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Last Word
Wittenberg At Its Best – President Erickson Reflects On Commencement 2007

I wish you could have all been on campus May 12 for this year’s graduation ceremony. It was one of those glorious days that will forever be etched into the memories of those who were there. As I left Commencement Hollow on that day, I remarked to my wife, Lin, “I am not sure how we can ever top this day.”

Yes, this Commencement marked the first outdoor ceremony in five years. That alone was cause for great celebration. The sky was a bright blue, and the day was simply beautiful, but that was only the beginning; this day was amazing for many reasons.

Commencement Hollow had just been transformed into a beautiful outdoor amphitheater, thanks to the generosity of board member Lewis Shaw ’66. The end result is simply spectacular! To make the day even better, Lewis and his wife, Janet, joined us, with Lewis serving as honorary marshal. Yes, after giving this wonderful gift, we put him to work!

As the faculty, distinguished guests and I sat on the new stage area looking out at the sea of black caps and gowns, the focus of the day became abundantly clear – our wonderful graduates, who will literally change the world. Included among them were two Fulbright award-winners, Peace Corps volunteers, Teach for America participants and top athletes. I also think of Karell Pelle, a native of Cameroon who was born in Belgium, grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, and came to Wittenberg. She now heads to Harvard on a full-ride to pursue her Ph.D. in immunology and infectious diseases so that she can help developing countries fight tropical diseases. She is but one example of this incredibly talented class that lives and breathes our motto, “Having Light We Pass It On To Others.”

Our honorar y degree recipients provided yet another highlight of the day. World-renowned architect Shoei Yoh, who came to Wittenberg in the late 1960s as an exchange student, whispered to me as he received his honorary degree, “Suddenly 40 years is but a second, I feel like I am home.” Pulitzer-Prize nominee Robert C. Williams, internationally known expert on Russia, former Provost of Davidson, and the parent of a 1988 Wittenberg graduate was equally moved by his honorary degree and commented on the remarkable relationships our students build with their professors.

Finally, Juan Williams, award- winning journalist and our Commencement speaker, made the following comment at the end of the day, “I should have had my son (who will attend Haverford this fall) look at Wittenberg.”

A beautiful day, splendid new setting, outstanding graduates, wonderful honorary degree recipients, and a great Commencement speaker – you would think that was enough, but we had one more surprise. As I concluded handing out diplomas to our graduates and prepared to close the program, I heard from behind me Juan Williams and Professor Gerry Hudson ask, “Did you see what happened?” I said, “I did not,” to which they replied, “We think one of the students just proposed marriage to another.”

I approached the podium armed with my new information and said, “Is it true that one of you just proposed to another member of this class?” I heard a murmur in the crowd. It was clear that a small fraction of the audience had, indeed, witnessed the marriage proposal. I then asked the two young people to stand up and they did, one young man all the way on the right side of the assembled graduates and a young woman all the way on the left. I then suggested that as a newly engaged couple, they should at least sit together (I have learned something about such things from my 28 years of marriage). What followed next was magical. They ran to the middle of the hollow where they met, leapt into each others arms and kissed. The audience erupted into thunderous applause. It was, indeed, an unforgettable moment to top off an unforgettable day.

As the crowd quieted and the couple finally finished their surprising long kiss, I did something college presidents almost never do, I quoted a beer commercial stating, “It simply doesn’t get any better than this.”

— Mark Erickson, president

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