Longtime Graham math teacher Howard Pickering declared to an entire generation of Falcon Boomers – including me – that COMMENCEMENT IS COMMENCEMENT! Mr. Pickering tried to convey that commencement is a beginning, not an ending: in other words, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
I am modifying the verb tense of Mr. Pickering’s advice to reflect the change in graduation traditions faced by the Class of 2020. These graduates will celebrate their accomplishments through the available but totally unexpected use of technology: virtual programs, individually video-recorded ceremonies compiled for eventual livestreaming, even a student car parade to allow a send-off by their teachers.
While outlining this year’s will-be ceremonies, a recent UDC article also mentioned the has-been commencement of 1941 – when Urbana High School’s tradition of “walking down the hill” was established. Immediately I was off to the UDC archives on the county library’s website to learn how that all transpired almost eighty years ago.
With 78 graduates, the UHS Class of 1941 was the largest in school history to that point, making the traditional venue – the Clifford Theater – insufficient in size to accommodate relatives and friends. Relocating commencement exercises to the high school campus added a “touch of pageantry” with its procession of graduates, faculty, and board members from the Castle to the football field. The evening ceremony, under lights installed four years earlier, was described thusly: “stirring spectacle, enhanced by moonlight, no doubt established a new custom so beautiful was last night’s affair.”
Seniors in eleven county schools also graduated in ceremonies that included veritable concerts of musical numbers, presentations of scholastic awards and athletic letters to small classes of ten, twenty, or thirty students. Such was the case at Harrison-Adams School where my mother delivered the valedictory address to eleven classmates including her cousin Ray Maurice and Kermit Dill, father of future Falcons Doug, Dennis, and Debbie Dill Canter.
Other commencements of note had graduates “attired in caps and gowns, the girls in white and the young men in red” at St. Mary Parochial High School. Urbana Junior College celebrated for a week with baccalaureate, a dance at the Urbana Country Club, an outing at Indian Lake – all before five graduates received diplomas in the library. And 53 Urbana kindergarteners received diplomas in the packed high school auditorium complete with ribbon decorations and maypole dancers.
I then read about local commencement ceremonies in 1955, when I was in the first grade. Group photos of each graduating class accompanied UDC commencement descriptions, what with most classes still numbering thirty or under. And most area high school graduates took week-long senior class trips to Washington, D.C. and New York City just a few days before or after commencement.
I moved on to my own commencement in 1966, when we marched to our seats on the stage in a choreographed processional during which we stepped and paused, stepped and paused. Consolidation had reduced the number of county schools to just four. Graham issued diplomas to the largest class of 139 students; Triad, West Liberty-Salem, and Mechanicsburg followed suit with classes of 95, 91, and 60 respectively. As one of five class speakers, I was awfully glad to break the tradition of memorized speeches – we read ours. UDC coverage included the traditional complete name list of graduates and senior pictures of those awarded scholarships during the evening’s programs.
By the time the Class of 1977 received diplomas, I had been attending commencement every year. Many schools combined baccalaureate with commencement, and most senior classes chose class colors and mottoes. Graham had moved its graduation exercises to the football field. Speakers for the ceremonies varied: some schools invited outside speakers while other schools relied solely on speeches delivered by class members.
Commencement in the 1980’s continued longtime traditions, with the UDC often using candid photos of the proceedings. Much was made of tassel-turning at indoor and outdoor ceremonies alike. During that decade I sadly witnessed for the first time an empty chair adorned by a flower situated with the graduates in honor of a classmate gone too soon.
As the years rolled on, some schools continued to award scholarships during commencement, while others organized separate senior awards programs. And early in the new century, a handful of World War II veterans received the long-delayed but well-deserved diplomas they had missed by enlisting before graduation. In 2002, for example, Graham awarded two such diplomas, with one presentation each at Triad, Mechanicsburg, and West-Liberty Salem.
As I prepared to retire, the past innovation of commencement on the football field at Graham finally collapsed under the weight of the annual struggle with rainfall roulette – a couple of times GHS grads and guests alike had to pick up their chairs and run to the gym during an unexpected cloudburst. And in 2010 the entire shebang took place at the Nutter Center while a new, larger gym – complete with air conditioning – was under construction.
And now the Class of 2020 is on the verge of graduating pandemic style. Their ceremonies will not resemble the traditional, has-been programs of past years. These seniors, at the high school and college levels, will be making history as they experience their will-be commencements. Right now, all involved are adjusting to the lack of traditions, anticipated and dreamed. However, in the years and decades to come, perhaps they will bittersweetly recall – after all – that COMMENCEMENT HAS ALWAYS BEEN AND WILL ALWAYS BE COMMENCEMENT!
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.