Text of President Stephen C. Ainlay's baccalaureate remarks

Publication Date

First, let me thank Ilan Levine, Student Forum President. I’d also like to thank Diane McMullen and the many students who shared their musical gifts with us, the wonderful student speakers, our faculty speaker Professor LoGiudice, Emily Tong who planned this event, and the members of the Commencement Committee who are listed in the program.

We gather together every year for this Baccalaureate Ceremony in Memorial Chapel, one of the beloved spaces of Union College. The building was a project of President Richmond who wished to honor Union alumni who had been killed in wars leading up to what was then the most recent – World War I. Memorial Chapel is certainly one of our most architecturally pleasing buildings and its acoustics are splendid. It is the ceremonial center of Union. Notably it’s the place where you sat with your families and were welcomed when you started your Union education. It’s somehow particularly appropriate that we gather here again for your Baccalaureate.

The “memorial” function of the Chapel has expanded over the years such that we now remember here the passing of all graduates of the College – not just those killed in wars – as well as other members of the Union family. We do so again today. The names of Union alumni and former faculty and staff that died over the past year are listed toward the end of the program. They are not just names; each has a story. I would ask that you join me in remembering them, their love of Union, and their many contributions with a brief moment of silence. [Silence] Thank you.

Like our other speakers today, I would like to share some thoughts about your Union experience and the road that lies ahead. It is, after all, my next-to-the-last time to have you as a “captive audience.” Let me begin by sharing something of Rich and Mary Templeton’s story. Rich Templeton and Mary (Haanen) Templeton both graduated from Union in 1980. Rich has had a very successful career in the technology sector and now serves as Chairman, President, and CEO of Dallas-based Texas Instruments. Mary had her own successful career in the world of finance and then turned her attention to work with non-profit boards, including our own Board of Trustees. Together, Rich and Mary forged a nice life together after leaving Union and raised a wonderful family. By all accounts, they built something of a dream life.

That life was suddenly changed in 2013. During a vacation in Hawaii, the whole Templeton family was playing in the water, just a short distance from shore, when a large “rogue” wave knocked them over. They were all tossed about but Mary was thrown hard against the ocean floor below her and she suddenly found herself unable to move her arms and legs. As Rich, tells it, he knew something was profoundly wrong; so did Mary. The family pulled her from the water and rushed her to the hospital. The hours immediately following the incident were filled with tests and more tests and discussions and more discussions with doctors about Mary’s diagnosis and prognosis. Rich eventually had enough information to gather their kids together and he announced that it was unlikely that Mary would ever walk again. You can imagine their distress. But in a moment of true inspiration, Rich added, “life has not ended, it has only changed.”

Rich and Mary recently shared their story in their commencement address to graduating seniors at Southern Methodist University (SMU), where Rich serves on the Board. You can watch it on Youtube and I’d urge you to do so. You will hear them talk about the lessons they learned in that moment of change in 2013 and how they worked through the injury, rehabilitation, and their changed lives. It’s a moving and uplifting talk. It is not a depressing talk. Rather, it is inspiring testimony to the power of human will, testimony to the human capacity to place even the most daunting challenges into context, and I believe testimony to their Union education.

Rich and Mary insist that the fundamental lesson they learned through their experience is the importance of resilience. Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. I can personally attest to the resilience of Rich and Mary Templeton. Mrs. Ainlay and I are fortunate to know them. We knew them before the accident in Hawaii and we’ve been with them since. We were with them in their Dallas home a year ago and I was back there again this past January. Rather than be defeated or deterred by what happened, I can tell you that they instead embrace change and they continue to embrace life. Just as before the accident, they laugh, they love, they work, they play. And they still make a difference in the lives of people they touch. Rich was right: Life was not over; it just changed. They are living examples of what it means to be resilient.

I hope and pray that none of you will encounter the likes of the rogue wave that changed Rich's and Mary’s lives on that day in Hawaii. But life is certainly going to pose difficulties and challenges. In fact, if you are at all typical of people your age, you’ve already glimpsed something of life’s challenges. Perhaps you’ve received grades that disappointed you; perhaps you’ve had relationships break up; perhaps you didn’t gain admission to your first-choice graduate school; perhaps you didn’t receive a prestigious award that you wanted; perhaps you’ve wrestled with an injury or illness. I know for the athletes here, you likely had to deal with lost contests, unfulfilled ambitions, or seasons cut-short. In fact, dealing with adversity was the theme of Sebastian Gingras’ talk for the seniors at the Athletic Awards ceremony held yesterday in this very space. I think it resonated with his fellow athletes. Don’t get me wrong, there will be great joy in the years ahead. But, life is full of challenges too; that you will face some is guaranteed.

Happily, Union has provided you with an experience that will enable you to face life’s challenges. Lean on what you’ve had and learned here. You’ve made the friends here who will be there for you when you face life’s challenges and changes. Lean on them. Your studies in chemistry, biology, sociology, and engineering have equipped you, whether you know it or not, with the ability to put challenges in context and ask the questions that will help you work through change. Lean on your powers of analysis and understanding that have been cultivated here. The poems, novels, and plays you’ve read or performed will help you, as Mary Templeton puts it, 'get on with it.'” Lean on them for inspiration. This is one of the remarkable benefits of being liberally educated; this is one of the benefits of being educated at Union College: to be connected to people and ideas that help you understand, place change within context, and support you. It’s a “return on investment” that is priceless.

Let me close by giving you some final advice that is more about the next 12 hours. In the ½ day that remains to you as a student at Union College, I’d urge you to reflect upon and savor your experiences during your time here. You’ve been fortunate enough to have a Union education; one of the lucky few to spend your college years on this historic campus. You’ve formed life-long friendships. You’ve developed caring relationships with faculty and staff. And, your Union experience doesn’t end tomorrow; it only changes. After all, Union is a life-time membership. Reflect on all this; savor all this in the hours that remain to you as a student of Union College.

You should take pride in having completed the rigors of a Union education. You’ve done well, you’ve accomplished a great deal, you’ve given much, and we are grateful to have had you here. I’ll be honored to hand you your degrees tomorrow.

See you in the morning!