Last weekend, my wife, Sally, and I were at Wheaton College for her 45th college reunion. Wheaton, a small college between Boston and Providence, was all-women when Sally went there.
Like many small women’s colleges, Wheaton went co-ed in the late 1980s and it has flourished. Sally has continued to be involved, serving on the Alumnae Board for the past four years.
She also has a niece who just finished her sophomore year at Wheaton and another who graduated last year. Both speak highly of the college, which seems to put a premium on student participation and on building an ethic of service.
The college combines Reunion Weekend with Commencement — an approach which brings the graduating class and the reunion classes together in a nice multi-generational way. Wheaton does it very well, taking advantage of its small size to bring an intimacy to the generational aspects of the weekend.
For me the experience, even as a spouse, is always rejuvenating. The big event, of course, is Saturday morning’s graduation ceremony.
I have been to quite a few of these over the years. Wheaton has fine-tuned the process to two hours with a select group of speakers, and a nice pacing that gets all 400-plus grads up to the podium to receive their diplomas from President Ron Crutcher.
There are several keys to this pacing, starting with the fact that President Crutcher keeps his charge to the graduating class succinct, an example followed by the recipients of honorary degrees.
However, the star of the pacing is Dean Lee Williams, whose brisk tempo keeps the graduates moving toward the podium for their degrees and who calls out each name with the enthusiasm of a proud parent.
The entire ceremony is held outside on Wheaton’s leafy common area known as “Dimple.” It is a splendid, very New England setting. Graduation at a college this size is an all-hands affair, of course.
College staff and many undergrads who stay on just for this weekend are mobilized for the myriad of logistics that accompany the weekend’s events. President Crutcher acknowledged all those who had started at 5 a.m. Saturday to get chairs and equipment in place for the graduation.
This year’s keynote speaker was Richard Stengel, the managing editor of Time Magazine. Stengel continues Wheaton’s inclination toward media figures in the featured role.
Wheaton has had several alums with distinguished careers in the media, starting with Leslie Stahl, a graduate of the class of 1963.
Last year’s commencement speaker was Ann Curry of the Today show, and at Sally’s 40th the speaker was Cokie Roberts of NPR fame.
Stengel was good. He spoke directly to the graduates, and he connected. His theme was the importance of understanding the difference between information and knowledge.
In an era when so much information is so readily available, Stengel noted that an informed person must know how to validate facts and to form one’s own considered opinion.
Most of all, he said, beware of the dangers of “certainty” — those positions that brook no discussion or debate.
Finally, he exhorted the class to get in the game and make his or her mark, however modest — not bad advice with which to send this new generation out into the world. And out they went, beaming with youthful enthusiasm and basking in the hosannas of family and friends.
The Reunion classes stayed on to participate in a rousing alumni recognition session in the chapel, followed by various afternoon exercises.
Sally’s class did a sharing of the things or activities they are passionate about. Such sessions have never been a part of my Naval Academy reunions, and it was a special time — one from which we men could take a few lessons.
We then had dinner in best-of-college-dining hall elegance and shared stories well into the night. Finally, we repaired to spartan dorm rooms (selected, it seemed, to encourage alums to give more to the capital fund) to settle in for a brief rest.
It was a wonderful weekend and is an endearing ritual. These commencement-reunions remind us of the best of our youth and reconnect us with the best of today’s youth.
Why are we doing this only during reunions that come along every five years?
Civics Commendations: Following my column two weeks ago about the importance of civics education, I want to commend Rep. Mary Nelson, D-Falmouth, for her legislation strengthening civics requirements in school curriculum. Also kudos to Karl Turner, Suzanna Swihart and Doug Pride, all of Cumberland, for taking the test and scoring above 90.
Ron Bancroft is an independent strategy consultant based in Portland. He can be contacted at: