Pomp, Under the Circumstances

Like the sunshine that brightened a gray day, Notre Dame’s 2021 commencement offered a ray of light at the end of a long year.

Author: Margaret Fosmoe ’85

2021 Commencement 1 Mc Photo by Matt Cashore ’94

After more than a year in which almost nothing was like usual at Notre Dame, commencement 2021 provided a glimpse of normalcy and the promise of brighter days ahead.

The weekend’s events proceeded in an almost-traditional fashion, albeit with some face masks and other safety measures still in place to protect against COVID-19. For the first time in more than 14 months, crowds of students and their families flooded the campus, walking the quads, visiting the Grotto and taking photos on the steps of the Main Building.

Graduating seniors received their degrees during the commencement ceremony Sunday, May 23 in Notre Dame Stadium. It was an overcast morning that gave way, like the academic year, to some rays of sunshine toward the end.

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Notre Dame’s 2021 commencement ceremony had an almost-traditional atmosphere. Photo by Barbara Johnston

“The mark of a great university is that you learn more than they’re teaching,” said Jimmy Dunne ’78, a Notre Dame trustee who served as the principal commencement speaker and received an honorary degree. He is vice chairman and senior managing partner of Piper Sandler.

“Notre Dame is here to inspire leaders of conscience. And in my lifetime, never before has that leadership been more important than it is today, and you’re the ones who are going to provide it,” he said.

Dunne was a senior managing partner of Sandler O’Neill, an investment banking firm that was headquartered in the World Trade Center when the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks occurred. A total of 68 of the firm’s employees died when the towers collapsed, and Dunne led the recovery of the company and provided care to families of the firm’s employees who lost their lives, including making sure the children of employees who died had full tuition to attend college.

In keeping with the scaled-down nature of the ceremony, the University presented only one other honorary degree — to Thomas G. Burish ’72, who stepped down in June 2020 after 15 years as the Notre Dame’s provost.

John J. Brennan, chair of the Board of Trustees, took the unusual step of giving a short address. He asked graduates, parents and alumni to express their gratitude to University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, CSC, ’76, ’78M.A., and other administrators, faculty and staff members who worked to make the in-person learning experience possible in the midst of the pandemic.

His request was greeted with thunderous applause.

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“Notre Dame is here to inspire leaders of conscience. And in my lifetime, never before has that leadership been more important than it is today,” Jimmy Dunne ’78 told 2021 graduates. Photo by Barbara Johnston

In his charge to the class, Jenkins urged the graduates to keep alive the friendships they have made at Notre Dame. “You never know when the circumstances of life will call you,” he said, referring to Dunne’s response after the tragedy of September 11, 2001.

“How you respond to a crisis will be shaped by how you respond to the more ordinary events of your daily life,” he said. The Class of 2021 will always have a special place in his heart, Jenkins said, because of the challenges they’ve faced together during the past year.

Several speakers made reference to what many consider the highlight of a most challenging year: Notre Dame’s 47-40 football victory in double overtime over No. 1-ranked Clemson on November 7. After that game, students flooded the Notre Dame Stadium field in joyous celebration, raising concerns about a possible spread of COVID-19 cases.

“For the record, I want to publicly state that after that Clemson game, your rushing the field was exactly the right thing to do and I’m proud of you,” Jenkins told the graduates, who applauded and laughed.

University leaders decided on a traditional, in-person commencement celebration in the spring as COVID-19 numbers declined from the peaks of last autumn and winter. Notre Dame had canceled on-campus commencement festivities in 2020, conferring degrees remotely during a virtual ceremony. Plans now call for an in-person celebration for the Class of 2020 over Memorial Day weekend in 2022.

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“Look at us. We did it,” valedictorian Madeline Owen told her classmates.

This year’s commencement seating arrangement in Notre Dame Stadium was atypical. Physical distancing was in place, with graduates seated in white chairs on the stadium field three feet apart. Family groups were seated throughout the stadium bowl, with individual groups placed at least six feet apart.

Face masks were optional for fully vaccinated graduates, as well as the platform party. Faculty, staff, and friends and relatives of the graduates were asked to wear masks at the main commencement ceremony and at other events during the weekend.

While the University’s testing and reporting regimen found 1,516 COVID cases during the spring, mostly among undergraduates, more than 90 percent of students were vaccinated by May 6. As a result, the University relaxed some of the masking requirements and other protocols that had been in place since August. From May 9 through commencement, no new COVID-19 cases among students and employees were reported.

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Laetare Medal recipient Carla Harris’ rendition of “Amazing Grace” brought commencement 2021 to a soaring conclusion. Photo by Barbara Johnston

This year’s graduates will always remember how their final year at Notre Dame was anything but typical, with socially distanced classroom seating, no visitors in residence halls, weekly COVID-19 testing, and eating meals outdoors or in tents. But the precautions were successful in allowing in-person classes to continue.

“Look at us. We did it,” valedictorian Madeline Owen, of Columbus, Ohio, said in her address, recounting some of the obstacles that faced this year’s class. “If we have learned anything in the past 14 months, with the challenges of COVID-19 and the renewed fight for racial justice, it is that strength and new beginnings can be born out of vulnerability.”

Carla Harris, a celebrated gospel singer who also serves as vice chairman of wealth management and senior client adviser at Morgan Stanley, received the University’s 2021 Laetare Medal, the oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics.

She closed the formal part of the commencement program by singing the hymn “Amazing Grace.” After months in which the pandemic silenced live music and even public singing, Harris’ soaring solo was a fitting way to end an academic year that will never be forgotten.

Margaret Fosmoe is an associate editor of this magazine.