Ghosts of commencement

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By Nick DAngelo

When the announcement was made that Dr. Deborah L. Birx would serve as the commencement speaker in 2014, it was met with a near universal shrug.

It is not that Dr. Birx is not an outstanding contributor to the betterment of our society or that she lacks any potential to be an exemplary model for the Class of 2014.

Quite simply, no one Union brought to campus could match the star power of Congressman John Lewis at last year’s commencement exercises.

In fact, Union is used to star power. While we may have fallen from regular popularity over the past 50 years, Union has hosted some of the most illustrious names in politics, journalism and higher education during its history.

The stage Dr. Birx occupies on June 15 will be shared by legendary ghosts of commencements past.

Dr. Birx should know that she follows in the footsteps of some colossal shoes — shoes carrying a man who weighed over 300 pounds in fact.

In 1917, the campus welcomed former President William Howard Taft as the graduation speaker.

The Middletown Times-Press noted on June 14 that Taft’s oration, which took place in the First Presbyterian Church in Schenectady, focused on the causes that led America into World War I.

Missing from Taft’s audience were 32 of the 86 graduates, already serving in active duty. While it is hard to come across a transcript of Taft’s address, the Times Press called it “one of the most brilliant speeches of his career.”

Another distinguished statesman visited campus 30 years later. California Governor Earl Warren had been invited to address Union’s Class of 1947 by New York Governor Thomas Dewey.

The day before the ceremony, Warren made headline news by announcing he would not be a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1948 — an honor that would shortly fall to Dewey.

The eve of graduation, the California governor observed an RPI-Union baseball game and then spent the night as the guest of the Sigma Phi brothers.

One can only imagine what Governor Warren (the future Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court) witnessed that single night in Sigma Phi house, which is now Breazzano House.

As of the writing of this column, no Greek organization has extended an invitation to Dr. Birx.

It is also noteworthy that Dr. Birx becomes only the eighth woman to serve as a commencement speaker for Union.

While graduation speakers have existed, as we know them, since 1877, a woman did not address the ceremony until almost a century later.

In 1972, two years after Union began admitting female students, President of Wellesley College Ruth Marie Adams became the first female commencement speaker.

Of course, it is further notable that the 1974 graduating class, the first to include women, was addressed by Dixy Lee Ray.

A legendary pioneer for women in science and politics, Ray was President Nixon’s chair of the Atomic Energy Commission.

A year after her commencement speech, Ray became Assistant Secretary of State, and in 1977 she was elected the first female governor of Washington.

There have been dozens of other luminaries who have addressed Union’s graduating classes. Commentators, writers for both the Washington Post and the New York Times, numerous senators, several secretaries of state and three Nobel laureates.

However, we have never had a female doctor address a graduating class — in fact, a medical doctor has not addressed a commencement since 1977.

Dr. Birx’s unique history and impressive career provide great potential for an inspirational commencement address.

Union also has a unique history and impressive career, and the wedding of these circumstances should result in an exceptional oration.

Above all, let us hope that the commencement address is neither dull nor uninspiring.

In 1915, when Senator Henry Cabot Lodge addressed the graduating class, he admitted, “I can hear the well-worn accusation, coming from earnest and intelligent youth, that I am incapable of a new idea.”

Lodge was capable though, and his address on the Great War may, ironically, provide parallels to Dr. Birx’s.

He noted that we work within “rigid limitations,” but “when the end in sight is noble” our great sacrifice is worthwhile.

Our greatest goal, he charged the class of 1915, must be to “lift the heaviest burdens from suffering humanity.”

Based on her past work, one may assume that Dr. Birx’s charge will be similar.

One may assume that, but one must wait with great anticipation for when she takes the stage on June 15.

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