If you know me, you know I love storytelling. Here at Union, I worked as the editor-in-chief of the Concordiensis, the school newspaper, which allowed me to tell your stories to the world. If it’s okay with you, I’d like to share one final story, my favorite Union story. No, it’s not about me - this is the story of Rick and Ella.
I met Ella in my first year. She was my first hospice patient (and for that reason I’ve changed the names to protect the health privacy). For those of you who aren’t familiar with hospice, it is part of the medical care process that provides comfort services for patients that have a terminal diagnosis – so yes, it’s medicine for the dying. I know what you’re thinking, really Matt? A speech about death for graduation? But, just follow along.
I visited Ella twice a week as her hospice volunteer. She was very sick, very weak, suffering from Alzheimer’s, and was asleep most of the time I was there. Her husband, Rick, never left her side. He would share stories with me, wonderful stories…like about how he and Ella would walk through Jackson’s Garden as kids at a time when the Nott was covered in ivy, West College was still a college, and everything behind me didn’t exist. He shared how he enrolled at Union as a liberal arts major, when Schenectady was still in its prime – with the lights of GE still glowing off in the near distance. He had to cut his Union career short however because he joined the Navy to fight in the Korean War, but before he left, did one important thing (and I’ll let him tell you) “I had to propose to Ella so that no other bastards could while I was gone”. And it worked. She said yes, and after two years in Korea, he returned, married Ella, finished his degree at Union, and they proceeded to start eight different businesses together, have four kids, and I’m blessed to say that I was able to bring them flowers for their 70th anniversary. (I know I know, I’m alone too it’s okay, that’s not the point of this story…)
The point of this story is what Ella embodied. Rick would always share that Ella loved lots, loved always, and loved her community. And it was easy to see Schenectady loved her back. She had pictures, cards, and visitors all the time, people who she impacted that thought of her during her final days. And so today, Class of 2017, I want to leave you with Rick’s lesson: to be like Ella, and love lots, love always, and love your community.
At Union, we are privileged. Yes, we are privileged because we have a wonderful education, the sort of education that Rick would say helped him start eight different businesses and adapt to a changing world. Yes, we are privileged because we have wonderful mentors and professors, the kind that would always challenge us to be our very best, to not let our “late night studying” get in the way of being a dynamic student in the morning. Thank you to all of our faculty here for putting up with us.
But we are truly privileged because we innately understand community. I mean, yes, we’re part of a community that is bound by tradition. Traditions like sneaking out in the middle of the night to paint the idol together…which actually happens to be a 16th century Chinese artifact, so yeah, thanks for respecting my culture, guys. We are part of a community that supports our friends who are student athletes through difficult seasons, but sometimes, national championships (we are the last class to have experienced it). And we are part of a community that invites the children of Schenectady to be part of our family, to have their own big brothers and big sisters. Do not let us take our Union community for granted, where learned to love lots and always.
Ella passed away in my junior year. At her funeral, Rick came over to thank me for being with them during Ella’s final days…but I could only think to thank them, for helping me understand what the Union truly means to me. Union is about community. It is the professors who gave me advice in the classroom and in life; my family who flew all the way out here from Seattle to support me; my friends who would drive down to NYC with me just to get a slice of pizza; and of course, Rick and Ella, who taught me what’s really important…Look around, and cherish those relationships that have shaped you into the person you are today. Because after meeting Rick and Ella, I’ve learned that the most important thing in life, more than money or success, are those kinds of people that will be with you at your bedside.
We are blessed to have had those relationships and community here, and thank you for giving this boy from Seattle a family and a home. I am so excited to see where you all end up and how you will impact the world. But remember, Class of 2017 that Union does not end beyond these four walls, or after these four years in college. No…remember Rick and Ella, remember our time here, and extend the Union community to those around you wherever you go, by loving lots and loving always.
Class of 2017, congratulations to us, and thank you.