The Colgate Scene ON-LINE


It was a perfect day, with plenty of time for reflection or bubble blowing

A day for seniors

by Ryan Simmons '98 and Garner Simmons '65

FRIDAY . . . the night before

RS: It's here already. I could swear that just yesterday I was going down to Graceland with a caravan of friends for a whole week to relax and rest up before graduation. Now it's Friday, I'm exhausted, and the parents have already begun to arrive. Oh well, no time to worry about that now. I still have to pack, so I might as well get started. Except of course, my friend Jay's family has just shown up, and I can't not meet them. That's all right. I can pack later.

SATURDAY . . . a prelude

GS: It is dawn. Returning to somewhere fixed in their collective memory, a quartet of Canada geese fly northward, announcing the day. Beside a yellow cottage in a grove of budding maples, I stare out across Lake Moraine as sunlight dances over broken water. A wooden diving raft floats invitingly 100 feet from shore just as it did more than 30 years ago, the last time I attended a Colgate graduation. The difference is that then I was the graduate. This time it is my son Ryan's turn. Plus ca change, plus c'est le meme chose.

Seven a.m. at Seven Oaks. Lee Woltman '65 and I tee off. Completed in our senior year, the course is in top form following the spring rains. Having lived and worked in Hamilton for more than 30 years, Lee has watched the classes come and go. Talk turns to graduation. Of how, in '65, America stood on the edge of war, unaware that its most bitter fighting would be against itself. Thankfully the Class of '98 faces no such conflict. Yet without question, they will be tested. Crossing the road to the 13th tee, we meet John Hubbard '72 and his young son, Sam, third baseman for Hamilton's Red Sox, on the way to batting practice. Like Lee, John attended Colgate and stayed on, becoming university photographer. As we watch them drive away, I realize how much I have seen Colgate change through John's eyes.

RS: Good God! It's already Saturday morning -- well, almost Saturday afternoon. Time is catching up to me. I can remember few details from the night before, only the places I went and the company I kept. In the end, it's only the company that really matters anyway. Enough of that, the day has just begun (for me, at any rate) and I really need to pack. But already I'm late. I leap out of bed and into my clothes, rousting my younger brothers from the downstairs couches as I go. I have promised to give my mother and grandmother a tour of the campus and we can make it if we run. It's only a short distance to where they will be waiting, but it seems like I bump into a friend every 15 feet and just can't bring myself to run off without stopping to talk for a few minutes.

Ryan Simmons '98, Garner Simmons '65
GS: Finishing the round, Lee and I promise to play again soon. I catch up with Ryan as he takes his mother and grandmother, along with my brother's family, on a campus tour. Four years of highlights: from Case Library to the Eric Ryan Annex to Andrews Hall. We wind up at the steps of the Chapel. Watching Ryan, his grandmother remembers her late husband, for whom he was named. Out of eleven grandchildren, he will be the first to graduate. We stop at the Coop to pick up hats for all who could not make it, then off to the Colgate Inn to meet Professor Susan Cerasano for a cold drink. She asks Ryan about his plans. He answers that he will enroll in UCLA's program for teaching English as a foreign language, then go to Japan. Like his father, he has failed to take a single job interview with the companies that have come to campus. She asks if not having a job waiting worries him. Grinning, he admits he has no idea what lies ahead. But he's looking forward to the adventure.

RS: The quad at night. Sara, Sue, and I search breathlessly through the teeming crowd for our friends. By sheer luck we find them just before the torchlight procession kicks off. We are met with cheers and hugs and then we're on our way. The excitement in the air is as palpable as the heat radiating from the torches above us. Descending toward the lake, we discover Cardiac Hill lined with the friends and students who have stayed for graduation. Many of them offer us a variety of libations like water bearers in some bizarre marathon. My attention jumps back and forth between scanning the crowd for familiar faces and controlling my torch. My goal is to avoid setting either the trees above me or the person in front of me on fire. Directly before me, Rich, a friend of four years, moves along, unsuspecting. A foot taller than I, his hair in a two-foot braid, he avoids the flames as if by magic. The walk is fast, a blur of voices and faces, familiar and foreign. And then we're there. I find myself as a single point of light in a ring of fire that encompasses Taylor Lake, listening to the alma mater echo into the darkness.

