Kentucky historian Stuart Sanders, Centre College Class of 1995, and the Rev. Canon Naomi Tutu both received honorary degrees and spoke during Centre’s 196th commencement exercises on Sunday, May 19. The outgoing Student Government Association president, Walker Morrell ’19, gave the response for the class.
The 327 graduates in the bicentennial Class of 2019 come from 28 states and four foreign countries (Canada, China, Germany and Vietnam).
Centre received its charter from the Kentucky legislature on Jan. 21, 1819.
Tutu spoke at the morning baccalaureate service. Her powerful sermon celebrated the humanity, dignity and wonderful variability of all people.
“After four years here at Centre … you have been surrounded by classmates, by professors, who show the gift of difference,” she said. “Who have encouraged you to . . . see that God planned these differences, not to sow hatred amongst us, but that all the needs of all God’s children can be met.”
She concluded her sermon with her expectations for the graduating class. “I hope that you will walk out of this campus fully human and recognizing the full humanity of all those you will come into contact with,” she said. Referencing a line from the poem “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver, she added, “I hope that you will walk out of this campus recognizing that you do indeed have only ‘one wild and precious life’ to live and to give.”
Rev. Tutu graduated from Berea College, then earned a master’s at the University of Kentucky. She spent much of her career as a tireless advocate for human rights, concentrating on issues of race, gender, and gender-based violence, and she has taken her message on the importance of human rights and human dignity across the United States and around the world. In her 50s, she earned an M.Div. at Vanderbilt Divinity School and the next year was ordained in the Episcopal Church. Since 2018, she has been canon missioner at the Cathedral of All Souls, in Asheville, North Carolina, a role that seeks to transform unjust societal structures.
She grew up in apartheid South Africa, the daughter of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Her son, Mpilo Ngomane, is in the graduating class.
Stuart Sanders, history advocate for the Kentucky Historical Society, used his commencement address, “Seeking Inspiration from Our Past,” to highlight Centre alumni from the past—and not so distant past—who should inspire our future. His first example was Lewis Warner Green, one of Centre’s first two graduates and later Kentucky’s preeminent intellectual and Centre president during the tumultuous years of the Civil War. When hundreds of sick and wounded soldiers descended upon the community after the nearby Battle of Perryville, President Green helped care for them until he, too, became sick and died.
“Green’s dedication to this community, his willingness to risk himself to help others and his proactive leadership in times of turmoil—including taking responsibility and working at the front lines instead of directing others—are traits that we should all emulate,” said Stuart.
Another he commended was Leila McKee, Class of 1883, the daughter of a Centre vice president and one of the first two women to take classes with male students and receive a degree from Centre, long before the College welcomed female students. McKee became president of Ohio’s Western College for Women (now part of Miami University) and a national leader in higher education. She also received an honorary degree from Centre in 1892, the first woman so honored. Stuart’s remarks challenged the administration to consider her for the next campus statue or building name.
Sanders also considered some of the darker lessons to be learned from the past. He warned against dueling, for example, which caused one unfortunate member of the Class of 1855 to lose his law license. More positively, Sanders encouraged the new graduates to look to the network of Centre alumni for help, as he did, and to return the service when they were in a position to do so.
In conclusion, he returned to the lessons he’d learned from studying two centuries of Centre graduates.
“As you—the Class of 2019—leave here today, I ask you to recognize their weaknesses yet emulate their strengths . . . [D]efy expectations, flout convention, fight the good fight, and ignore gatekeepers who may stand in your way. Be a leader, yet serve others. . . . Most important, however, don’t duel.”
Sanders has held a variety of roles in the last 14 years at the Kentucky Historical Society, most recently as the society’s history advocate, communicating the value and relevance of our past to current Kentuckians. He has written for a large number of magazines, journals, and anthologies, and his op-eds and guest columns about Kentucky history have appeared in more than 50 newspapers across the region. His fourth book of Kentucky history, The Ohio Belle Murder, looks at violence, Southern honor culture and vigilante justice through the lens of the steamboat Ohio Belle and will be published by the University Press of Kentucky in early 2020.
The 2019 valedictorian is Isaac Vock ’19, a physics major and Phi Beta Kappa graduate from Loveland, Ohio. In addition to the valedictorian award, he received the George Winston Welsh Prize as the senior man with the highest grade-point average. He will start a Ph.D. program in molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale in the fall.
Ashley Hayes ’19, a mathematics major and Phi Beta Kappa graduate from Lexington, Kentucky, received the Gavin Easton Wiseman Prize as the senior woman with the highest-grade point average.
The top six majors are 1) economics and finance; 2) international studies; 3) mathematics and psychology (tie); 5) anthropology/sociology; and 6) behavioral neuroscience.
Two members of the Class of 2019 received Fulbright awards to teach English abroad next year: Ryan Collins ’19 in Spain and Mitchell Collins ’19 in Paraguay. John Newton ’19 will be in Japan teaching through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. Katellyn Spencer ’19 received a Rotary Global Grant Scholarship to study at University College London for a master’s in global health and development, before enrolling in medical school at the University of Kentucky.
by Diane Johnson
May 21, 2019