In honor of the college’s 125th year of Commencement ceremonies, Whitman Magazine asked a handful of Whitties to share their most memorable stories from past graduations. From touching moments to political activism, each of the following memories represents an important part of Whitman’s rich history of Commencement celebrations.
Pete Reid ’49: Rain or shine, it’s the highlight of each year
Members of the Class of 1949 were eagerly awaiting their Commencement ceremony, to be held, as was tradition, in the outdoor Amphitheatre when a spring storm upstaged the event. According to class member Pete Reid ’49, longtime Whitman staff member, at about eight-o-clock that morning, "it started to sprinkle … then rain … then pour for the rest of the day.
"We ended up having our graduation in the Walla Walla High School auditorium, which was located downtown at that time," he said. "It was the only space big enough to hold everyone back then. The old chapel that used to be upstairs in Memorial was the only large, indoor gathering place on Whitman’s campus."
But while Reid and his class missed their original "day in the sun," the Class of ’49 gave Mother Nature a chance to make it up to them several decades later. In 1989, as part of their 40th class reunion — which was chaired by Reid’s wife, Hedda Reid ’49 — a mock-graduation was staged in the Amphitheatre, complete with a piano, caps and gowns, and diplomas handed out to each participant. "This time, fortunately, it was a beautiful day," Reid said.
Recalling the more than 60 years he served in professional roles with the college, including treasurer and chief financial officer, Reid said Commencement weekend was always a highly anticipated time not only for graduating students but also for the faculty, staff, alumni and community members.
"It was always one of the biggest events of the year on campus. Years ago, we had a lot of other events going on around graduation. We’d have the trustees and overseers on campus for meetings, the class reunions took place that weekend, including the 50th class reunion which still gathers at each Commencement. It was just the highlight of the year for us."
Reid said that the weekend’s events always have been important because "the people who love Whitman are all here, and they are so positive and upbeat. Even if there are problems in our country or in the world, people seem to rise above them and look to the future because they see what Whitman has done for all of these graduates."
In addition to his wife and his two siblings, Reid’s family legacy of Whitman alumni now includes two of four sons, Jim Reid ’73 and Tom Reid ’80, and two grandchildren, Maggie Reid ’10 and Curtis Reid ’10.
Pete and Hedda still make a point to attend graduation activities each year. When asked which parts of the weekend are his favorite, the man known as "Mr. Whitman" said fittingly, "Well, I’m more social — so I always like all the parties."
Meda Chesney-Lind ’69: Vietnam War top of mind even in graduation
For Meda Chesney-Lind ’69, the 2011 Commencement speaker and recipient of an honorary doctor of humane letters, graduation day was filled with frenetic energy, visiting family and a subdued political activism.
"To be honest, I don’t remember a whole lot of specifics from that day. It was all kind of a blur of activity and emotion. But I do remember it being totally nerve-wracking because my whole family had come to campus. Juggling a large group of people who weren’t familiar with that place was exciting and stressful at the same time," she said.
By the time Chesney-Lind graduated from Whitman, the Vietnam War had been under way for much of her life — and would continue for another six years after her Commencement ceremony. Several years before the 1971 May Day Protests, a series of civil disobedience actions staged in Washington, D.C., she and several of her classmates decided to make their own, albeit less disruptive, statement during their graduation ceremony.
Said in 1999:
I’m all for the information inundation. But all these facts are useless without the capacity to make connections. The truly great advances of this generation will be made by those who can make outrageous connections, and only a mind which knows how to play can do that.
Nagle Jackson ’58
renowned playwright and director
"We were deeply involved in the anti-war movement in those days. And those of us who were part of the resistance decided to wear a black-and-white anti-war pin on our Commencement garb," she said. "We were kind of nervous because we weren’t sure if that was going to be OK or not, but we did it anyway. I think I still have that pin somewhere in my collection."
