Hal Wilde column logo

Published6/13/2008 12:06 AM

There is a moment - usually around four in the morning - on the day of North Central College's Commencement ceremonies in June, when I wake up, jump out of bed and walk down the hill to Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium where a few hours later more than 500 graduates will receive their diplomas before family members and friends.

Some years there is a torrential rain in the middle of the night. (Once I fell on my backside into a pool of water that had backed up to flood the street in front of our field house.)


Think of a wedding ceremony with 6,000 in attendance. Outside. Where you have no control over the weather. And where the inside alternative will send 2,000 or so guests to other venues. It's a high tension moment.

But two or three hours later, when I come back down the hill to check out the stadium and make a final decision about "inside" or "outside" for the 10 a.m. ceremony, the scene is usually quite different.

There's a vice president of the college, carefully wiping off the morning dew from the chairs of the graduates. He will monitor weather reports throughout the morning, in case there's a dangerous front coming through.

Everywhere there are staff members - setting up the stage, checking the sound system, polishing, cleaning. Everything must be perfect - and the dozens of people hard at work act as if it were their son or daughter graduating (usually, in a couple of cases at least, it is).

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At his home in Naperville, the dean of faculty is going over one last time the names of the graduates he will read from the platform in a few hours. For more than a week, he has been practicing for this moment, reviewing the correct pronunciation of each name, spelling it out phonetically, speaking it to a colleague, and finally, on the night before, at the commencement rehearsal, checking with each graduate personally.

He doesn't want a mispronounced name to be the one commencement highlight the alumnus and his family remember.

Beginning with my own college graduation ceremony four decades ago, I have attended or been part of more than 40 ­- as a husband, parent, family member, friend, college official and, for the past 17 years, president of North Central College.

It never gets old. For the graduates and their families, it is one of life's great milestones - a moment of much joy, satisfaction and celebration (and, maybe, a little relief).

For faculty and staff, it is also a time of joy, but for us, there is also some wistfulness, as the students whom we have come to know, who have become a part of our family, move on.


Year after year, as I watch our physical plant staff pick up every speck of litter across the campus and make sure that every flower and plant is "just right," I am struck by how personal this event is for all of us. These are our students, our graduates.

This day - and those relationships - are our reward for working at a small college, where like the "Cheers" theme song, "everybody knows your name."

I don't make an address at commencement - that is an honor reserved for a distinguished guest (this year, Edward Hospital and Health Services President/CEO Pam Davis) - but I do have an opportunity to make a few concluding remarks.

Every year since 1991, I have told the story of an elderly neighbor of mine when I was growing up, who went to the library every day. Why was he so happy? Why on a sunny day, with no job to prepare for, would he go to the library? His answer: There's so much to learn.

Faculty, who sit in the front row before the platform and have heard this speech at many previous commencements chuckle (groan might be a better word) when I go into my "old man story."

But they, like me, know that this day is more than just a ritual we go through once a year. It is a moment of passage never to be forgotten by the graduates and their families and friends. And with luck, at age 80, they will remember not only that glorious rite of passage, but also the lesson of a great education - that it doesn't stop on Commencement Day: there's so much to learn.

And as long as you're learning, you're growing, and young in spirit.

Harold R. Wilde is president of North Central College in Naperville.

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