When U.S. Congressman John Lewis of Georgia visits the Union College campus in two weeks, he’ll be adding his name to an impressive list of commencement speakers that includes former U.S. President William Howard Taft.
Other prominent politicians, Supreme Court justices and both Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners are also on the list of notables who have come to Union to inspire the graduating class. Few, if any, however, had as difficult a task as Taft did on June, 11, 1917.
As the 59-year-old Ohio native and future chief justice approached the podium at the Presbyterian Church in the Stockade section of Schenectady and addressed the schools’s 121st graduating class, the pall of a world war hung in the air. Taft’s aim was to be uplifting and inspirational, even though 46 Union students and four faculty members had already enlisted into the armed services and left the campus. Before the year was out 70 more young men from Union would join them on their way to fight in Europe.
The U.S. had entered World War I two months earlier, and a Union official recommended that Taft’s speech should focus on that conflict.
“It is good advice,” said Taft, who opened his remarks by sharing the counsel. “It is a good suggestion, and in the face of events it is hard to follow any other subject.”
As commencements go, the presence of a former U.S. president must have added some luster to the 1917 event, and the speaker for this year’s ceremony has that same gravitas. Lewis, a Georgia Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, was a member of the “Big Six” from the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. He was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a close associate of Martin Luther King and helped organize the March on Washington. Lewis is the last person alive who spoke on that day, Aug. 28, 1963, when King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
“John Lewis is a remarkable person whose life story has been an inspiration to me and to many others,” said Union College President Stephen Ainlay. “One of the most important figures in the American civil rights movement, he consistently demonstrated commitment and courage.”
Just last month, Lewis spoke at the commencement ceremony at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, telling graduates to “never, ever give up your dream.”
“He continues to ask us to set our sights on making the world a better place,” said Ainlay. “The Class of 2013 and all of Union can rightfully feel honored that he accepted our invitation, and I look forward to honoring him at this year’s commencement.”
While not all commencement speakers are as memorable as a former occupant of the White House or a sitting U.S. congressman of Lewis’s stature, Union’s list is quite impressive. Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan gave commencement speeches in 1983 and 1995, while sitting New York governors on the list include Thomas Dewey in 1950 and Glens Falls native Charles Evan Hughes in 1908. Hughes later joined Taft on the U.S. Supreme Court and succeeded him as chief justice in 1930.
Pulitzer Prize-winning historians Garry Wills and David McCullough spoke in 1993 and 1994, respectively, while other speakers have included Nobel Prize recipients Elihu Root (1914) and Irving Langmuir (1934). Root was a New York senator and secretary of state under William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, while Langmuir was a General Electric scientist who lived adjacent to the college in the GE Realty Plot.
Retired Union College political science professor James Underwood figures he’s been to most of the commencement ceremonies since he started teaching at the school in 1963, and many, he said, have been quite memorable.
“Phil Robinson, who was a student of mine, could have been a stand-up comic,” Underwood said of the 1996 commencement speaker, a Union grad who went on to make movies such as “Field of Dreams,” “Sneakers” and “The Sum of All Fears.” “He was funny and he gave a great speech. David McCullough gave a wonderful talk. There have been many, many good ones.”
In 2003 Joanne Rogers, the wife of PBS star Fred “Mr.” Rogers, delivered quite an inspirational speech according to Underwood, filling in for her husband, who had died in February.
“We had invited Mr. Rogers and when he died, the kids said, ‘let’s get Mrs. Rogers,’ ” remembered Underwood. “Well, she showed up and she was wonderful.”
While every commencement speaker had impressive credentials in their field, not all were celebrities, and some just weren’t great speakers. Schenectady County District Attorney Bob Carney graduated from Union in 1975, and remembers very little of what was said by biomedical researcher Albert B. Sabin from the University of South Carolina.
“He seemed a very kind man, and I remember he seemed very nervous,” said Carney. “He really was not a great public speaker. I remember more about the parties surrounding the ceremony than I do the ceremony.”
