Honor your own "illuminations of goodness in the world," alumnus art historian tells grads

On a cool May morning, spring showers passing through Burlington, graduates, family, friends and faculty gathered on the University Green for Commencement 2018, the University of Vermont’s 217th edition of education’s rite of passage. UVM’s Class of 2018 includes an estimated 3,072 graduates, degree recipients hailing from 44 states and 36 countries.

The graduates heard from one of their own, alumnus Alexander Nemerov, UVM Class of 1985, in a lyrical, visually evocative, and highly personal commencement address befitting one of the nation’s leading art historians and scholars of cultural history. Nemerov, the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Stanford University, earned his UVM bachelor’s degree in art history and English. In his scholarship, teaching, and guest lectures, Nemerov is celebrated for his skill in developing a rich understanding of American culture through intuitive analysis and appreciation of aesthetic expressions across a wide range of art forms.

At the outset, Nemerov anchored his words to the graduates in his own time at UVM and, more specifically, with recollected moments grounded in the setting where he spoke from the stage today — facing Williams Hall, Waterman Building at his back. Nemerov recalled studying on the fourth floor of Williams, gazing out across the lake at a particular farm with “a red barn, a copper roof, a green field.” He described the Waterman classroom where he watched the movie of “Henry V” for a Shakespeare course, becoming entranced by the reflections of the film, medieval knights on horseback, playing across the classroom windows. 

These moments, and others from throughout Nemerov’s life, were united by his sense that they are “private illuminations” that “allow us—carefully, tentatively, but sometimes with great power and purpose—to move through the world.” 

At their essence, Nemerov said, they speak to the truth of goodness, beauty, and unity in the world. “These moments of good, of calm, which I believe we’ve all had in some form, are delicate. They are the moments when the world does not devour you, does not drown you, but instead raises you up, keeps you afloat, buoyant, in some strange awareness of the fragile balance of being alive. The moments are delicate, yes, but I’ve also noticed that they’re indestructible. Maybe they are even the most indestructible part of us.” 

Nemerov warned that too often society tells us, and we tell ourselves, that such moments are worthless, an affront to our mutual agreement as a culture “that we not ask big questions, that we not marvel at the very fact of being alive.” Instead, he encouraged the graduates to honor this “quality we all possess, all the time. It is this quality of goodness in ourselves and the world, manifest in just these fragile but indestructible moments we all experience.” 

In his closing thoughts, Nemerov brought his focus back to Vermont with words more suggestive of American poet Walt Whitman’s verse than the standard platitudes of many graduation talks: “Like on a brilliant day here in Vermont, when the lake is blue or silver or gray. I sense all the boats that have ever floated on it, the schooners and sailboats and dories and side-wheelers; I feel all the times that have been. And I am down among the fishes, some hundreds of feet deep, there with the blips on the fisherman’s sonar screen that are the schools, the living creatures that for a while remain living still. And I am in some Adirondack valley, where a fox eats a mouse, the fox tilting its head back, the better to bring the back teeth into play. And I am at our near shore, looking at the moonlight glinting off the leaves in the trees, off the faces of the lovers as they kiss. I am all of these things. You are too.”  

In addition to Alexander Nemerov, the university presented honorary degrees to: 

John E. Abele, retired founding chairman of Boston Scientific, a firm responsible for developing some of the first-to-market devices to treat life-damaging conditions of the heart, brain, lungs, and body systems. 

Frank A. Bolden, UVM Class of 1963 and member of the university’s Athletic Hall of Fame, is an alumnus exemplar of UVM’s student-athlete model. Bolden was an attorney at Johnson & Johnson and also helped lead the corporation in other executive roles, including Vice President, Diversity Worldwide. 

J. Brooks Buxton, UVM Class of 1956, retired from Conoco Phillips in 2003 as president of Conoco Arabia Inc., Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and director of Conoco Middle East Ltd., London and Dubai. Passion and deep knowledge inform Buxton’s collection of art and historic artifacts, experience he brings to his years of service on the Fleming Museum’s Board of Advisors. 

Karen Nystrom Meyer, UVM Class of 1970, has devoted her decades-long career to advancing policy and practice in essential matters from affordable housing to healthcare to higher education. She is a past vice president for state, federal, and community relations at the university.

UVM senior awards were presented at Commencement 2018 to the following graduates: 

Ashley Archangelo and Sonya Buglion Gluck, Mary Jean Simpson Award; Kunal Palawat, Kidder Medal; Caitlin Beaudet and Christopher Petrillo, Class of ’67 Award; Frankie Jacob Lyon and Valeria Pinzon-Mendez, Keith M. Miser Leadership Award; Warrick Sahene, William Sudbay and Ivonne Headley, Elmer Nicholson Achievement Prize; and Adam Wechsler, Katherine Anne Kelly Award.


Thomas James Weaver