MIDDLEBURY — Clouds tempered the sunshine Sunday morning, but the rain held off as 593 Middlebury College seniors received their degrees on a pleasantly warm but dry morning.
Commencement speaker Chris Waddell challenged those in the sea of hopeful young faces, some belonging to 20-somethings nervous about what life held next for them, to be prepared for the unexpected and to make the most of what life throws their way.
“It’s not what happens to you. It’s what you do with what happens to you,” he said.
Waddell knows a thing or two about dealing with life’s curveballs. A member of the Middlebury class of 1991, he had been a promising skier for the Panthers when a skiing accident in 1988 left him paralyzed below the waist. He wasted no time getting back on the mountain, joining the U.S. Disabled Ski Team within two years of his accident.
He went on to win 12 medals in four Paralympics Games, earning medals in both summer and winter competitions. He is the most decorated male skier in the history of the Paralympic Games, a multi-sport competition for athletes with physical disabilities.
Not content with those honors, he achieved many other athletic and personal accomplishments. In 2009, for instance, he summated Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa. He was the first paraplegic to do so.
He can now add an honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, from Middlebury to his list of impressive achievements, which also include being inducted into both the Paralympic Hall of Fame and U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.
The decorated alum urged the graduates to be mindful of the seeming randomness of life as they pursue their post-graduation goals. He quoted the lyrics of the Harry Chapin song “Circle”: “No straight lines make up my life/And all my roads have bends/There’s no clear-cut beginnings/And so far, no dead ends.”
Waddell told the graduates to make the most of any opportunity life hands them, even if it seems like a setback at the time.
“If I’d never had my accident I never would have been the best in the world at anything,” he said. “I was the best monoskier in the world. I never would have turned a hobby into a profession. Wouldn’t have acted in a soap opera. Wouldn’t have had the guts to address all of you. Wouldn’t have been in Peoplemagazine. I wouldn’t have competed as a professional athlete for 15 years after I graduated. I wouldn’t have met presidents and heads of state.”
He also urged the graduating seniors to spread this attitude to the communities they end up in, and to carry it with them on whatever path they pursue in life.
“If we are going to be successful, we need to create a community that is successful, a community that allows us to risk and fail in order to succeed,” he said. “I started with the theme of ‘It’s not what happens to you. It’s what you do with what happens to you.’ Sometimes we need to give someone a hand up, just to reach that point.”
One of those 593 graduating seniors continued on with the theme of community, and particularly the individuals that make up a community. In his speech, Donovan “Donny” Dickson analyzed what it means to be a “Midd Kid,” the catch-all term often used to describe members of Middlebury’s student body.
Although there are many stereotypes of the “Midd Kid,” Dickson concluded that there is no “cookie cutter mold” for the 2,400 students who attend Middlebury — not one quality that can be found in every young adult who spends four years in the Vermont countryside. Each student at Middlebury also travels a separate path within the institution and grows in different ways, said Dickson, but “what is unifying … is that we must all thank Middlebury for these individual changes. What we share with each other is that we were all here, together, for these changes.”
While stressing the individualized nature of the Middlebury education, Dickson also acknowledged the major changes that the class of 2011 experienced together, namely the tragic deaths of their classmates Nick Garza, Pavlo Levkiv and Ben Wieler. College President Ronald Liebowitz followed Dickson’s speech with a moment of silence in memory of Garza, Levkiv and Wieler. The senior class gift, a contribution of funds to the Middlebury Solar Decathlon team, was also given in honor of the fallen trio.
“All 600 of us are walking away from here having had at least one person, if not dozens upon dozens of people, who changed our lives forever,” Dickson said.
Other honorary degree recipients were Padma Desai, professor of Comparative Economic Systems at Columbia University and major contributor to the field of economic planning in the Soviet Union; Sen. Patrick Leahy, one of Vermont’s two representatives in the U.S. Senate since 1974 and a constant leader in the fight against global disease, poverty and environmental degradation; local volunteer and activist Dorothy “Dotty” Neuberger, a 1958 Middlebury graduate and ubiquitous presence in programs to improve Addison County; Edward Rubin, internationally known geneticist and director of the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute; and Maxine Atkins Smith, a 1950 Middlebury graduate and civil rights activist.
The ceremony concluded with the conferring of degrees by President Liebowitz, along with replicas of Gamaliel Painter’s cane. The treasured artifact was once the walking stick of the founder of both the town and the college.
Alexander Twilight Artist-in-Residence François Clemmons led the crowd in the song “Gamaliel Painter’s Cane” and the school’s alma mater before the graduates tossed their caps and recessed from the lawn.
Ian Trombulak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.