Carney also recalls that the Union class of 1975 was the first to have a “full compliment” of female graduates. Three years earlier, in 1972, when women were just beginning to take full course loads at Union College, it was Wellesley College President Ruth Marie Adams who gave the commencement speech. At the time, Adams was acting as a consultant to Dartmouth College which, like Union, was transitioning to a coed campus.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t remember a thing about it,” said State Assemblyman Jim Tedisco, a psychology major who, a few months earlier, led Union’s basketball team to a record 19-3 season. “It was 40 years ago. I can’t remember the woman or what she said.”
Tedisco’s case isn’t unusual. Former Niskayuna High School history teacher and principal Frank Taormina was a 1950 Union grad and doesn’t remember feeling particularly inspired after listening to then-Governor Dewey give his commencement speech.
“They had scheduled some high-ranking official in the Philippine government as our speaker, but something happened and he couldn’t come to Schenectady,” said Taormina, whose graduation ceremony was at the Plaza Theater on State Street next to Veterans Park. “Dewey filled in, and while I was never a big Dewey fan, I can remember thinking to myself, ‘well, I guess the guy deserves some credit for putting together what he did. I think most people in the audience are there to get their diplomas, or it’s their family there to watch them. I don’t think people want to sit there all day and listen to some guy talk.’ ”
In 1947, Taormina showed up at commencement ceremonies to listen to California Gov. Earl Warren, later the chief justice of the United States.
“I showed up because some guys I was friends with were graduating,” remembered Taormina. “My impression was that it was not a striking or inspiring speech. He was a politician and he was doing the best he could. But it certainly was not an exciting speech.”
In 2006, when retired professor Underwood was acting as interim president, he also gave the commencement speech.
“I knew that I remembered nothing of my college commencement speech at Franklin & Marshall, except that some Methodist minister said, ‘you have to start from where you are,’ ” said Underwood. “I really hadn’t been a diligent student myself, and I knew there were some students there in the audience like me, so I used that line. ‘You have to start from where you are.’ ”
Underwood, who said he purposely kept his speech short, also spoke about long-time Union College president Eliphalet Nott.
“I talked about Nott and some of the students that studied under him, like William Seward and Chester Arthur,” continued Underwood. “Union has a long history of people who studied under Nott, and he told them to listen to their conscience. We all have a quiet voice inside of us, and maybe sometimes it isn’t that loud, but Nott taught these men to listen to that inner voice, that small and quiet voice that tells you you might not be doing the right thing. I thought that was important.”
Nott, who was still the school president when he died in 1866, started his career at Union in 1804, five years after the school graduated its first class in 1799. Up until 1925, the commencement ceremony was typically held in a city church, most likely the First Reformed or First Presbyterian in the Stockade, although others used included the Methodist Church and the Second Reformed Church. Wayne Somers, however, who compiled and edited the “Encyclopedia of Union College History” in 2003, couldn’t be certain of the location on many occasions during the school’s first 50 years.
“Early on they simply didn’t have a big enough assembly space, so yeah, I was surprised because I did quite a lot of research and still couldn’t fill in all the dates,” said Somers, who owns and operates Wayne Somers Bookseller on Union Street near the campus. “I think it’s safe to assume that whatever trend we saw developing probably continued, but we just can’t be certain.”
Commencement ceremonies moved to Memorial Chapel when it was opened in 1925 and stayed there until 1947. When class sizes increased dramatically after World War II, the school moved back to the First Presbyterian Church in 1948. The Plaza Theater hosted the affair from 1949-51, but in 1952 the event went back to the campus where it has remained, either at Memorial Chapel, Alexander Field, the Memorial Fieldhouse, Achilles Rink or in the Schaffer Library Plaza where, barring poor weather, it has been held since 1969.
Union didn’t begin the practice of drawing prominent speakers from outside the college for a commencement speech until George William Curtis of the New York State Board of Regents offered some lofty oratory in 1877. Curtis was a well-known journalist, author and public speaker who not only eschewed numerous offers to run for office, but also turned down most of the political appointments sent his way.
While much of Curtis’s public life was behind him when he spoke at Union — he died in 1892 — most of the speakers in previous years were students, young men with promising futures. That was certainly the case in 1803, the year of Union’s fifth graduating class, when senior John W. Taylor was one of many speakers making up the commencement program. Taylor, who grew up in nearby Charlton and became a U.S. Congressman and speaker of the House, capped a long day of speeches by presenting an “Oration on the Pursuit of Happiness” as well as his valedictory address.