Gail P. Mitchell, without the mortar board, who chipped away at her degree over the years, was recognized by the English department with a special prize for distinguished achievement
GS: We gather with several thousand parents and friends to watch the torchlight ceremony. An atavistic rite of passage from the last century, it remains singularly fixed in my mind. In '65, we marched by firelight down the hill to surround the lake, 300 men evenly spaced. After a brief invocation by the Reverend Robert Smith, we all sang the alma mater,hurled our torches into the lake and moved off.

A third of a century later, we watch a more raucous line of torches weave its way down the hill and around the lake. The atmosphere is more Mardi Gras than momentous. Improved 100 percent by being 50 percent women, the Class of '98 is clearly different from the one I remember, yet the look in their eyes is the same: brash, self-reliant, steadfast in the belief that nothing seems beyond their grasp. Behind me a woman stares in mild horror at the gothic procession before us: "This is really dangerous. How can they let them do this? What about insurance? What if someone gets hurt?" Her concerns are not unfounded. But then, that is the point. A test by fire tying all who dare it both to Colgate's past and future. It is the university's bet on its graduating class. Dangerous, yes. But the world they are about to enter is not without risk. Success courts failure. Having spent four years preparing them, this is the true final exam. Stepping fearlessly into the dark, a clutch of fire in one hand, ready for whatever comes. As the procession encircles the lake the combined voices of the Swinging 'Gates, Colgate 13 and Resolutions rise up to sing the alma mater. We all join in -- those about to graduate and those who once did -- an a cappella communion floats across the water. Then with torches tossed into an iron cage, sparks tumbling skyward, the Class of '98 disperses into the night. On the way back to our car, we pass Hamilton's volunteer firemen. They lounge against their new truck, their faces a mix of relief and disappointment. Thanking them for their readiness, we drive off as parties spring up like spotfires across the campus.

RS: It's nearly dawn and the conversation has yet to end. How did I get here? Can it really be over? It all seems too fast. I remember throwing my torch into the pile and breaking away through the crowd. I remember excited conversations and an assortment of hugs and handshakes. Then I was off into the night for one last celebration. This is why I find myself sitting behind a house on Spring Street with a slowly dwindling group of friends awaiting the sunrise, recalling our four years together.

The college rethought a century-and-a-half-old decision when it awarded a bachelors degree posthumously to George Gavin Ritchie. Ritchie, a theology student, started the college's first student newspaper in 1847, and then was expelled for printing an abolitionist editorial against the wishes of the faculty and his editorial board. His degree was accepted by his great grandson, Donald Gavin Ritchie of Moultrie, GA.
GS: Late into the night, I sit with my wife, Sheila, and her mother, reliving the evening's events. "I've never seen anything like it," Sheila says. "All those torches. The lake. I had no idea they'd be so close. One minute I wanted to tell some boy to be careful. The next I wanted to tell the guy standing next to me to stop worrying. They're young. They'll be all right. The minute I saw Ryan, I wished I'd brought the camera. But then I knew no photo could ever really capture what I was feeling." Her mother nods: "I'll never forget it." None us will, I agree.

SUNDAY . . . graduation

GS: Rising the next morning with the sun, I go running, a habit I've brought with me from California. A couple of miles down the road a handful of cows stand grazing in a field. As I approach, one of the cows begins to move with me. As she passes the others, one by one, they take up the chase. Perhaps they think I am headed for the barn. Soon we are moving together, my herd and I, loping along in unison. Reaching the far fence, they stop to watch. I hear them calling after me, mooing for my return. I do, but it's not the same. Seeing me approach, they exchange a knowing look that says: "You see? I knew it. He's lost."

RS: After three-and-a-half hours of tossing and turning, I find myself still not packed as we sit down to Senior Brunch. I don't really eat, as much as push my food around the plate. I know that I should be talking, but I can't seem to pull myself away from my thoughts. And then it's time to go.

University Marshal George Hudson, with the mace, leads the commencement processional from Payne Creek to the banks of Taylor Lake

GS: Bagpipes skirling, the Mohawk Valley Frasers march down the Willow Path toward a maroon and white striped tent. There, the procession forms behind them as the 177th commencement begins. Black robed beneath a brilliant May sun, all fall in as university marshal Professor George Hudson, who had been Ryan's advisor his first two years, takes the lead. A large, bearded, bear of a man, he carries the university mace, a walnut staff crowned with a gold and silver replica of the Chapel dome. Immediately behind come President Grabois and the trustees, followed by those who will receive honorary degrees and the faculty. At last, in alphabetical order comes the Class of '98, 794 strong. Making their way to the temporary pavilion set up beside Taylor Lake, they listen as university chaplain Nancy De Vries gives the invocation, then take their seats.

