University of Vermont

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Class of 2013 Celebrates Graduation

Wynton Marsalis brings a father's perspective to talk

Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis plays 'When the Saints Go Marching In' at UVM's 211th commencment May 19. (Photo: Sally McCay)

Heralding the passage of a college graduation, it’s a happy circumstance to have one of the world’s foremost trumpeters in the house. A crowd of approximately 10,000 gathered on the UVM Green the morning of May 19 to celebrate the achievements of more than 3,000 UVM students receiving diplomas and passing from the ranks of students to alumni.

Musician Wynton Marsalis helped them mark the moment, delivering the University of Vermont 2013 commencement address with a heartfelt talk that was wise, wry, musical, and throughout—appropriately enough for the father of Simeon Marsalis, UVM Class of 2013—fatherly. Then the New Orleans native picked up his horn and played “When the Saints Go Marching In,” the crowd clapping time.

Marsalis’ counsel to the graduates revolved around two central themes—the power of family and the importance of being present in our daily lives. His talk was laced with numerous familiar references to student life at UVM and in Burlington—Bailey/Howe Library to Club Metronome, free popcorn in the Davis Center to the cliffs of Red Rocks Park.

“Improvisation is what challenges the jazz man to give order to an unknowable moment of the present,” Marsalis said. “The size and grandeur of this moment challenges you to be present and to create the relationships you want to experience. This day is the final test of your college career. What you do is what you will do. Approach this day with grace, with grit, with graciousness, and with gratitude. This is not preparation for life. This is life.”

As Marsalis directly addressed his son Simeon and, on behalf of all of the parents and step-parents in the crowd, all of the graduates, his voice wavered with emotion. “From every changed diaper to every sickness to every shoulder ride…” Marsalis said and paused to gather himself as the crowd applauded. “And every bedtime story, every fight with a curfew, over home, over habits and even further onto all the triumphs and the failures rolled up into one. All of us, we thank you. All of you give meaning and depth to our lives and so many good times. We are so proud of you all and we fear for you. We fear because part of us is not ready to accept that you are grown. But you are. Still, to us, you will always be our baby. You will always be our child.”

Describing the bonds of family, Marsalis used the vehicle he knows best, music. Referencing the tradition of New Orleans jazz parades, he told his audience that the dancers that follow the band are called the second line. “When we play ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ we sing, ‘Oh lord, I want to be in that number.’ We are in that number today. We are your support system. Our presence today is our pride.”

Watch Marsalis' full speech on YouTube. Read a PDF of the transcript.

 At this year’s ceremonies, approximately 3,258 graduates received diplomas, including 2,577 bachelor's, 439 master's, 122 doctoral and 106 M.D. degree recipients, in addition to 14 post-baccalaureate certificates. Degree recipients are students from 44 states, as well as 79 international students from 17 countries. Approximately 1,207 graduates are from Vermont. The graduating class includes 379 African, Latino/a, Asian and Native American (ALANA) students and students identifying with two or more races.

In addition to Wynton Marsalis, four other individuals received honorary degrees at the ceremony: James Douglas, Kathy Giusti, William Meezan and Dr. John Tampas. Learn more about these recipients.

During the ceremony, the UVM Alumni Association presented the annual George V. Kidder Outstanding Faculty Award for excellence in teaching to Richard Foote, professor of mathematics.

Eight students were honored with five university awards. Tram Tran won the Mary Jean Simpson Award, honoring the senior woman who exhibits the highest qualities of leadership, academic competence and character; Rob Rudy won the F.T. Kidder Medal, honoring the senior man ranking first in character, leadership and scholarship; Kyle DeVivo and Eliza Kelsten won the Class of 1967 Award, presented to seniors who best exhibit leadership, academic competence and character, and who have earned the respect of faculty and fellow students; Michelle Leung and Ryan Little won the Keith M. Miser Leadership Award, recognizing outstanding service to the university; and Brent Reader and Tracie Ebalu won the Elmer Nicholson Achievement Prize, recognizing the greatness of the students' UVM experiences and the expectation that they will make major contributions in their fields of interest.