A Day of Light and Shadows

The loss of friends and family aboard ValuJet flight 592 darkens the University's brightest day

By Allison O. Adams

A colorful sea of umbrellas flooded the Quadrangle under a steel-gray, early morning sky that threatened rain but never quite delivered. An ebb and flow of sunshine and storm clouds accurately reflected the mood of high celebration tempered by grief at Emory's 151st Commencement on May 13. The ceremony proceeded in the wake of the crash of ValuJet flight 592, which had gone down in the Everglades on its way from Miami to Atlanta two days before.

"This is a day of joy," said University Chaplain Susan Henry-Crowe to the crowd of some thirteen thousand. "It is also in some ways marked with sadness because there are those students who lost loved ones and family members in the plane crash on Saturday. These grandparents and loved ones were coming to share in this day of celebration, and we know that they would want this day and the days to come to be filled with joy."

Perhaps Marion Luther Brittain Award winner Laura Sawyer felt the loss most keenly. Her grandparents, Conway and Anna Laurie Hamilton, were on the flight, coming to see Sawyer graduate and receive the Brittain Award, the University's highest student honor. In presenting Sawyer the award, Vice President and Dean of Campus Life Frances Lucas-Tauchar cited her accomplishments as a campus leader, scholar, and volunteer: "Laura has invested herself in the common good to such a degree that students and communities of tomorrow shall reap the benefits of her contributions. From her early days, she has been a visible student leader in many organizations, culminating with her term as president of the Student Government Association. As an advocate and activist, her profile has bolstered the causes of disadvantaged people through programs of The Atlanta Project and from her body of work on behalf of the homeless. Devoting hundreds of hours to the Miami Coalition for the Homeless, Cafe 458, and the American Red Cross, Laura forged a path that will lead to a graduate degree in social work and a career in public policy administration."

Sawyer was one of 3,219 students to earn a degree at Commencement. There were 1,672 undergraduate degrees awarded, as well as 974 graduate degrees, 475 professional degrees, 40 joint degrees, and 98 certificates. Commencement speaker Johnnetta B. Cole, president of Spelman College, began her address to the graduates with this blessing from an old African-American song: "Guide my feet while I run this race, for I don't want to run this race in vain."

Cole went on to invoke a passage from the Gospel of Mark, words echoed by Abraham Lincoln in 1858, to set the theme for her address: " `And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.' . . . The problem is that in this house of ours, we have not yet found the way to teach people how to decently, not to mention lovingly, interact with those who are different. We have not yet proven, to the satisfaction of all, the power of people engaging across communities to solve problems." Cole offered lessons gleaned from anthropology, her field of expertise, for reuniting what she called "our divided house. . . . Each of you, no matter what career or further study you are about to engage in, must surely lend a hand in rebuilding and fortifying our house."

Following Cole's remarks, the University awarded its top student and faculty honors. Merle Black, Asa G. Candler Professor of Politics and Government, was presented with the University Scholar/Teacher Award. "You came to Emory after twenty-nine years at Chapel Hill, where you earned acclaim as the leading authority on politics in the American South," President William M. Chace read from the award citation. "Since your advent here, Emory's stature has ascended with your star."

Amid cheers from graduates, John Boring, professor of epidemiology in the Rollins School of Public Health, received the Thomas Jefferson Award for service to the University. Boring was instrumental in the development of the master of public health degree program in the 1970s, the doctoral program in epidemiology in the late 1980s, and the Rollins School itself earlier this decade. "For thirty years, your inexhaustible gift for propagating programs has made you one of Emory's most nurturant stewards," the citation read.

Johnnetta Cole joined six others in receiving what President Chace called "Emory's highest honor, the doctoral degree, honoris causa ." First to receive an honorary degree was public servant and civil rights champion Morris B. Abram, followed by Ely Reeves Callaway Jr., a 1940 Emory College alumnus, entrepreneur, and philanthropist whose recent gift to the University funded the renovation of the Humanities and Physics buildings, as well as the construction of a new link between the two, now known as the Loula Walker and Ely Reeves Callaway Sr. Memorial Center. After Cole received her honorary degree, Billy Payne, president and chief executive officer of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, was commended for having "marshaled private and public resources and hundreds of volunteers with spirit and panache," and Atlanta journalist and author Celestine Sibley was lauded for "a legacy of humor, pith, and wisdom that marks you as the heir of Grady, Harris, and McGill." They were succeeded on the platform by Nobel Laureate in Literature Wole Soyinka, who served as Emory Distinguished Visiting Professor in African-American Studies during the spring 1996 semester, and Daniel C. Tosteson, dean of Harvard Medical School and president of the Harvard Medical Center.

Before the exercises came to a close and the crowd dispersed to attend individual school diploma ceremonies, President Chace offered these thoughts on the years ahead: "All of these students came to us in a state of excited unreadiness. They re-enter the world in the same way. If they are now to go on to graduate school, they once again will be unready, but they will be eager. If they are now to be trained professionally, they will be unready yet eager. If they are to suspend their education so as to earn a livelihood, they will be citizens of a world happy to accept their energy and willing to make them ready."

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