June 3, 2018: Commencement

Honored guests, members of the Board of Trustees, colleagues, parents, grandparents, family, friends and members of the Class of 2018, it is my privilege to open this Commencement.

We are here today to once again celebrate what is the most important event of the academic year. Commencement signals the formal completion of the secondary school experience for these young men and women, as well as their transition from students at, to alumni of, Gill St. Bernard’s. Every senior has followed his or her own unique path to earn the diploma; we hold each one up before the community today in recognition of this achievement.
Before this occurs, a number of thank you’s and acknowledgements are in order. I have done some of these for several years, so this is now too, part of our tradition.

First, I ask the members of the graduating class to stand and applaud your parents. Without their commitment, support, and love you would not be here today.

Second, I ask you to remain standing and give a round of applause to your teachers. They have worked with you inside and outside of the classroom for many years; today their work is done.

Finally, I would like to ask the members of our Board of Trustees to stand and be recognized. These men and women give generously of their time, abilities, and resources to make our school the best that it can be, with no thought of receiving anything in return. This represents the very definition of selfless service and it is a responsibility that they assume at great financial and personal cost.

We also again this year have a group of international students graduating from our school. Each has travelled thousands of miles and lived away from their families in order to earn a GSB diploma. A special congratulations to them and their parents.
As is the case each year, we have some colleagues retiring who were recognized last month, though there is one in particular I would like to single out today, as it is his birthday. So if Mike Chimes could come forward now, I have a special piece of birthday cake and a couple of cards for you signed by the faculty and members of the senior class.

Finally, I have one more person to recognize this afternoon, and he is certainly someone who should be familiar to all in our community. The Gill St. Bernard’s Medal was established to recognize an individual who has given the highest level of service to Gill St. Bernard’s School. Since its establishment, it has only been given a few times; first, to a long time administrator and second, to a trustee. This year, I am pleased and honored to award it to a member of our staff.

No one has ever given as much of her or himself to Gill St. Bernard’s School as Russell Hockenbury, Jr., affectionately known to all as “Junie.” Born in 1928 in the farmhouse on campus, his father was among the first students at St. Bernard’s School when it was founded in 1900. Junie became a farmhand at SBS in 1945 and has worked continuously at the school since then, for a total of 73 years. In January, he celebrated his 90th birthday. His belated birthday present was a new mower. Over the years, he and his wife Lois have been regular attendees at various games and other athletic contests, often traveling more than an hour to watch the Knights play. Currently, their favorite is our boys' varsity baseball team which has advanced to the state sectional finals with a win on Friday. Junie is a treasure of our school, a steady constant over the years whose commitment and care for the campus embodies the true essence of stewardship. Clearing brush, plowing snow, cutting the grass for our athletic fields in a perfect pattern; his work ethic remains an example to all, and a standard few can approach.

I now ask Russell Hockenbury, Jr. to please come forward to be recognized with the Gill St. Bernard’s medal for meritorious service to our school.

It is time to fully turn our attention to the Class of 2018. This wonderful group of young men and women has distinguished themselves both inside and outside the classroom at GSB, on campus and out in the community. Each one has completed the prescribed course of study and will receive their diploma in just a short while.

As we all know, it is the “ceremonial season;” one filled with commencement speeches. Although a few are memorable, most are soon relegated to YouTube. Many speakers have no association with the school or university. At GSB, our seniors are the featured speakers. This insures an essential connectedness to our community and helps keep our focus today on this group of young men and women.

As I was preparing my opening comments last week, a friend sent me a brief snippet of those that I made last year in an email, along with a question.

“Now, more than ever, we need thoughtful, constructive, and respectful conversations. It is self-evident that as a nation we are struggling with many complex and difficult problems. Climate change, economic inequality, senseless violence, intolerance, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, systemic racism; each one is very real and impacts everyone.”

It sounds very odd to quote yourself, but I did say those words at graduation on June 4, 2017.

After this, he asked the question: “Has anything evolved?”

I was preoccupied with other things and did not have a ready reply. However, I do this afternoon, after taking a few days to reflect. Has anything changed?

At Commencement time I am often reminded of one of my favorite poems entitled On the Pulse of the Morning, by Maya Angelou, in which she wrote these words:

Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out and upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.

Has anything evolved? What, if anything has changed in a year?

Angelou’s words spoke of hope; a hope that all of us might feel. Hope for what comes next; hope for the future. It is that very hope which we embrace today, embodied in the members of the Class of 2018. They have most certainly evolved and my answer to the question. The problems we face are still here and require our attention and the resolve to address them. I am confident that this group of young men and women will be part of the solution to many of the challenges we now face moving forward. They have changed…for good.

Therefore, let us take the time today to recognize them, celebrate as a community, and be thankful for this moment.

Thank you and congratulations to the Class of 2018.
Gill St. Bernard’s is a private, coeducational day school for students age three through grade 12, located in suburban New Jersey. Each of the three school divisions provides a rigorous, meaningful, and age-appropriate curriculum, and all students benefit from the environmental learning opportunities that exist on our 208-acre campus.