily Gold Boutilier

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Diploma in hand, Elizabeth Brown ’08 broke away from the post-Commencement euphoria on the Main Quad and retreated to the comparative quiet of the Mead Art Museum. She was there to meet her great-great-great-great grandfather.

Brown, a geology major from Richmond, Ind., represents the sixth generation in her family to be involved with Amherst. Her father is Joshua Brown ’77. Her grandfather, Edmund Alden Brown ’42. His grandfather, Edmund K. Alden, Class of 1880. Ebenezer K. Alden III was Class of 1839; his father, Ebenezer Alden II, was an Amherst trustee.
For Elizabeth’s graduation, the Mead brought out its painting of the old trustee, a physician who’d studied with Benjamin Rush, the surgeon general to the Continental army during the Revolutionary War. “This is my great-great-great grandfather,” Josh Brown said, gesturing to the portrait on the wall. Josh, pastor of West Richmond Friends Meeting, hadn’t seen the painting since the graduation of his brother Charles Brown ’82. (He is also a brother of Robert Alden Brown ’71.)

For the Browns, it’s tradition to graduate from Amherst. For Amherst, graduation is about a lot of things: pride, hope, endings, possibility. But not least, it’s about tradition. Gas prices rise and fall, styles come and go, but on a weekend morning every May, groggy seniors straighten the tassels on one another’s black caps, and the class promenades up the hill from Alumni Gymnasium to the Main Quad, arranging itself in two facing rows. Those rows function as receiving lines as the faculty marches by, the Hampshire County sheriff leading the way. And then, after the class drives out of town, alumni return to campus to celebrate Reunion. It’s tradition.

The first Amherst Commencement took place in 1822, when the college graduated two seniors. This year, 445 seniors got their degrees. Some, like Brown, belong to long Amherst lines; others were the first in their family to attend college.

“Your job now is to find your part in the story and, if it is a great part, to play it humbly, and if it is a small part, to play it without shame,” Director of Religious Life Paul Sorrentino, paraphrasing C.S. Lewis, instructed the Class of ’08. Sorrentino spoke at the Baccalaureate service, which showcased that most essential Commencement tradition: the time-honored practice of giving advice to the graduating class.

Gregory Martin, a lay Buddhist leader and author, delivered the Baccalaureate address, saying his formula for success and happiness is E=MG2—enjoyment is equal to material times gratitude, squared. “Small amounts of material things can generate great enjoyment if one’s gratitude for them is high,” he advised.

In talks held later on Saturday, each of the seven honorary degree candidates offered advice and wisdom. Sir Brian Urquhart, former undersecretary-general of the United Nations and grandfather of Alex Urquhart ’08, listed what he sees as the most dangerous problems facing the world, including nuclear proliferation, the coming shortages of food and useable energy and climate change. An audience member asked Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, what advice he’d give the next U.S. president. “In Iraq,” ElBaradei replied, “there is no military solution. The way I see it, it has to be a political solution. You have to engage the neighbors.”

Saraswathi Vedam ’78, a midwifery professor and practitioner, criticized a society that pathologizes childbirth and fails to teach women how to manage labor pain naturally. “In extreme sports, they talk about mastering your fear,” she said, “moving through your fear and moving through your pain. So it’s fashionable in one area, not in another.” Robert H. Brown Jr. ’69, who’s done pioneering work on the genetics of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), spoke of “seismic changes, such as the Web and the genome project, [that] have leveled and even democratized the world via medical science.”

Several of the speakers touched on issues of inequality, especially in education. Henry A. Freedman ’62, executive director of the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, remarked on his experience attending segregated schools and on a widening gulf between rich and poor. Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton University, argued that the number-one public good that colleges and universities provide is social mobility. And Geoffrey Canada, a children’s activist in Harlem, drew a metaphor from a study of rats trapped in a vat of water: “They timed how long the rats swam before they gave up and sank and drowned. You know what I got from that theory? If you care about rats, don’t put them in a vat of water.”

The next day, President Anthony W. Marx, in his annual Commencement address, criticized what he sees as an American primary and secondary school system that has reduced itself to Darwinian principals. “For close to a century,” Marx said, “Amherst and our peer institutions have assumed we could skim the cream of the best students and ignore the decay of the broader educational system below. No longer. We must reach out. We must help create those better schools we need.”

That Sunday morning, eager parents had arrived hours early, coffee in hand, in search of the best seats on the Quad. The procession began at 10 a.m. The sheriff, at the head of the line, worked the crowd. The honorary co-marshals were Bruce Angiolillo ’74 and Carol Angiolillo, longtime Amherst volunteers and parents of John “Jack” Angiolillo ’08. The An­gilillo family is another with many Amherst names on the family tree.

During the ceremony, Marx presented the Obed Finch Slingerland Memorial Prize, for seniors who’ve shown the greatest appreciation of and desire for a college education, to Oscar Báez ’08 and Katie Roza ’08. The Woods-Travis Prize, for outstanding excellence in culture and faithfulness to duty as a scholar, went to Elly Jessop ’08.

Senior speaker Daniel Cluchey addressed his classmates directly. Four years ago, they’d arrived at Amherst as strangers. By Commencement, more than half had completed a senior thesis; 44 had been elected to Phi Beta Kappa. They’d accepted jobs at the U.S. Department of Justice, Lehman Brothers, the American Foundation for AIDS Research. Many, like Elizabeth Brown, were hoping to attend graduate school in the future. Cluchey said that if he could wish for one thing for himself and his classmates, it would be perspective. “It is perspective that allows the fish to look around and say, ‘This is water,’” he said, paraphrasing from a 2005 graduation speech by David Foster Wallace ’85 at Kenyon College. And it is perspective that “allows us to look upon this day not as an ending, but as a beginning.”

Emily Gold Boutilier is editor of Amherst.

Commencement and Reunion photos by Eric Andrews '09, Samuel Masinter '04, Jessica Mestre '10, Charles Quigg '09 and Timothy Sofranko