Dispatches from Commencement and Reunion weekends
By Emily Gold Boutilier
Early on Commencement day, before the morning fog had completely burned off, the Main Quadrangle was a sea of empty white chairs. In a few hours, the band, the balloons and the flowers would arrive, along with the beaming parents, the faculty in jewel-colored hoods, the parade of young men and women, in black caps and gowns, about to end one journey and begin another. But for a time, the quad was tranquil, almost jarringly so.
Commencement is so central to the life of the college that preparations begin almost a year in advance. In that respect, it is much like a wedding. People often remind brides- and grooms-to-be that a wedding is not a marriage; it’s just one day in what, with luck and care, will be a long, happy life. And like a wedding, Commencement is but a moment; from a dispassionate point of view, it is inconsequential, hardly worth the traffic headache on Route 9 to get there. But graduations and weddings do matter to us. At once endings and beginnings, they mark the passage of time and celebrate hope in the future. Commencement also honors an enormous achievement: Amherst courses are hard; a lot of work goes into that culminating walk across the stage to get the diploma.
This year, festivities began on Saturday, May 26, at the Baccalaureate service in Johnson Chapel. Musical selections and readings spoke to the unknown future—“I don’t know where this road is going to lead”—and to the duality of the weekend—“What we call the beginning is often the end.” Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, delivered the Baccalaureate address. Zen, on campus to receive an honorary degree, talked about his work to defend human and religious rights in China. “Treasure the values that you were imparted during your studies here,” he urged the Class of ’07. “And above all, believe in these values and choose wisely what type of person you want to be and what type of society you want to be in.”
As the day went on, the seven other honorary degree candidates offered advice and reflection:
Novelist Marilynne Robinson, the critically acclaimed author of Housekeeping and Gilead, gave a meditation on liberal arts colleges (see “Waiting to be Remembered”). Chemist J. Peter Toennies ’52, whose research has changed our understanding of how molecules and atoms make up the world, spoke about the rewards of being a scientist. Cardiologist Paul Yock ’73, who invented the world’s most commonly used method of angioplasty, talked about how to teach innovation. And Valerie Jarrett P’07, leader of a public-housing overhaul in Chicago and the mother of Laura Jarrett ’07, shed light on her friendship with presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama, remembering the moment he told her he was considering a U.S. Senate run. “I said, ‘If you lose this race, you’re dead in politics,’” Jarrett said. “He looked at me and said, ‘If I’m dead, so be it.’”
In a speech on the racial and ethnic achievement gap in American education, Joel Klein, the New York City schools chancellor, remembered when rain poured from a leaky roof onto the gym floor of a city school. A construction crew fixed the floor instead of the roof. “That’s what we’re doing in urban education,” Klein admonished. “We keep fixing the floor.”
H. Axel Schupf ’57, investment consultant and life trustee of the college, talked about Amherst in the 1950s, when classes met on Saturdays and missing chapel was a probationary offense. “Amherst was the first time in my life that I was truly challenged,” Schupf said.
On the quad in the afternoon sun, Patrick Fitzgerald ’82 drew a large crowd to his speech about public service. Fitzgerald, now the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, once helped send mobster John Gambino to federal prison and, before most people paid notice to such things, secured convictions of associates of Osama bin Laden. But Fitzgerald is best known as the special counsel in the Valerie Plame leak case. At the podium, Fitzgerald was relaxed and funny—he is a natural storyteller. He talked about growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., in a blue-collar family. “I always viewed public service as sacrifice,” he said. But after working in a law firm, Fitzgerald tried life as a prosecutor, and he was hooked. He said that many people fail to appreciate how enriching it is to be paid to “do your best to do the right thing.” His message to the Class of ’07: “Public service is anything but sacrifice. It’s very rewarding in a way that we just don’t tax.”
The next morning, after the fog gave way, the quad came to life. Sleep-deprived seniors straightened one another’s mortarboards. The band tuned up under a tent. Young children perched on their fathers’ shoulders. Rain threatened, but did not deliver.
“It’s just awe inspiring,” remarked Lydia Totty, who’d traveled from Washington, D.C., with her family for the graduation of her son, English major Lindsay Totty ’07. “I see him here, a young man about to go off into the world on his own. It’s very emotional—almost as good as giving birth.”
For Tom DeMott, father of Billie DeMott ’07, the moment was bittersweet. Billie’s grandfather, Professor Emeritus of English Benjamin DeMott, died in 2005. As family members waited to see Billie get her diploma, they felt the absence of a grandfather who would have so treasured the occasion. Billie, who is from New York City, majored in English and law, jurisprudence and social thought.
President Anthony W. Marx, in his address, reminded the Class of ’07 to recall the lessons of the Roman Empire. Roman leaders failed to learn from the limits of their victories, he said, and turned away from civic action toward private pursuits, abdicating civil authority to the military. Rome suffered from “historical blindness,” Marx argued, and from corruption that “drowned out merit until citizenship meant less and less.”
