As the 396 members of Washington and Lee University's Class of 2012 received their diplomas on the University's historic Front Campus Thursday, they were reminded to take strength from what the W&L community had taught them.
In his remarks to the graduates, Washington and Lee President Kenneth P. Ruscio emphasized the special nature of the W&L community, which is governed by a longstanding honor system and imbued with a sense of civility and a spirit of cooperation.
"We strive to create a community with certain patterns of interactions among the individuals who comprise it — patterns that teach us what we owe to each other; and patterns that influence the way you live your lives when you leave here," Ruscio said.
Civility, he added, is a virtue that must be cultivated through the University’s time-honored "speaking tradition," which calls for members of the community to greet one another — and strangers — on campus.
"Telling the truth is so much easier when there is a presumption that everyone else is telling the truth," Ruscio said. "We believe that a community based on trust is simply better than one based on self-interest. You are about to leave a community that takes such matters seriously and enter a society that does not. You can either surrender to the headwinds you will face, or you can, like many alumni before you, take strength from what this community has taught you.
"I'm betting the headwinds will be no match for the moral disposition you acquired just by being here and associating with some of the finest people you will ever know."
Ruscio also paid tribute to beloved members of the W&L community who died within the past year. He reminded the graduates of the talk they heard last September at convocation from Pamela H. Simpson, the Ernest Williams II Professor of Art History. Despite a terminal illness, she continued to teach almost until her death in October. He also told them about Severn Duvall, the Henry S. Fox Jr. Professor of English Emeritus, who died in March, and quoted from a eulogy for Duvall that a former student delivered at his memorial.
“It was my admiration for all of you,” he told the students, “that brought to mind my admiration of people like Pam and Severn and the many others following in their footsteps,” indicating the current faculty members in the audience.
In addition to developing their minds, Ruscio said, he hoped the graduates have developed their hearts: "I hope you have learned the importance of being in relationships with people who care about you; and that you retain throughout your lives the humility to learn from them."
Speaking on behalf of his classmates, Scott McClintock, president of the student body, said that graduating from W&L is different from graduating from most other schools. "Rather than joining hundreds of thousands of living alumni, we join only a few thousand," he said. "Yet these few thousand are proud. They know what it is to be a W&L student, and they live successful lives across the country. . . . The great thing about Washington and Lee is that it works for us. We are a small-knit group that — though not based out of a central area or region — sticks together behind a place."
This year's graduating class, which is the 25th coeducational class to graduate from W&L, was evenly split between men and women representing 39 states, plus the District of Columbia and 12 countries.
In addition to the bachelor's degrees, the University awarded honorary degrees to James C. Rees IV, president and chief executive officer of historic Mount Vernon, and Dr. Mervyn F. Silverman, one of the nation’s leading authorities on AIDS and a 1960 graduate of W&L.
Ruscio also recognized five retiring members of the University’s faculty, who have a combined total of 135 years of service to W&L: Denis Brion, professor of law; Michael J. Evans, the Lillian and Rupert Radford Professor of Mathematics; Frank Miriello, head football coach; Gordon Spice, the Edwin A. Morris Endowed Professor of Music and head of the Department of Music; and Cecile West-Settle, professor of Spanish.
Brooke Sutherland, a journalism and French major from Lawrence, Kan., was the valedictorian. Her cumulative grade-point average was 4.043.
One of those receiving his diploma, Grant Kunkowski, began his undergraduate career at W&L in 1978 but left after his sophomore year to pursue an acting career. Known by his stage name of Grant Aleksander, he played the role of Phillip Spaulding on the daytime drama "The Guiding Light" for many years. He returned to campus in 2011 to complete his degree in theater.
Other top awards:
• Clarke Morrison, of Atlanta, and Shiri Yadlin, of Irvine, Calif., won the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, presented to a male and female graduate on a vote of the faculty. The award honors individuals "who excel in high ideals of living, in spiritual qualities, and in generous and disinterested service to others." Morrison majored in English and geology, while Yadlin was a double major in global politics and religion.
• Morrison also won the Frank J. Gilliam Award, which is presented by the Executive Committee of the Student Body to that student who has made the most valuable contribution to student affairs in one or more fields.
• Chris Washnock, of Greer, S.C., won the Edward Lee Pinney Prize, awarded by the Student Affairs Committee to an undergraduate who demonstrates "extraordinary commitment to personal scholarship and to the nurturing of intellectual life at Washington and Lee." Washnock was a double major in religion and Spanish.
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs