Humanitarian heroes vitalize 2016 Commencement

May 15, 2016

Watch the video or view a gallery of Commencement 2016 photos

Dr. Frederick M. “Skip” Burkle Jr. ’61, a dauntless and massively productive global humanitarian, scholar and scientist for many decades, never has let long odds turn him from epic challenges.

Burkle, the featured speaker for Saint Michael’s College’s 109th Commencement Sunday, May 15, in the Ross Sports Center, told the Class of 2016 how he managed to enroll at Saint Michael’s despite the twin challenges of severe dyslexia and a severely resistant father. But it only was possible with help from a few “personal humanitarians,” something we all need, he said. His were a generous principal-priest supporting his application, two kind Saint Michael’s alumni doctors he’d met as an orderly at a hospital in Connecticut, his home state, and the supportive girlfriend from 8th grade on who became his wife.

Addressing approximately 420 undergraduates and 30 graduate degree recipients who later crossed the dais to receive diplomas to the cheers of hundreds more family members and friends packed into Ross, Burkle commended Saint Michael’s for having “the insight and courage” to declare “Service to Others’ as the theme of Sunday’s Commencement ceremony. “Only at Saint Mike’s!” he said.

Armed with the difficult but mind-expanding Saint Michael’s “great books” classical liberal arts education of those days and spurred by the Soviets’ 1957 Sputnik launch to embrace science whole-heartedly, Burkle said, he went to Yale medical school, followed by service as a Marine combat physician in Vietnam and assorted government missions around the world to help the innocent victims of wars, epidemics and natural disasters in the worst imaginable conditions.

His theme of service to others was reflected in the choice of honorary degree recipients: the eminent choral arranger and conductor Robert De Cormier, whose music is motivated by passion for social justice; Rita Markley, the Burlington-area advocate for the homeless as Executive Director of the Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS); and the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, representing many other Vermont agencies that help refugees and immigrants. Presenting a degree to an agency instead of an individual was a departure from Commencement convention, but the College leadership felt strongly about this year’s theme in light of recent world events and political currents regarding beleaguered itinerant populations.

Alongside justice and service, academic achievement was the day’s central theme. Karen Talentino, vice president for Academic Affairs, announced the top academic prizes: The 2016 Valedictorian was Briana Brady from Winsted, CT, a double major in English and philosophy with a 3.99 GPA and a member of the Honors Program, Phi Beta Kappa and Delta Epsilon Sigma (Catholic Honorary). Brady later joined President John J. Neuhauser in leading the class from the ceremony.

The Katherine Fairbanks Memorial Award and Father Prevel Memorial Award are for the woman and man, respectively, “demonstrating commitment and achievement related to the intellectual, spiritual, moral and social values of Saint Michael’s College.” Fairbanks winner was Victoria Barnum of Beverly, MA, who completed double majors in Religious Studies and American studies with a minor in art history and 3.78 GPA, and who was very active in student government and Residential Life, Campus Ministry, and volunteering with Burlington Little Brother/Little Sister. She has a full scholarship to attend a higher education administration graduate program at Ohio University next year. Prevel winner was Gregory Hamilton of Upton, MA, with a chemistry major, biology minor and GPA of 3.967; also, Honors Program, Phi Beta Kappa and other honor societies. Talentino also noted his deep involvement in Campus Ministry and its extended service arm, MOVE, and his plans to enter the Jesuit Volunteer Corps as a community organizer next year.

Talentino recognized 28 students graduating summa cum laude with GPA of 3.90 or higher, by having them stand.

A well-received graduate-student commencement address came from Edward J. Kruer II of Colchester, who amused and inspired the audience by having them play “rock, paper and scissors” and then exhorting them to become a little of all three in their approach to life following graduation: a rock “ready to crush divisiveness wherever you may find it,” paper, “always flexible,” and scissors, “ever sharp.”

The senior address was from Jeremy Heyner, environmental studies major from Marshfield, MA, who noted the changes among his now beloved friends of four years: “Biologists have turned into environmentalists, prospective doctors into actors, business men and women into artists and vice versa,” he said. “You’re some of the best people I’ve met in my 22 years of life and I wouldn’t want to walk across this stage with anyone else.”

Music selections between speakers included a group featuring many singers from the wider community associated with Robert De Cormier through the years alongside students performing an arrangement of an African-American spiritual by the honoree; and the song “Green Mountain State” by Trevor Hall, performed by a six-person student group with guitars and vocal harmonies, as De Cormier listened intently and appreciatively.

President Neuhauser told graduates that, “more than anything, I wish for you the gift of kindness.” Trustees Chair Mary-Kate McKenna spoke of 40 years of happy association with the college. “Your education has prepared you to be leaders with an intellectual and moral compass,” she said. “Don’t allow the cynics and the critics to poison your idealism.” Following conferral of degrees (as Dean Jeffrey Ayres for close to half an hour read the names of graduates – first master’s recipients, then bachelor of arts and bachelor of science recipients) — Alumni Association Board of Directors Vice President Anne Rosello ’94 welcomed graduates to the alumni ranks and offered them “a new job,” that of supportive alumni, with low pay but “great rewards.”

Burkle’s talk only could touch a bit on his vast achievements, which include being qualified in emergency medicine, pediatrics, psychiatry, public health and tropical medicine; founding and directing the World Health Organization Center of Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance in the 1990s, decorated service with Marine divisions in five wars, humanitarian missions in Turkey, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Africa and Asia, including Interim Minister of Health in Iraq; and prolific author and currently a scholar at Harvard and the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C.; and, he was invited to present research at the 2015 Nobel Laureates Summit.

That had special significance, he said, because when he was a Saint Michael’s student, his professors and college leaders of that time held up Nobel laureates and statesmen as examples to emulate — so clearly, “things come full circle,” Burkle said, as with  his 2015 honor. He offered another example of life coming “full circle,” starting when he was overseeing evacuation of hundreds of nameless orphan babies from Vietnam just before that nation fell to communist forces of the North in 1975. Some 20 years later, he said, he met one of those orphans as she graduated from a college. “It was a very good day,” he said.

“The essence of volunteerism,” Burkle said, “is found in understanding the culture of the people we engage with” – something he wished the U.S. had learned in Vietnam and Iraq. “A hopeful characteristic of your generation is that you more often than not see yourselves less as nationalists and more as global citizens,” he said — “a significant shift from my generation and a hopeful game-changer in the global landscape.” Remember, he told graduates, that “those who do have the political power to make change frequently do not know what they don’t know.”

Invocation was offered by trustee, Sister Lindora Cabral of the Sisters of Mercy, and benediction by Edmundite Fr. Brian Cummings, director of Campus Ministry.

Among Saint Michael’s faculty or staff fixtures experiencing their last official Commencement were Jacqueline Murphy ’74, director of admission, who has close to 40 years of service to the College — she noted that her graduating class had fewer than 20 women; and English Professor Nicholas Clary, the college’s Shakespeare specialist for 46 years, who said after the ceremony that the parental advice of Polonius from Hamlet still for him rings as profound as ever as advice for new graduates: “This above all: To thine own self be true.”

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