Senior speaker Will Havemann ’07 talked about how Amherst defied his expectations, and he delivered a sendup of the welcome address that Katie Fretwell ’81, director and senior associate dean of admission, gives to each first-year class: “After taking every art history and studio course that the school offers,” Havemann joked, “76 of you will conclude that Antonio’s chicken-bacon pizza is the highest form of art known to man.”
Havemann also paid tribute to Nora Moore ’07, who died in 2004 of injuries sustained in a car accident. “By luck,” he said, “we were allowed to live and graduate. And by luck, she was not.”
Rowland Abiodun, the John C. Newton Professor of Fine Arts and Black Studies, served for the first time as faculty marshal. Brian Boyle ’69, father of Alexandra Boyle ’07, was the honorary marshal.
Anthony Jack '07
Marx awarded the Medal for Eminent Service to Paul Ruxin ’65 for extraordinary devotion to Amherst. Ruxin, a Chicago lawyer and a book collector, is one of Amherst’s most committed volunteers. He is the new chairman of the Folger Shakespeare Library Board of Governors. Marx also presented awards to two graduating seniors: Penka Kovacheva ’07, an economics major from Plovdiv, Bulgaria, won the annual Woods-Travis Prize for excellence in culture and faithfulness to duty as a scholar. Anthony Jack ’07 received the Obed Finch Slingerland Memorial Prize, given each year to the senior who shows the greatest appreciation of and desire for a college education. Jack was a sort of celebrity on Commencement day: he appeared on the front page of the morning’s New York Times, the focus of an article on efforts at Amherst to recruit, admit and support talented students from all backgrounds. Jack, who is from Miami, majored in religion and women’s and gender studies.
Antonio and Althea Cooke watched their daughter, Shayla Cooke ’07, cross the stage, diploma in hand. A French major from Fort Defiance, Ariz., Cooke was dressed to show her Navajo heritage. Underneath her gown, she wore a hand-woven dress on loan from her aunt and a sterling silver and leather belt made by her father.
It took about an hour for Dean of the Faculty Gregory Call to announce all the names of the seniors. The crowd cheered. Caps flew. And just like that, 409 students became alumni. In cars jam-packed with suitcases and memories and hope, the new graduates left campus to find their way.
See Commencement video, audio, photos, honorary degree citations and more.
The seniors had barely emptied their dorm rooms when alumni young and old began to arrive for Reunion Weekend. The long weekend—it ran from Wednesday, May 30, to Sunday, June 3—offered more than 100 different events. An art exhibition featured the work of members and spouses of the Class of ’57. A show at Bassett Planetarium allowed visitors to see what the sky looks like from any place on the planet. The Class of ’02 sponsored a beer tasting in Northampton. The weekend was filled with various talks, including one by President Marx in Johnson Chapel.
Professor Emeritus of Physics Robert Romer ’52 gave a lecture on slavery on Main Street in 18th-century Deerfield, Mass. Winemaker Jennifer Malloy Anderson ’87 spoke about her family’s California vineyard. Screenwriter Amy Fox ’97 offered a writing workshop.
The weekend also included the dedication of a new granite likeness of Robert Frost, the work of renowned sculptor Penelope Jencks. The sculpture now sits on the Main Quadrangle, near the War Memorial (see "Robert Frost returns"). It is a 50th reunion gift of the Class of ’57.
David Black ’67 screened two episodes of his PBS drama Cop Shop and also led a wide-ranging talk that covered the assassination of President Kennedy (Black was an Amherst freshman on that day in 1963) and Vietnam-era political turmoil. In a back-and-forth with the audience in Stirn Auditorium, Black compared and contrasted the war in Vietnam with the one in Iraq. “It wasn’t President Bush’s war,” one alum, sitting in the crowd, said of Vietnam. “It was your life.”
The next day, in the same auditorium, U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Michael Proctor ’02 gave his own report on Iraq, where he is serving as a pilot. Proctor arrived at Reunion from Iraq via the Internet, taking part in a live videoconference. The audience peppered him with questions about how he spends his free time (he works out in the gym), how often he flies (five to 12 hours a night when he was on the late shift) and how well he thinks the war is going (he’s seen “decent strides” made, but “it’s a long haul and a slow battle”). His close friends arrived early to talk with Proctor one-on-one.
Proctor was a senior on 9/11. Like Black—and like members of the 65th reunion Class of ’42, who were seniors when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor—Proctor was an Amherst student on a day that changed the course of American history. When Proctor graduated (and then, about six months later, joined the Marines), the United States had not yet invaded Iraq. It was a lifetime ago. But on a sweltering Saturday this June, with the help of a laptop, Proctor was back on campus, catching up with friends. The moment was all too brief.
Emily Gold Boutilier is editor of Amherst.