Chancellor Hemenway’s 2005 commencement remarks

It has happened once again, as it has for 133 years. 5,000 people have donned heavy black robes in the hottest part of a spring day to march down a hill. It is really hot. Let’s be honest. Take a poll. Raise your hands if you are naked underneath that robe. I guess the chairman of the Board of Regents and I are the only ones.

The KU commencement is unique. It’s the only one I know in which you encounter a life-changing experience simply by walking from the top of Campanile Hill to the stadium.

The journey takes only three to four minutes. In reality, you are the same person here in the stadium as you were up at the Campanile a few minutes ago. But symbolically, you just morphed into a whole new person. I don’t know what to call it. It is a kind of Extreme Makeover — Jayhawk Edition.

You are a participant in a rite of passage of the first order. You were presumed to be a callow, inexperienced, unproven student up there, notable for chronic complaints about parking. But by the time you walked to the bottom of the hill, you became a mature, thoughtful, courteous college graduate, notable for your dreams of an unreasonably high starting salary. It is a remarkable four-minute transformation, and it occurs because you became, in that passage from up there to down here, a full-fledged graduated Jayhawk, ready for flight.

This is why we say every year, THE WALK IS THE CEREMONY. The walk is the symbolic recognition of the academic transformation that has occurred while you were on the hill. It means wealth, happiness, success and a visit from the KU Endowment Association will be in your future.

You have every right to be proud of this transformation, and to invite others to be proud as well. Because that is the other symbolic truth about this walk: NO ONE WALKS ALONE. Everybody had help getting here, no matter how hard you worked. But, having said that, and praised you for your perseverance and courage, it is important to also acknowledge that not everyone walked down the hill. Some of you rode, or were carried, or were otherwise aided in significant ways.

Andy Marso rode down today in his wheelchair, making sure the brakes dragged, so that he didn’t careen down at high speed, out of control, mowing down prospective graduates in his wake.

A year ago, Andy had planned to walk this route, but meningitis intervened. Andy was in a wheelchair today because he has been injured by his disease. But Andy has indomitable courage and a will to live. Andy Marso stands as a symbol of the commitment and courage of the Class of 2005. His parents and family gave Andy their gift of unqualified love and support. Andy’s parents represent the commitment of everyone’s family, the commitment that has helped all of you reach this point.

Andy would be the first to tell you that he is not the only courageous person in this class. Wayne Simien is another. Wayne could have chosen not to be here today. He could have gone to the NBA a year ago, but he chose to stay here at KU because he wanted a KU degree before he went off to play professional basketball. It took courage to make that decision, and we are glad that he did.

We are also glad that five seniors on the KU basketball team are graduating today — Wayne, Keith Langford, Aaron Miles, Mike Lee and Jeff Hawkins, joined by Bryant Nash and Archie Marshall. Their parents and coaches clearly taught a powerful message about priorities. The basketball players, like all of you, worked hard to be here today. But it also says something about Jayhawk basketball.

There are some graduates who planned to be here, who could not attend, and we should think about them too. Alexis Reed, from Great Bend, was on her way back to take finals last week and was seriously injured when her car slid under a semi-truck. She is in Wesley Hospital in Wichita. Get well, Alexis, you are a part of this ceremony, even in absentia. Get well, and next year you will walk too.

Monica Guevara is another student, like all of you, who could have let the challenges of her life keep her from this moment. She had plenty of obstacles in front of her. Like many of you, there were financial difficulties. She frequently worked 15-hour days. In spite of it all, she refused to give into these problems. She persevered, so that today she is preparing to be a banker, with a full-time management job at UBS Bank in New York City. She starts July 5th. Congratulations, Monica, from me, your professors, your classmates. We may be dropping by to see about a loan.

Lesly Esperance is here today against all odds. He first came to KU with fellow Haitian singers. He knew very little English. He had no money; his voice was his most important asset. But he stayed, worked in Union Catering for four years, studied and he graduates today with a degree in economics.

Alisa Lewis, a senior from East St. Louis, majoring in architectural engineering, has been the student coordinator for the Hawk Link program for the last four years. Hawk Link is a retention program for students of color, and through the efforts of Alisa and her co-workers, the retention rate for this year’s freshmen in that program is 84 percent.

Alisa was also the president of the National Society of Black Engineers. She is graduating on time with her engineering degree. This is no small feat for a new mother. Alisa gave birth to Christopher this past January, her pride and joy, a new baby Jayhawk.

We all come with our own story and our own anxiety — even Ruth Anne French-Hodson, Class of 2005, KU’s 25th Rhodes scholar. We are all proud of Ruth Anne. She will be leaving for Oxford in July to study European environmental regulations.

Ruth Anne took an unusual path to KU. When she graduated from high school, she worked for a year as a waitress in Ness City. As she admits, she totally freaked out her parents with this decision. But they had faith in Ruth Anne, and their confidence paid off.

As a parent, I can relate to her family’s anxiety. My son, Langston, is here today, graduating with a master’s degree in music, with honors. He was one of those who claimed he was naked under his robe. I can assure you he is not — or at least, he better not be.

Langston has the honor of conducting the band today. Langston, we love you and we are very proud. But I guess you won’t be dropping in for lunch anymore when you are short on cash. I guess the free lunch is over. And by the way, so is the clothing exchange. Make sure that the tuxedo shirt you borrowed gets put back in my closet. It’s the only one I have.

In the end, all of these Jayhawk stories add up to the collective story that has been told for 133 years, including the advice that students offer each other. THE WALK IS THE CEREMONY. No one walks alone. Everyone who walks comes away proud, both of themselves and their classmates.

Why such pride? Because that KU degree means something special. That transforming experience on the hill cannot be taken from you. Carry that pride with you, wherever you go. The KU alumnus story is simply stated: I went to this community on a hill, and I learned things that made me competitive with anyone in the world. That is why the university is so proud of you, and why you have every reason to be proud of it. Our American ability to compete is going to be an ongoing theme in your life after KU.

The convergence of the Internet and fiber optic cable and cell phones and fax machines means that any country can compete with the U.S. China and India, which we used to think were developing economies, are now racing us to affluence. We will be challenged as never before. But you have a huge advantage in this competition. You are Jayhawks. You are certified for flight. Your makeover is complete, and your community has gathered round to celebrate your achievements. Let the world know what it means to be a Kansas graduate.

Congratulations, Class of 2005.