By Casey S. Elliott and Monica Chapman
That first step onto the Convocation Center floor evoked many reactions from soon-to-be graduates of Ohio University at Saturday's Undergraduate Commencement ceremonies.
"Look at all those people!" gasped one student, scanning the audience with tears in her eyes. One by one, the class of 2009 absorbed their first glimpse of the 255th commencement with smiles, solemnity, laughter and tears.
Renowned photographer and 1947 Ohio University graduate Herman Leonard captivated soon-to-be graduates with his casual charisma, characteristic of the jazz movement that he so aptly photographed over the course of his career.
Leonard, 86, addressed audiences at each of two undergraduate commencement ceremonies. Graduates of the colleges of Business, Communication, Fine Arts, and Engineering and Technology, as well as University College and regional campuses took part in the 9:30 a.m. ceremony, while those earning degrees from Arts and Sciences, Education, Health and Human Services, and Honors Tutorial College marched at 2 p.m.
Words of wisdom
Acknowledging the students' eagerness to receive their diplomas, Leonard displayed his prepared speech to the crowd and then promptly tore it in half. The impromptu speech that followed was infused with humor, humility and glimpses into Leonard's remarkable career -- a career launched from this very same institution.
Leonard admitted that he couldn't recall the commencement speaker at his graduation in 1947 and dubbed himself the "wrong guy" to be bestowing advice, saying he was a photographer, not a speaker. Nevertheless, he delivered a memorable address.
Peppered with personal anecdotes and inspirational stories, the speech was punctuated by these tips for a fulfilling post-graduation life:
- Relish the journey
"My theory is that life is a trip, and we are each on our own boats... Some of you may not have determined where your final port of call will be in your life. But that doesn't matter. You'll find out later. In the meantime, you're going to stop at different ports of call in your lives. And you'll gather experiences and ideas along with people. That's the way you should go."
- Pursue an unconventional course
"The really good ones, who give you something new, are the ones who step out of the ordinary... They don't follow the rules. It's what I've done all my life, and that is what produces new things. So when you go out there, whatever you do ... don't stick to the conventional methods. Go out there and try to introduce something new and more innovative."
- Don't let circumstances define you
"You are the master of your boat. It's up to you to decide what you want to do, where you want to go and what you want to be. Don't let anybody else tell you differently ... The circumstances will always be there. It's up to you to handle them and bring them to your own betterment, and not succumb to them. If you keep remembering that, you'll overcome an awful lot of difficulties."
- Be persistent
"Be persistent in what you do. Don't give up. Knock on that door."
True to his calling, Leonard grabbed a quick snapshot of his audience before departing the podium, receiving thunderous applause as he returned to his seat.
Best known for his vast array of images that captured the history and movement of jazz, Leonard has received numerous national accolades for his work, including the Lucie Achievement in Portraiture Award. During the course of his career, he photographed and befriended some of the greatest jazz musicians of that era, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington.
In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home, studio and some 8,000 photographs. Fortunately, with help, the negatives were gathered and stored in the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Following the hurricane, Leonard moved to Studio City, Calif., where he has re-established his life and business.
During the ceremony, Leonard was presented with an honorary doctoral degree in fine arts, in recognition of his distinguished career.
Also recognized with honorary degrees were:
- Judy Clabes, president emeritus of the Scripps Howard Foundation. Clabes was awarded an honorary doctoral degree in communication.
- Paul Dutton Grannis, a scientist in elementary particle physics. Grannis was awarded an honorary doctoral degree in science.
Perseverance, determination are key
President Roderick J. McDavis described different paths students take to getting their degree -- some going straight into college from high school, others starting a family before going back to school. Whatever path students took, McDavis said it was perseverance that got them to this moment -- their graduation.
"Passion, determination and hope brought you to this moment. Passion gave you the enthusiasm to pursue a course of study. Determination got you through late, long nights of writing, reading and studying. And hope kept you focused on the greatest reward of this entire experience -- your degree," he said. "Whatever your path, each of you has brought unique characteristics and special talents to Ohio University, and you have made our university richer by your presence."
In the afternoon ceremony, McDavis recognized outgoing Executive Vice President and Provost Kathy Krendl for her service to the university. On July 1, Krendl will begin her new position as president of Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio. The ceremony marked the last of Krendl's official duties at Ohio University.
Student leaders focus on future
In the morning ceremony, student Alumni Board Senior Class Committee President Ashley Kilpatrick spoke of how the university experience helped students find themselves, and how that will benefit them in the future.
"Our time here spent at Ohio University means more to me than what is on that diploma," she said. "It means we created ourselves into who we are today. It means we created ourselves together as Bobcats."
Student Senate President Michael Adeyanju, speaking in the afternoon ceremony, talked about the knowledge and resolve this year's graduates will need to solve the problems of today.
"The problems our generation faces will require boldness of action, innovation in thought, and risk taking -- all qualities that we OHIO students embody. I have no doubt that we will be able to meet the challenges ahead and come out on top not only a better person, but with a better country and world," he said.
Students reflect on college
Legal studies graduate Todd Shepherd followed a non-traditional path in his college career. Though starting college in 1981, Shepherd left to join the military in 1985, leaving his degree unfinished. He returned in 2007 to achieve that goal. During his time here, he met his wife and had a child.
"It's been wonderful here," he said. "I changed a lot since I initially started -- I just grew up."
Shepherd said he found out how much the town and university meant to him when he returned to pursue his degree. Now he is looking toward graduate school and law school.
For Stephanie Schwab, a graduate from the School of Visual Communication, it took a while to realize what she wanted to do with her life. She started out in the College of Fine Arts, but then discovered the School of Visual Communication and changed her focus. It paid off -- Schwab now has a part-time job working in her chosen field.
"I'm so happy right now," she said. "I'm just out of college, and I got what I needed to succeed."
Jennifer Climer, a music education and trombone performance major, said she would miss Ohio University's close-knit community.
"The friends you have, the different people you meet... you are always together," she reflected. "Here you can just walk around anywhere and see someone you know."
The commencement ceremony has special significance to Climer's immediate family, all of whom have relocated or will soon relocate to Wisconsin, after residing in Athens for the past 13 years. Following in the footsteps of her father, Ohio University's former director of bands, Climer has been named the high school band director at Muskego High School.
For management information systems and business/pre-law graduate Brittney Howard, opportunities through Ohio University have provided a strong foundation -- both academically and socially.
"The education was definitely excellent, but I think my friendships are more valuable to me than anything else," she said.
Howard is among the first three graduates of the Junior Executive Business Program for Diverse Students -- a program that she said strongly influenced her decision to pursue business at Ohio University. As a Copeland Scholar and a business fellow, Howard is now going to begin the next phase of her journey -- law school at Cleveland State University.