The last time I attended a Notre Dame commencement was also as a reporter, in 1981, inside the A-C-C, and President Ronald Reagan was the honored guest. It was his first trip out of Washington after he was shot and the mood was warm. He delivered a broad, philosophically conservative message, but the speech was a talk, humane, and his presence belied his reputation as an ideologue.
The big news at the Notre Dame commencement this past Sunday was a walkout by graduates and faculty, I counted 80. Some heavy-heeled shoes were their only noise as they trudged across the grey stadium turf protector mats to the steps off the field and slowly on up the concrete, each step past many rows of parents and other spectators, some friendly and some not so much. I heard a lot of people boo at them disdainfully when the walkout began, but that dissipated as the Vice President of the United States. Mike Pence of Indiana, continued reading the speech that had sent the students on their way.
It seemed awkward to me, the reading aloud going on as if the walkout wasn’t happening. As he spoke, there were students in his line of sight, waiting patiently at the gate, to proceed in single file away from their own graduation ceremony, if that’s what it took, to get away from him. The Vice President stuck to the script.
I heard Vice President Pence read that it was great to be “back home again in Indiana” as I counted students off the field, and I held up eight fingers and then made a zero for the young channel 57 reporter standing behind her camera on the riser next to me where we were maybe 80 yards from the stage.
Everybody under the age of 35 reminds me of an old student these days. The best part of teaching is the students.
I know the fondness one feels for one’s students outside the classroom, especially the pride in their accomplishments, and I sensed that the day before, Saturday, when the President of the University of Notre Dame passed me as I walked into Jordan Hall with a student I was about to interview for the radio, for the story of the student walkout. That student is Bryan Ricketts and Bryan was the organizer of the student walkout set for the next day. Father Jenkins stopped to chat with Bryan.
It was 3:45 and Bryan had made a detour in his day to speak with me at my request between a graduation ceremony and graduation Mass in what we now call the Joyce Center. Father Jenkins was headed in that direction with a lot to think about, I’m sure, but he stopped, when he saw Bryan, to inquire sincerely after this lanky fellow with me dressed in his graduation gown.
I was eavesdropping on a personal conversation so let me only say I recognized the pride I saw in Father Jenkins.
“You’re a star,” I said to Bryan, after his friend walked away.
“I was student body president,” Bryan said modestly, not bragging, but explaining, why the President of the University of Notre Dame would know his name. ‘I’m not a star,’ I think he wanted me to understand. ‘That’s not what this is about.’
I heard that idea again, Sunday, when, in his valedictory address, C.J. Pine said, “Dignity is practical and unadorned.”
In the interview for WVPE, Bryan made it clear to me that the protest he was organizing for graduation was not meant to insult the university on its happiest day. In fact, I understood, it was a compliment, the highest of compliments, to the school he loves.
"What we are doing tomorrow is an expression of love for Notre Dame," he said. "What we are doing tomorrow is what Notre Dame taught us to do."
C.J. Pine echoed that idea in his speech to the assembled on Sunday. “When we follow the deeper callings of justice,” he told the crowd, “and proclaim the deeper magic of love and sacrifice that connect all of us, then we will be true to what we have learned at Notre Dame.”
I know it’s a small sample size, as they say, but from listening to first Bryan and then C.J., I thought, ‘Wow, this is what people learn at Notre Dame.’
Notre Dame, Father Jenkins, should be proud.
I thought about what Bryan said to me about social justice, and community, and personal responsibility when I heard people booing him, booing him as he walked away from the ceremony commemorating his high achievement, booing as he walked away from one of the happiest occasions in his life, as an expression of principle, to support his classmates and their families whose practical rights, not conceptual, whose physical rights are being threatened, in the name of security and tradition.
Then I turned my attention back to the commencement address of the Vice President, and when he decried what he called “political correctness,” when he spoke in favor of free speech on college campuses, in favor of letting everyone have their say as a matter of principle, no one booed, there was applause.
Forty thousand headmen couldn't make me change my mind
If I had to take the choice between the deafman and the blind
I know just where my feet should go and that's enough for me
I turned around and knocked them down and walked across the sea.
-"(Roamin' Thro' the Gloamin with) 40,000 Headmen," Jim Capaldi, Steve Winwood, Traffic, 1968