Fiery Civil Rights Leader and Congressman Inspires Class of 2007
Release Date: 05-20-2007
Contact: University Communications Staff
Phone: (802) 656-2005 FAX: (802) 656-3203
The last time U.S. Congressman John R. Lewis spoke at the University of Vermont he was an energetic 22-year-old civil rights leader one year removed from orchestrating and serving as keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington. His return more than 44 years later as keynote speaker at Sunday’s 203rd Commencement was no less passionate and contained a similar message: get off the sidelines of society and help those in need.
An estimated 5,700 people attended the ceremony that was moved to the Multipurpose Facility at Patrick Gymnasium due to inclement weather. An additional overflow crowd of about 1,000 people watched a closed-circuit broadcast in Patrick Gymnasium. Lewis, a Georgia congressman since 1986 and a passionate advocate for civil rights, gave the crowd the type of fiery, emotion-filled address he’s been known to deliver, challenging graduates to build a “beloved community,” which he defined as a loving, non-violent community that works together to correct injustices.
“Whatever it is you care about — whether it’s getting to the truth about the war in Iraq, global warming, shrinking economic opportunities for the middle class, or the injustice of poverty — you have to find your passion and make your contribution," said Lewis. "I knew that I could strike a blow against segregation and racial discrimination. I decided to get in the way. I decided to get in trouble. But it was good trouble; it was necessary trouble … We may have all come over on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.”
President Daniel Mark Fogel conferred degrees on 2,494 graduates, including 1,919 bachelor’s, 401 master’s, 57 doctoral, and 97 M.D. degree recipients, in addition to graduate certificates. Among degree recipients were students from 39 states and 46 international students from 20 countries. Approximately 1,104 graduates are from Vermont. The graduating class includes 168 African, Latino/a, Asian and Native American (ALANA) and Bi/Multi-racial students.
After thanking graduates for handling the past four years of unprecedented change at the university, including the construction of the Dudley H. Davis Center, with “flexibility, grace and patience,” Fogel reflected on some of the highlights of the past four years, including the visits of Desmond Tutu, Antonin Scalia, Elie Weisel and Barack Obama. He also reflected on the loss of three members of the UVM community: Michelle Gardner Quinn, a senior transfer student who was abducted and killed in October of 2006; professor James Peterson, who was shot and killed during a 2005 robbery in Iranduba, a small town near the Amazon River where he was conducting research; and Vermont Army National Guard 2nd Lt. Mark Procopio, a 2004 graduate who was killed on Nov. 2 in Ar Ramadi, Iraq while he and his patrol attempted to help a downed Marine helicopter.
All three “gave us great pride in what they’d accomplished and what they stood for, shining examples of the best of the University of Vermont community,” said Fogel.
Posthumous degrees were awarded to Gardner-Quinn, whose father, John-Charles Quinn, accepted the degree on behalf of his daughter in an emotional ceremony that drew a standing ovation from the capacity crowd. Eric D’Oench, a sociology major who died in 2006, was also awarded a posthumous degree, which was accepted on his behalf by his brother.
In addition to Lewis, the university presented honorary degrees to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an internationally renowned scholar of African and African-American history and culture; Jackie M. Gribbons, a UVM administrative leader across four decades and co-founder of UVM's highly ranked graduate program in Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration; Leonard Miller, a Burlington native and class of 1951 alumnus who has been a major supporter of UVM’s Center for Holocaust Studies; Floyd Rourke, the retired chair, president and CEO of Sandy Hill Corporation, a pulp and paper machinery company in Hudson Falls, N.Y and chair of the Lake Champlain Cancer Research Organization; and Thomas Slayton, who retired this year from Vermont Life Magazine after 21 years as editor-in-chief of the publication. Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor who recounted his experiences in the award-winning memoir Night, received an honorary degree from the university on April 25 when he delivered a public lecture on campus.
Among those in attendance for Lewis’ 1963 speech as chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at the “Pride and Prejudice” Vermont Conference, was Carl Lisman, a 1967 graduate and chairman of the Board of Trustees. One year after his visit to UVM, Lewis led 600 peaceful demonstrators across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma toward Montgomery during what would become known as “Bloody Sunday.” The disturbing images of the event helped hasten the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“What I remember most about Congressman Lewis’ first visit was the way in which he carried himself and expressed his opinion,” said Lisman. “The man has a way with words. He tells it like it is. He was as impressive today as he was back then."
John M. Hughes, senior vice president and provost, announced the winners of the student awards. Christine Hertz won the Mary Jean Simpson Award, honoring the senior woman who exhibits the highest qualities of leadership, academic competence and character; Seth Bowden won the F.T. Kidder Medal, honoring the senior man ranking first in character, leadership and scholarship; Martin Klimes and Alaina Dickason won the Class of 1967 Award, presented to the senior who best exhibits leadership, academic competence and character, and who has earned the respect of faculty and fellow students; Lindsey Carfagna won the Keith M. Miser Leadership Award, recognizing outstanding service to the university; and Rhian Waters and Stephanie Onyekaba won the Elmer Nicholson Achievement Prize, recognizing the greatness of the student's UVM experience and the expectation that the student will make a major contribution in his or her field of interest. Bevin Alexandra Cohen, who starts work on a master’s of public health (MPH) at Columbia in the fall, distinguished herself as the first graduate of the Honors College after completing the program in three years.
The UVM Alumni Association honored Richard Sugarman, professor of religion, with the George V. Kidder Outstanding Faculty Award, awarded for excellence in undergraduate teaching and advising. Sugarman concluded by saying that words from The Talmud best captured the way he felt about the award: "Much have I learned from my teachers; even more from colleagues, but most of all from my students.”