A couple of surprising elements injected an air of festive spontaneity to the pomp and circumstance of typical graduation ceremonies, bringing a lively sense of celebration to Notre Dame’s 161st Commencement May 21, 2006.
Even the commencement address by Mary McAleese, in which the president of Ireland neatly threaded personal and Notre Dame references into her uplifting speech on Irish national affairs, was a fitting tribute to the Irish spirit—found in her homeland, across immigrant America and at Notre Dame. That spirit, she explained, is “an indomitable spirit of commitment, of total commitment to life itself. It is to be champions of life itself, champions of being good in the world.”
In her valedictory address Catherine Distler, a double major in anthropology and preprofessional studies from Leawood, Kansas, called upon her classmates to make the world a better place, but drew upon her work with the destitute and sick in Calcutta and her efforts with Notre Dame’s World AIDS Day Campaign to offer atypical realism and resolve. She then issued this challenge: “If you want to serve the age, betray it,” adding, “The world is messed up, but it is not fatalistic. Its problems are real but they are not unsolvable. If we lack the courage to call the world out on its arrogance, injustice and shortcomings, if we are not brave enough to point out how the world could be better, then the world will never change.”
Two of the day’s highlights came when one performer accustomed to being in the public eye boogied on stage after receiving the highest honor bestowed upon American Catholics and when an unassuming author made a rare public appearance in order to receive an honorary degree.
Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck was awarded Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal and opted to speak not with words but with music. “You people are going out in the world, and you need a piece called ‘Travelin’ Blues,‘” said Brubeck, who then rocked the house with a swinging piano piece.
Much less accustomed to being on stage but equally celebrated, Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, was greeted—just as she was announced to be hooded for an honorary degree—by a standing ovation as all the graduates hoisted a copy of her classic novel in salute.
Also receiving a standing ovation when he received an honorary degree was Gilburt Loescher, former Notre Dame political scientist and human rights activist who lost both legs in the August 19, 2003, bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad of which he was the sole survivor.
Other honorary degree recipients were: Landrum R. Bolling, higher education leader and international peacemaker; Kevin Cahill, internationally known expert on tropical medicine; Anthony F. Earley Jr. ’71, ’79J.D., chairman of the board, chief executive officer, chief operating officer and president of DTE Energy Company; Norman C. Francis, president of Xavier University; Francis C. Oakley, president emeritus of Williams College; philanthropist Karen Rauenhorst; John F. “Jack” Sandner ’68J.D., retired chair of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange; Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico; Matthew V. Storin ’64, noted journalist and retired associate vice president of Notre Dame; and Thomas P. Sullivan, trial lawyer and former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.
Degrees also were conferred upon 1,935 undergraduates, as well as 318 master’s and doctoral students in the Notre Dame Graduate School, 380 master’s students in the Mendoza College of Business, and 191 Notre Dame Law School students.