George Ball: Joy in listening to student speakers
While serving more than 50 years as a member of Whitman’s faculty, George Ball, Weyerhaeuser professor of biblical literature emeritus, who turned 96 in May, has attended more than half a century of Whitman Commencement ceremonies. Not surprisingly for this popular figure on campus, one of his favorite parts of the ceremony has to do with the students.
"I especially enjoy hearing the students who speak to represent their class. There have been a number of speakers over the years who were quite good," he said.
Among the many graduation ceremonies attended by Dr. Ball, as he is affectionately called, was the 1974 Commencement that included his daughter, Sarah Ball Teslik ’74, an education and history major. He still recalls the pride of seeing his daughter graduate from the college that had so warmly welcomed him and his young family nearly 15 years before. That same year, he also was honored to give the Baccalaureate sermon.
"My memories of Whitman Commencements are all good. Some have been better than others, but I can’t think of a single one that was ’a bust,’" he said.
George Bridges: Fun traditions, proud moments, kisses
Graduation can evoke feelings of nostalgia, pride, and, as Whitman President George Bridges has learned, great affection. Take, for example, the tradition wherein, while accepting his or her diploma on stage, a nominated member of the Theatre Department plants a kiss on the cheek of the president.
"It’s a pretty funny tradition," Bridges said.
In 2008, William "Bill" Gates Sr., retired attorney, philanthropist and father of Microsoft founder Bill Gates Jr., was invited to give the Commencement address. Gates accepted the invitation to speak but declined the honorarium generally offered to visiting speakers. To honor his participation and generosity, the college reallocated the amount to create the William H. Gates Sr. scholarship endowment.
"Bill had no idea that the college was creating a scholarship in his name, so when I announced it during the Commencement proceedings it was a big surprise for him," Bridges said. "After I made the announcement, he was so moved that he actually kissed me right there at the podium. The crowd definitely got a kick out of that."
Kevin Wright ’87: A major production for an intimate gathering
Hosting 4,000 people on Whitman’s campus is no small undertaking, but making sure they all have someplace to sit requires agility, quick thinking and a team of dedicated staff members. Kevin Wright ’87, facilities manager, and his colleagues at the Physical Plant are responsible for the set-up and break-down of each year’s Commencement ceremony. From hauling in bleachers from Borleske Stadium to setting up more than 2,500 chairs on the south lawn of the Memorial Building, it takes a village to orchestrate the many details of each Whitman graduation.
Through the years, the college has amassed its own large collection of chairs, which is supplemented with a truckload of rentals for the big event. But Wright, who has worked at Whitman for more than 20 years, remembers when the college would borrow chairs from "just about every place in the valley. We would use chairs from the Walla Walla Community College and from Frenchtown, just west of Walla Walla … It was sort of a community effort back then."
But before a single chair leg touches the grass, college personnel look to the sky — and the weather report — to determine how the often unpredictable spring climate will affect the event.
"It will rain a lot up to that weekend and sometimes even on Saturday night and Sunday morning, but somehow it usually clears up for the event," Wright said. "In fact, one year we were all watching the weather and things didn’t look good for Sunday, so the decision was made to move the ceremony into Cordiner Hall. But wouldn’t you know it, Sunday morning came around and the weather changed, so at the last minute, the college decided to host the event on the Memorial lawn. We had to really scramble to get that place set up, but everything came together, and it was a great, sunny afternoon."
When they aren’t counting rain clouds, the facilities staff is making sure the chair count — and placement — is just right for the special day. According to Wright, there’s a fine-tuned method for ensuring that enough seats for graduates, faculty, special guests and speakers are arranged at the site. After Commencement he and his crew canvas the entire campus in search of stray chairs that tend to "wander away" during the afternoon lunch and activities.
"I’ve been to other college graduations, and Whitman’s Commencement ceremony is definitely something special — it’s a much more intimate gathering," he said. "And from a planning, set-up and break-down perspective, the event is more organized than it has ever been."
