Jim Bishop: Lordy, Lordy, This Commencement is Number 40!

The pomp and circumstance will soon be under way. President Loren Swartzendruber will acknowledge the 451 members of the Eastern Mennonite University graduating class of 2011 and invite them to begin coming forward to receive their hard-earned degrees.

Hopefully, the weather tomorrow, May 1, will allow the pageantry to take place outdoors, on center campus, where a more celebratory and ebullient atmosphere prevails.

My own graduation, in 1967, was held in the same outdoor space. But I had to go back and check who our commencement speaker was – Roy Just – but unable to recall who he was or any word of counsel he may have given. What I do remember is that we were the first graduating class to be allowed to don academic regalia after pestering the administration for this right until they finally agreed.

By the time I returned to my alma mater in the role I’ve now held here for four decades, students had decided to do away with the short-lived tradition or at least made caps and gowns optional.

That was okay, I suppose, except we were left with a mish-mash parade across the graduation platform – some wearing caps and gown, some street clothes, others receiving their degrees in ratty t-shirts, cut-offs and flip-flops.

What goes around comes around, and it wasn’t long before the grads-to-be opted to become more uniform, as it were, in again donning caps and gowns.

Thinking about this again on the eve of my last commencement to “cover” – 40, count ‘em, 40 – as public information officer, underscores for me that it isn’t what is said at these annual rituals of transition into the “real world” – a concept I never bought into – that remains planted in my cobwebbed cranium as much as those events that happened, many unplanned, that made certain ceremonies stand out.

In 1970, Anna and I drove from Elkhart, Ind., to Harrisonburg, staying on Rt. 33 all the way – we realized what a brilliant move that was about half way through West Virginia – and almost missed my brother Bob’s graduation because the trip took so much longer than expected.

But that fit right in with the graduation speaker, a college president, who droned on and on about who knows what, and each time we thought he would say, “And in conclusion,” he rather said, “Let’s take this one step further . . .”

Over 40 years of covering these events, I can count on one hand those grad speakers who gave such exceptional, inspiring address that I can play back something they said that sticks with me to this day. Two political figures head the list:

  • Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, in 1986.We anticipated an audience turnout that would tax our campus facilities, so the ceremony was held in the JMU Convocation Center (a warm, sunny afternoon, of course). “Remember who you are and where you came from,” she told the graduates in urging them to be committed to a peaceful world, to an end to the threat of nuclear war, to human rights and opportunities for all people.
  • Former US Senator Mark O. Hatfield (R-Oregon), commencement speaker in 1992, urged the graduates to “take Christ as a role model and source of power who gives importance to humanity in everyday relationships. Be salt and light to a nation that desperately needs it.”

Weather took center stage – or upstaged – many ceremonies over the years, the most memorable in 1985. The ceremonies began outdoors under sunny skies. The speaker was Dr. Wayne Geisert, former president of Bridgewater College. About 15 minutes into the service, a large black cloud suddenly moved in, hovered over center campus and literally dumped its payload as people got up and sought shelter.

When we re-assembled about an hour later in Lehman Auditorium, Dr. Geisert came to the podium, gave a sly smile to the audience, some still showing signs of the earlier deluge, and said, “That’s what you get for inviting a Church of the Brethren member to speak.” (Brethren baptize by immersion; Mennonites typically practice “sprinkling” water on new members).

A similar experience took place in 1987 with graduation held in front of Roselawn dormitory. The speaker, who will go unnamed, was expounding on the minutiae of “cosmology” to his restless audience as the thunder claps increased in intensity over the horizon. He finally, mercifully, concluded his speech and the conferring of degrees hastily began. That commencement unceremoniously ended with the audience scattering to the four winds with some students still waiting to receive their diplomas.

Other commencement high points for me include:

  • The first wheelchair-bound student to graduate Patty Cooper of Appalachia, Va., in 1988 with the construction of a ramp to the stage earned degree in psychology. First commencement presided over by Joseph L. Lapp, who took office that year 1977-78. The second wheelchair student was Tony Wright, a psychology major from Waynesboro, Va., who graduated in 1989.
  • Three sets of twins graduating in 1993 – Rosemary and Sharon Kreider, Harrisonburg; Chad and Greg Hostetler, Erie, Pa.; and Eric and Alan Brenneman, Saxton, Pa. The commencement speaker was Lawrence Hart, a Mennonite chief of the Cheyenne Nation.
  • The 1995 commencement of 232 graduates, the first to receive diplomas after Eastern Mennonite College became Eastern Mennonite University. It was also the first group of 10 persons to receive master’s degrees from EMU’s first graduate program that is not seminary-related: the MA in counseling.
  • In 2000, Moses Sakuda, a Masai tribesman from Kenya, earning an MA in education from EMU and an MDiv. degree from Eastern Mennonite Seminary, witnessed by a contingent of extended family members, many of whom had never before flown in an airplane.
  • Pre-med/honors graduate and student athlete Laura Rosenberger of State College, Pa., a track and field standout, doing a flip off the platform after receiving her degree in 2003.
  • Perseverance personified in Bonnie W. Bowser in 2005 .Bonnie, who works as circulation and office manager in EMU’s Hartzler Library, took one course a semester for 14 years and graduated magna cum laude with a degree in liberal arts. Three graduates – Rachel E. Medley of Harrisonburg, Jason D. Garber of Hutchinson, Kan., and Davi R. Soesilo of Indonesia, each earned degrees with triple majors, a rare occurrence, at this same graduation.

I believe it’s not just happenstance that this year’s graduation speaker is Michael Berenstein, author and illustrator of the Berenstain Bears book series. He and yours truly share the same hometown of Doylestown, Pa. I can’t BEAR to wait much longer to hear his reflections on the theme, “Simple Gifts: Thoughts from Childhood.”

Graduation day is a special moment in time, a gathering of persons who will never come together in quite the same way again. What we take with us from these special occasions are memories, rarely of what was said or even unexpected things that happen this momentous day. But, we likely will remember and hold dear the people who were a pivotal part of that journey with us and continue to hold a special place in our hearts and minds.

Indeed, we really don’t graduate from the school of experience but hopefully continue to study and learn until the day arrives when we’re given that last final exam.

May all of us pass with flying colors.

Jim (EMU class of ’67) Bishop is public information officer at Eastern Mennonite University. He can be contacted at bishopj@emu.edu.

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