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April 30, 1998


It was a dark and stormy day outside the Civic Arena last Sunday — but filled with warmth and collegiality inside — as a throng of about 10,000 witnessed the University's annual conferral of degrees and the ceremonial commencement exercise. In all, the University conferred more than 5,800 degrees, including more than 400 doctorates, in an event with highlights ranging from a procession of administrative officers and faculty in full academic regalia, to a stirring patriotic speech, to newly proclaimed graduates from the School of Pharmacy en masse shooting off "silly string" in a demonstration of glee.

After the opening of the ceremony by Gordon K. MacLeod, chief University marshal and president of the University Senate, and following the processional, Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg welcomed the faculty, graduates, family and friends of the University. Nordenberg made a point of acknowledging and thanking those who had contributed to the success of the graduates, asking family members, faculty and staff members to stand and be recognized. He mentioned that several Honors College and Arts and Sciences students recently had "brought honor to the University" by earning prestigious national awards, including Goldwater, Putnam and Marshall scholarship awards.

Nordenberg also conferred an honorary Doctor of Science degree upon Pitt alumnus Steven C. Beering, president of Purdue University, who was the featured speaker. Beering, in a speech titled "Life's Punctuation Marks," spoke to the graduates-to-be of their "almost limitless potential. …We are driven by the powerful hope that we can improve things — that we cannot only preserve civilization but indeed better the human condition. We are free to do so in America. And so you have arrived at an exclamation point in your lives, commencement, another new beginning — full of excitement and promise, mystery and questions," he said.

For Beering, the honorary doctorate was his third Pitt degree; he earned a B.S. degree summa cum laude in 1954 and a medical degree in 1958. As Nordenberg pointed out, Beering earned his bachelor's a mere six years after emigrating to the United States from Germany, an event that clearly formed one of his own life's punctuation marks.

"Let me tell you a story," Beering said. "July 24, 1948. Two young boys and their father are standing at the railing of an ocean liner as it glides smoothly up the Hudson River toward New York Harbor. They came from war-torn Europe to seek a new life. A silent group of men, women and children stood patiently at the railing with them — waiting for the first glimpse of the Promised Land. And then it happened! A brilliant shaft of sunlight pierced through the morning mist and touched the Statue of Liberty — an explosion of emotion….

"It's hard even to talk with a lump in your throat. Strangers hugged each other, and there were prayers of thanks in many languages. I had never seen my father cry!" And Beering offered the story's sequel, which took place in 1986, when he next saw the Statue of Liberty. "This time my journey took me past the 'glorious lady' in an airliner," he said. "As I strained to see her, I recalled that foggy morning long ago — and felt my father's hand again on mine. As we flew by the statue, she was still shrouded in mist, the mist of memories and tears. Even as I rubbed my eyes, I could not make out her features. She was covered with scaffolding! "If the first sight had been powerful, this one was overwhelming; for I suddenly realized that this was the real statue — liberty under constant maintenance and repair. It is we the people — you and I — who must preserve freedom. I was still dreaming when we landed in New York; an Ellis Island American had come home." Beering concluded his speech with advice for the graduates: "Let not question marks hold you back; make your lives exclamation points. You are free to do so in America!"

Following Beering's address, Nordenberg performed the formal conferral process, as graduates by school were asked to rise. During each school's citation, tailored to the discipline, Nordenberg pointed out the importance of the field.

* "Arts and Sciences stand at the very center of the University," he said, and its graduates are "a powerful and intellectual resource and valuable asset."

* To engineering graduates, Nordenberg spoke of transforming "ideas into realities."

* "The law," he said, "touches all our lives, and is an expression of freedom characterized by justice and fairness for all."

* To the new education graduates, he said: "The University itself is a place of education. Effective instruction is critical to American life and the strength of democracy."

* To Katz business school graduates, he said, "At a time of economic transformation, you've gained vital experience as managers…helping to create a better, more effective society for all."

* He pointed to General Studies as the college that "presents our University in full diversity. Education takes many forms, and learning takes place whenever a student and teacher are together."

* Speaking about social work, he said, "This is a profession of helping and healing. Your work is arduous and you face significant challenges in our changing world. But your reward comes from…helping others."

* To public and international affairs graduates, he said, "You are skilled in the arts of administration, trained in the subtleties of politics, guided by the highest of ethical standards, working together in a spirit of democracy and equality."

* About information sciences, Nordenberg commented, "As we build the global information superhighway," in the quest for "effective and equitable access, you are among the women and men who will design and manage information systems, telecommunications networks, libraries, archives and other critical components of this emerging superhighway."

* He told Honors College graduates that they "are put through the most rigorous tests and respond in ways that are inspiring. You stand as visible reminders that our students at all levels can produce work of the very highest quality."

* He said medical graduates "save human lives and secure human health. In the years to come you will work to mend our wounds, to lessen our pain, to make us well, to make us whole…through the practice of your healing arts."

* "Pharmacy is an essential part of the total health care system," Nordenberg said, "providing the products that often make many medical miracles possible."

* "In recent years, we have witnessed extraordinary changes to the field of dental medicine," he said. The programs at our school "are helping to produce further progress by combining first-rate science with first-rate clinical care."

* Nursing, he said, is the traditional field of "benevolent medical care. Modern nurses are today sophisticated specialists in an era of health care reform. Their work and talents are more than ever before producing links to health and well-being."

* Public health professionals, he said, work to focus "on the larger picture of identifying problems and developing solutions that improve the health of our society and the individuals who are a part of it."

* Rehabilitation sciences are sciences "of the second chance. Human restoration can hope renew. By your skills and therapies, you improve the lives of those severely injured." Each school's conferral of degrees was met with roars of approval from its members. Then Provost James Maher presided over the individual recognition of the newest doctorate recipients, as those in attendance were named by their school's dean or associate dean, and asked to come to the podium. Graduates from the 16 degree-granting schools on the Pittsburgh campus also filed to the podium to receive their diploma facsimiles and customary congratulatory handshakes.

(The regional campuses, with a combined 800 graduates, hold their own commencements.)

Lea A. Shafer, CAS class of '98, gave a student response address, and Cynthia Ross, president-elect of the Alumni Association, welcomed the newest Pitt alumni. Pitt's Chamber Orchestra and the Men's Glee Club provided musical accompaniment .

–Peter Hart

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