Tom Edwards: Documenting Whitman’s legacy
Tom Edwards, William Kirkman professor of history emeritus and Whitman’s devoted college historian, has closely studied and chronicled Whitman’s rich past. Among the many Commencement ceremonies he has researched is the college’s 1934 graduation — the last Commencement ceremony of the presidency of Stephen B. L. Penrose, the iconic leader of the college for four decades. "President Penrose is perhaps more responsible for the success of this school than anyone else in history. It must have really been something to have been there on that day," Edwards said.
According to Edwards, the platform now constructed in front of the Memorial Building each year is modeled after the one built for President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1903 visit to campus, part of a campaign tour of the Western United States. Though Roosevelt’s five-hour visit occurred more than a century ago, photos from that day mirror the modern-day graduation events hosted on the south lawn each spring. "That was probably the greatest day ever for Whitman and Walla Walla. I don’t believe that has ever been topped," he said.
But perhaps most memorable for Edwards is the Commencement ceremony of 1981, the first year that the college began honoring elementary, middle and/or high school teachers with the Distinguished Teaching Award. The award, which Edwards helped create, allows graduating seniors to nominate teachers who have made a difference in their lives for the chance to have them recognized during Commencement proceedings.
"Elementary, middle school and high school teachers make such a huge contribution to the people we have here at Whitman, and we knew they didn’t always get the recognition they deserved," Edwards said. "The award was created to acknowledge the seamlessness of learning."
Susan Pickett: A time to reflect on how they’ve grown
For Susan Pickett, Catherine Chism professor of music, who has taught at Whitman for more than 30 years, Commencement is a time to appreciate the development she’s witnessed from her music students — and herself — in their four years together.
Each student is a vessel, she said, just waiting to be filled in one way or another during their college years. Throughout their time at Whitman, she keeps track of not only their academic progress but also their personal growth and well-being, taking note of key milestones and significant advancements in their lives. Her vigilance is capped by the beaming smiles she sees during each year’s Commencement ceremony.
"My most vivid memories of graduations are about music majors whom I have taught throughout their Whitman years. As they approach the stage to receive their diplomas, I often reflect on what they were like as first-year students, and how much each one has grown," she said. "It’s also a time to reflect on how each student has affected my own growth as a professor."
Peter van Oppen ’74: From reverence to romance
When Whitman’s ninth president, Donald Sheehan, passed away in March 1974, a shadow of sadness was cast across the campus. Peter van Oppen ’74, chair of Whitman’s board of trustees, recalls the mixed emotions and nostalgia of his graduation day.
"Don and his wife Kit were wonderful people, and he was much missed at graduation," he said. "My brother, Tim van Oppen ’70, had graduated four years ahead of me, and there is a wonderful photo showing President Sheehan’s characteristic mischievous grin as he shakes Tim’s hand. My diploma is signed by Ken Knopf, who filled Sheehan’s big shoes until President Bob Skothheim’s arrival in 1975."
But in the years that followed, van Oppen has had the chance to take part in a number of more joyful Commencement ceremonies, including that of his nephew, Jason Copeland ’94, the son of Laura Minnick, former events coordinator in the president’s office.
"Jason’s girlfriend — now spouse — Elizabeth Thomas Copeland ’95 was a year behind him but played a particularly visible role in the ceremony," van Oppen said. "The highest-ranking junior year student, she served as Commencement marshal and was positioned at the top of the ramp, just on the edge of the podium. When the time came for Jason to accept his diploma, the ceremony was spontaneously stopped as the marshal unexpectedly stepped up and gave him a full-on, passionate kiss while the president and provost were forced to delay a moment. As you can imagine, the audience cheered!"
Van Oppen happily reported that the Copelands "now have three children and live in Santa Clara, California, where Elizabeth practices medicine and Jason works at Apple on the iPhone."
— Joe Gurriere