In June 1943, with World War II raging and millions of Americans fighting in Europe and the Pacific, vice president Henry Wallace was able to muster optimism in addressing the graduates of Connecticut College.
"Yes, commencement time is here,” Wallace said. “Responsibility has begun. Life has come upon us. The joys of opportunity and service lie ahead. No generation has ever had such an opportunity. The world has never had such an opportunity. We must make the dead live. We must make them live in the world's commencement of abiding peace based on justice and charity."
Those sentiments resonate across auditoriums, arenas and athletic fields from coast to coast at this time very year, as another crop of college and university graduates makes its way into the world. When National Public Radio cataloged what it called “The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever,” Wallace’s wartime words made the cut.
Timeless themes abound, not surprisingly, since there is a persistence in humanity’s challenges and opportunities through history -- although their contexts change. Then-President Dwight Eisenhower alluded to that in 1955 as commencement speaker at Penn State University where his brother Milton was president.
You men and women venture forth into a world where human nature differs little, if at all, from human nature in 1915 or in the Age of Pericles.
President Dwight Eisenhower in 1955
“Of course, you men and women venture forth into a world where human nature differs little, if at all, from human nature in 1915 or in the Age of Pericles,” Eisenhower told the graduates. “But the age of nuclear energy, in its industrial and economic aspects, will likely bear no more resemblance to the age of steam than a jet-powered plane to an old-fashioned box kite.”
Similar words may well be uttered over the next several days as thousands graduate from our local higher-education institutions. Durham Technical Community College kicks off the season Wednesday night. North Carolina Central University follows on Saturday morning. Then the big day comes Sunday when -- coincident with Mother’s Day -- more than 10,000 graduates receive their degrees and commencement-speaker wisdom at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Population growth has diluted somewhat the university’s impact on Chapel Hill, but the rhythm of the academic year still impacts heavily the rhythm of the town. In Durham, the dilution is greater still, but the tidal ebb and flow of students as the academic year begins and ends is quite palpable, nonetheless.
Many of the thousands graduating today will be saying goodbye to the community that was their temporary home for four years or more, but some will remain and others will return. To all, we extend our thanks for their contributions to our city and wish them the best with whatever their future holds.