That’s A Wrap
Finals: Year’s greatest on-Grounds production
Photographs by Dan Addison and Jack Looney
|Nearly 37,000 people arrived on Grounds for the Finals ceremony on May 22. Spirits were high as the graduates accepted diplomas, hugged family members and congratulated friends. After the awards had been made, the Class of 2005 presented President John T. Casteen III with a record-setting $334,386 gift. “If we have done right by you and by Mr. Jefferson, you will already have absorbed some of his qualities of toughmindedness, imagination and optimism,” Casteen told the graduates.
By Kathleen Valenzi
With all due admiration for the many rich cultural experiences produced on Grounds – the plays, concerts, exhibitions, symposia, lectures and so on – the most well-orchestrated and dramatic event of the year arguably took place on May 22 under the billing “Finals Weekend 2005.”
As the estimated 37,000 people in attendance can testify, the 2005 season of this annual two-day production was exceptional. And how could it not be? With the Lawn as a stage; the “Academical Village” as a backdrop; a cast of some 5,900 talented students; sun-rich lighting and balmy temperatures, courtesy of Mother Nature, rave reviews were guaranteed.
While for some, preparation for Finals Weekend is a year-round process, the lion’s share of the work began in April when a core graduation work group of 50 people from around Grounds held its first planning meeting and members left it with their marching orders. They organized down to the finest details, such as calculating the number of ferns needed to dress the edge of the stage at Old Cabell Hall.
And when they weren’t focusing on details, they were drawing up contingency plans: What happens if diplomas don’t arrive on time? What happens in the case of rain? What happens in the case of rain and lightning or severe winds?
In the week before Finals, 130 employees from Facilities Management and Athletics logged roughly 5,000 hours setting up staging, six tents, 19 sound systems, 24 ramps and 40,000 chairs at 50 sites, including 20,000 seats on the Lawn — each set into place with precision enough to make a drill sergeant smile.
Thomas Jefferson, were he alive today, might be surprised to see so much fuss made over the conferring of academic degrees. Such pomp and circumstance had not been a part of his original plans for the University he founded in 1819, and even when the first graduation ceremony known as “Public Day,” — it was far, far simpler than today’s production.
Jefferson also would be surprised by such inventive use of technology. While mobile phones and the World Wide Web had not been part of his generation’s mental lexicon — nor even a synaptic spark, most likely — the inventor of such memorable items as the portable copying press and the revolving tabletop bookstand would have appreciated how such modern marvels made it possible for graduates to let their family members know where they were, minute by minute, as they processed down the Lawn or tried to catch up with them at individual diploma ceremonies.
Likewise, the information super highway allowed at least one absent parent, Marine Corps Master Sgt. Steven Austin, to watch his daughter Stephanie graduate via real-time video streaming on the Web from a cyber café in Fallujah, Iraq.
In an e-mail Steve Austin wrote later to University officials, he said the Web “was the next best thing to being there. I am truly proud of Stephanie’s accomplishments and grateful to the University of Virginia for giving her the opportunity to make a difference, not only in her life but in the future of this great nation. … Regards, One proud Marine Father.”
Of course, Austin wasn’t the only proud parent among the onlookers. During Valedictory Exercises on Saturday, others included the parents of Sally Wood and Jeremy Davis, both of whom received U.Va.’s most distinguished service award, the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award.
Still others included the parents of Scott Headd, Katherine Morrow, Aaron Miracle, Ali Naini and Angela Schutte, who, respectively, also received awards for scholarship, community service, cultural fluency and unsung but profound contributions to the University community.
After the awards had been made, and the record-setting $334,386 class gift presented to President John T. Casteen III, 1981 alumnus and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind took the stage. During his heart-felt valedictory address, Suskind acknowledged his own fears on graduation day, describing how he had marched down the Lawn arm-in-arm with several classmates, singing over and over the refrain from the folk song “This Train Is Bound for Glory” without any real sense of why they were doing it at the time.
Looking back, he said, “We were afraid we wouldn’t be ‘us’ again [once we left U.Va.], and that the compromises of the grown-up world would be too much for us.”
Time has shown him otherwise. The grown-up world wasn’t “too much” to handle, he said, and the friendships he made here in Charlottesville have endured. While not every graduate of the Class of 2005 will find “glory” in the larger sense implied by the folk song, he said, everyone is, and will remain, “glorious” in his or her individual way.
On Sunday, spirits remained high. In anticipation of the much larger crowds, some two dozen parents had claimed seats in the first few rows of the South Lawn spectator area by 6:45 a.m. At the north end of the Lawn, just beyond the last of the 20,000 folding chairs, three green canvas chairs boldly staked out a precious parcel of real estate along the ropes demarking the processional lane.