The speakers and the honored

RS: As the sound of the bagpipes fades away, the ceremony begins. Each moment seems to take longer than the last, yet I almost want the time to stop, to go backwards. The speeches, to my surprise, are engaging and entertaining. After the honorary degrees are handed out, we finally proceed with the part of the ceremony for which we have been waiting. I have known who would graduate for weeks. I read through the program again and nothing has changed. Yet every time I hear a friend's name called out, it takes me by surprise.
A celebration four years in the making
GS: Opening with a quote from Yogi Berra, President Grabois speaks briefly, then confers the honorary degrees. New York Governor George Pataki begins by announcing that his commencement speech will take 19 minutes. To ensure credibility, he instructs the state troopers who have escorted him to check their watches. If his speech runs long, they are to take appropriate action. For obvious reasons, during the course of his speech, he carefully avoids the phrase "aim high." At the 18-minute mark, having urged the Class of '98 to seek success by never fearing failure, the governor concludes his remarks and retires unscathed.

Alphabetically the class is called. Depending on your name, it is either too fast or too slow. Hearing "Stephanie Paige May," I realize her father and I were classmates and make a mental note to track him down.

RS: As my row stands and begins to move toward the stage, I can hear my heartbeat increase as we approach. I wonder if I will recognize any voices, and if in fact, will there be any voices, as I walk across the stage to receive my diploma. I glance one last time into the crowd, recognizing a few familiar faces, hand my card to Assistant to the President Gary Ross, who is reading our names, and complete the journey that began four years ago. As I shake Neil Grabois' hand and take my degree, no single definable thought comes to mind. I can hear nothing. I feel numb. And then it is over. I feel now like skipping or sprinting or turning cartwheels back to my seat, but I move as if on autopilot.

First among the most

The diplomas are written in Latin, but the easiest translation is: you've made it

GS: The degrees bestowed, we sing the alma mater one last time. Then the Frasers pipe out the graduates. It's all over too soon. Watching the last disappear, Sheila's mother stares past the pavilion. The Chapel dome catches the late afternoon light. She shakes her head: "I had no idea it would be this beautiful."

Memories of my parents come back with a rush. My mother fighting tears. My father, who had left school after the sixth grade and never looked back, holding my diploma and asking about my plans. Accepted to New York's New School in painting, I had just learned there were no student deferments. Vietnam stood like a question mark. "Just remember," said my father, a gambler all his life, "life's a horserace. Sometimes you've got to bet on yourself."

RS: We march out as graduates to the sound of the bagpipes once more. As we walk, the class dissolves from a single unified body into an amorphous mob. I wander through the crowd, stopping for congratulations, hugs and a seemingly endless string of photographs. Finally, I return my robe and go to find my family and friends. Back at 118 Broad Street, the goodbyes have begun. The first is painful, almost shocking, but soon, I am simply overwhelmed, performing the same ritual over and over almost without comprehension. I have lived with and depended on these people so often over four years and the thought of separating is almost unthinkable. One by one they depart -- Jane, Sam, Kiera, Simon, Will -- too many to name. I feel a part of me go with each of them. It all seems impossible, and then it's over.

GS: While waiting for Ryan to return his robes, we meet my old roommate Rick Bailey '65 and his wife, whose nephew is also in the Class of '98. Then it's off to Leonardsville to join George Hudson and his wife for dinner. A member of the English department, George is fluent in several languages, including Japanese. Summers he guides Smithsonian seminars through the Alps. He suggests I join him. Perhaps next summer. The conversation runs from politics to poetry to painting. It reminds me of time spent not so long ago -- of Kistler and Balmuth and Reading and Eric Ryan -- whose minds made me want to wrestle with the world. The evening is filled with anecdotes and laughter. It is difficult to say goodbye.

Driving back, I get lost. But we have so much to talk about that no one seems to mind. Dropping off Sheila and her mother at the cottage, I drive the boys back to Ryan's house on Broad Street. As we say goodnight, I find myself watching Ryan move off with his brothers. No longer the boy I had brought here in the fall of '94, he is changed in a way that only Colgate could change him. Yet I realize it is only the warmup. The real race is life.

MONDAY . . . the morning after

RS: Having been up all night, I sit with Chris and Nadim, the last of my classmates to depart. We promise to keep in touch, then go our separate ways. It's a new day. Despite the uncertainty, I can feel the excitement. Walking up the stairs to my room, I discover that I am finally ready to pack my bags and go.

See Also:
A day for seniors The speakers and the honored First among the most