Emory Report
My 30, 2006
Volume 58, Number 31


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May 30 , 2006
Class of 2006 takes its place in Emory history

BY michael terrazas

In addition to continuing Emory’s remarkable run of meteorological good luck as it sends its graduates forth into the world, the University’s 161st Commencement ceremony, May 15, had a little something of everything: an inspiring speaker, last-minute changes, one or two impromptu moments, cheering graduates—and even a touch of Hollywood, thrown in for good measure.

“For most of your time at Emory, our nation has been at war,” President Jim Wagner told the graduates filling much of the Quadrangle. “For us and for our country, Americans your age have fought and died in faraway places. In our own land, some of our fellow citizens have suffered devastating losses of homes and livelihoods from natural disasters. Both at home and abroad, the principles on which our nation was founded have been put to severe and controversial tests.”

The president added that Emory’s graduation exercises were no place “to debate the politics of our day,” but the keynote speaker chose to be provocative. Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund and one of the day’s honorary degree recipients, wasted little time before touching on politics.

“Something is out of balance and out of kilter in the world that we live in when just 691 billionaires have wealth that is equivalent to 3 billion people living in our 89 poorest developing countries. About 347 are in the United States,” Wright Edelman said in her address. “They didn’t need tax cuts in 2001, 2003, 2004 and again this year.”

But the keynote speaker kept her political barbs—mostly—in check, delivering instead a tough-love message of inspiration to the day’s graduates, hearkening back to the values imbued upon her in childhood by a generation of African American parents, friends and neighbors who viewed children “as community property” and treated all as their own. “Our elders had grit,” she said.

“I’m very grateful for these childhood legacies of a living faith reflected in daily service, the discipline of hard work, a capacity to struggle in the face of adversity,” Wright Edelman said. “Giving up was not a part of my childhood lexicon; you got up every morning, and you did what you had to do, and you got up when you fell down, and you tried as many times as you had to until you got it right.”

Joining her onstage as an honorary degree recipient was Stephen Bright, president and senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights, an organization dedicated to social justice, especially among prisoners and people facing the death penalty. Bright, a sometimes teacher in Emory’s School of Law, was presented by interim law Dean Frank Alexander.

A third honorary degree recipient, Dietrich von Bothmer, distinguished research curator at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, was unable to attend the ceremony due to sudden illness, Wagner announced. Jasper Gaunt, curator of Greek and Roman art at the Carlos Museum and a former student of von Bothmer’s, accepted the award in his place.

With the honorary degrees awarded—along with the Thomas Jefferson and University Scholar/Teacher awards, which went to Alexander and to Frances Smith Foster, respectively—it was time for Wagner to award degrees, and he called forth each dean to present her or his class as each was officially bestowed the reward for their years of study—along with “all the rights, honors, privileges and responsibilities” thereto.

There were, as every year, cheers from each group of graduates. But diplomas were not the only things causing excitement that day; moving inconspicuously about the Quad, here on the Administration Building steps, there behind the glass doors of Pitts Library, was a small camera crew led by a gruff, no-nonsense-looking man in a brown leather jacket.

That man was Hollywood actor Sean Penn, who was on location shooting scenes for an upcoming film based on Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild. The story is that of Christopher McCandless, a 1990 Emory College graduate who, after receiving his degree, promptly donated a sizable savings account entirely to charity and moved west. After some time traveling, McCandless was found dead in the Alaskan wilderness, along with a journal and photographs that helped Krakauer piece the tale together.

The film, which is untitled but tentatively starring Emile Hirsch, Debra Winger and William Hurt, has not yet set a release date. Penn is directing from the screenplay he wrote.

Meanwhile, in the morning’s main attraction, Wagner announced that the University would revive a dormant tradition by singing the alma mater to conclude the main Commencement ceremony. So, after a multifaith benediction delivered in turn by representatives of the Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Jewish faiths, 2006 master’s of music recipient Jeremy Wirths led an a cappella rendition as yet another class of graduates hailed the gold and blue.