Over the ensuing hours, the space between these two points filled up, leaving late arrivals to stand along the sidewalks or watch the proceedings from one of seven remote viewing sites around the University.
To wile away the time until the ceremony began, many of the earlier birds studied the program for the 176th final exercises they would soon be witnessing, while others read a copy of the graduation issue of Inside UVA they had picked up from one of four information booths on central grounds. Some sat back and enjoyed the festive music being played by the Ft. Lee Army Band. Others conversed on numerous topics – and in various languages, providing evidence of the increasingly international composition of U.Va.’s student body.
Meanwhile, at 9 a.m., the graduates began congregating on the north side of the Rotunda in preparation for the final act of this dramatic event. Here, standing beneath the bronze visage of Thomas Jefferson, they were still students of the nation’s top public university. At the end of their eagerly awaited march down the Lawn, they would become its alumni.
To help relatives spot them in the crowd, many students carried colorful balloons, or draped multihued African kente cloths across their shoulders, or topped their black mortarboards with eye-catching novelties like sparkling streamers.
One young woman wore a cap augmented with grand Viking-style horns, fitted over long hair that she had dyed fire-engine red. Asked what had inspired her, she said, “I just wanted to be seen.”
The Finals address was presented by 1967 alumna Dr. Vivian W. Pinn, director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health. The first African-American woman to receive a medical degree from U.Va., Pinn acknowledged in her address, which dealt with the theme “traditions, dignity and destiny,” how much times had changed since she was a U.Va. student.
“I never thought, at what was then mostly a university of men, that some 38 years later I would be accorded the honor of giving the commencement address at this university of Thomas Jefferson’s, where traditions have been born and carried forth, world leaders have studied and taught, and so many men and, more recently women, have left to make their marks upon the future of the world in which we live,” she said.
Pinn urged the graduates to be “open and adaptable” to new truths as they embark on their careers. “Sometimes it may be difficult to do away with an idea or a belief that cannot be substantiated, or that has grown obsolete or no longer serves your best interest,” she said. “Sometimes you have to resolve to accept the contradictions between tradition and the future.”
In encouraging them to make an “important difference,” she quoted the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Father of “double ’Hoo” Thurgood Marshall Jr., the justice had delivered U.Va.’s 1978 commencement address and stated: “The privilege of attending so fine a university as this one must bear with it an unceasing responsibility to use your knowledge and training for improving the lives of others.”
At the conclusion of the keynote address, the president – with assistance from the deans of U.Va.’s 10 schools – conferred degrees. The students and their families, including those watching from remote locations, showed their pleasure with whoops of joy and loud, extended applause.
After remarks by Alumni Association president Phil Pool, the ceremony ended with Casteen offering these parting words: “If we have done right by you and by Mr. Jefferson, you will already have absorbed some of his qualities of tough-mindedness, imagination and optimism. Some measure of his courage and conviction, the will to confront falsehood and evil in discourse, the bravery to assert what is true and good – take these with you. Cultivate in yourselves the tenacity to hold elected officials, and yourselves as well, to strict account. And in all, dream, create, commit yourselves and your fortunes to the common good. These are our fondest hopes for you. Godspeed, and God bless you.”
Next, individual diploma ceremonies were held. Among those attending was former University architect Samuel A. “Pete” Anderson, who sat on the steps of the amphitheatre to watch his youngest daughter receive her master’s degree from the Curry School.
The diploma ceremonies for the biology and psychology departments were especially poignant; at each, framed diplomas were given to the families of two students who had died in accidents the prior year: John Steve Catilo and Brian Love, respectively.
Another touching moment having nothing to do with diplomas occurred at the information booth near Brooks Hall, when a visibly excited young girl from Afghanistan had wandered over for some “V” stickers. She said her mother had brought her to the University that day, not because they knew any graduating students, but because she thought it was important for her daughter to see successful young people – especially, young women – so that the little girl would be inspired to study hard and attend college herself one day.
Regrettably, all great performances come to an end.
By late afternoon, a few small clusters of people sat and talked about the day’s events on chairs they had pulled into circles on the Lawn. Gray and Garrett Gustafson, the young brothers of Lawn resident Adam Gustafson, set up a croquet court on the Lawn and proceeded to teach the game to Charlottesville resident Katherine Nies.
Otherwise, U.Va.’s plein air “theater” had all but emptied, and staff from Facilities Management began striking the set. The stage dimmed as the sun dipped behind the West Range. The metaphorical curtains were drawn.
For the Class of 2005’s greatest show, it was a wrap.