By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
MOLINE, Ill. — With COVID-19 restrictions in place, commencement ceremonies for Davenport-based St. Ambrose University proceeded smoothly. Graduate students processed across the stage at the TaxSlayer Center on May 14 and undergraduate students on May 15.
At both ceremonies, Paul Koch, provost and vice president for academic and student affairs, welcomed everyone and said countless hours went into planning for the event over several months. All held their breath until the last minute, hoping the ongoing pandemic would not prevent an in-person ceremony.
Michael Puthoff, outgoing dean of graduate students and director of the university’s physical therapy department, gave the commencement address to the graduate students. Father George McDaniel, professor emeritus of history, gave the address to the undergraduate students and received an honorary doctorate degree during the ceremony.
“St. Ambrose has given me the opportunity to minister, teach, research and write history,” Father McDaniel said. “It has given me great colleagues in doing history — at first Francis, Wayne and Richard — who have gone to God, and those who have come along later; faculty colleagues and staff across the university; and generations of students. All of those were gifts I unwrapped over the years. Now the honor of this degree and the opportunity to address the class of 2021 is the bow on top of the package. Thank you.”
In his address, he acknowledged St. Ambrose University President Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, who will retire this summer after 14 years leading the university. She also received an honorary doctorate degree. Sister Lescinski “helped us to develop new ways to serve our mission as a Catholic liberal arts university. Moreover, she did this in a rapidly changing world of higher education. I think that especially in this last year of great uncertainty, she has led us with a steadying hand. As she ends her time as our president, she leaves a stronger university for her successor, Dr. Amy Novak.” He told Sister Lescinski, “Your years here form a great and lasting beginning for the next phase of your journey. May God go with you.”
Father McDaniel told the graduates that their time at St. Ambrose also has been a great and lasting beginning of their journey. “Today marks the end of your years at St. Ambrose, but not the end of your years as an Ambrosian. Those years continue because today is not an ending; today is a commencement, a beginning, a going-forth to the next part of your journey. Thus, today we remember the past, but look to the future.”
Over the years, the graduates have accepted challenges, faced disappointment, found new talents, tried new things, succeeded at times, but also failed at times. “All of which has prepared you for similar experiences in the years ahead,” Father McDaniel said.
“The past three semesters, our COVID time, have been especially challenging. My COVID time began 15 months ago when I boarded the Grand Princess in San Francisco to cruise to Hawaii. On the return trip we learned that a few passengers who had been on the ship on a previous cruise had contracted COVID and that one had died.”
With that news, the captain confined all of the passengers to their rooms for several days. “Once we came into port in Oakland it was still four days before I disembarked.” He flew to Dobbins Air Reserve Base north of Atlanta where he was quarantined.
“As we flew, the only thing missing was the voice of Rod Serling intoning the introduction to his early 1960s television program: ‘You’re traveling through another dimension — a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. . . . That’s a signpost up ahead: your next stop: the Twilight Zone!’”
Many in the audience might not be familiar with the TV program or Rod Serling, “but some of us can still hear his flat voice intoning that introduction.” Father McDaniel suggested that perhaps “in this COVID time of social distancing, masks, daily temperature checks, virtual classes, Zoom, WebEx, you felt you were in that other dimension of the Twilight Zone: disoriented, where nothing felt firm or certain. But let me suggest that what you have learned and experienced here provided signposts that will lead you back to firm ground.”
He said their classes and faith helped them through their journey at St. Ambrose. He reminded them that successes and failures happen, and advised them not to “fail to try because you are afraid you will fail. All those things you have learned give you a firm ground upon which to stand so you can learn more, make a living, and live well. But to live well requires more than the information that was outlined on the course syllabus.”
For more than 30 years, the weekly campus ministry bulletin has carried the slogan: “Faith, Learning, Justice.” “I think that is a syllabus for our life at St. Ambrose, and as Ambrosians you can carry that syllabus with you wherever your journey takes you.”
“As you leave St. Ambrose you carry with you all you have learned: the material represented by all those course syllabuses; the life lessons from Faith, Learning, Justice; the knowledge that when life seems uncertain, disoriented, you know where you can find firm ground. Some of you are headed for graduate school. Others to a job you hope will become a life-fulfilling career. Your job will take you to live somewhere that will bring new friends and neighbors into your lives. You hope you and that special person in your life will marry and start a family. It will be quite a journey.”
It will take time “to reach the top of your chosen profession, to fulfill your dreams, to find your own Ithaca. But the poet tells you to not ‘hurry the journey,’ enjoy it, and don’t miss the side roads that may be even more interesting than the path you have chosen. And as you journey, I pray that you will be a source of blessing to all those you encounter along the way, and that, in turn, you will be blessed by those you meet.”
During the ceremony, Father McDaniel, Sister Lescinski, and Demetrios Papageorgiou each received an honorary doctor of humane letters. Papageorgiou has been a primary sponsor and active volunteer for the St. Ambrose Wine Festival since its inception 20 years ago.