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Sgt. Petry to Class of 2014: Be an everyday hero

  • Commencement 2014
    Commencement 2014
    Chancellor Robert M. Gates '65 presents Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry with an honorary degree at the 2014 Commencement ceremony.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2014
    Commencement 2014
    Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry speaks to the Class of 2014 on May 11 in Kaplan Arena.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2014
    Commencement 2014
    The Class of 2014's banner hangs from the Wren Building the morning of Commencement.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2014
    Commencement 2014
    Graduates participate in Saturday night's Candlelight ceremony.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2014
    Commencement 2014
    Graduates walk over the Class of 2014's stone on their way to the Commencement ceremony.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2014
    Commencement 2014
    Two graduates walk across the Crim Dell bridge together on their way to the Commencement ceremony.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2014
    Commencement 2014
    Graduates toss green and gold beach balls around at the Commencement ceremony.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2014
    Commencement 2014
    W&M Rector Todd A . Stottlemyer '85 discusses the merits of Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry before presenting him with an honorary degree.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2014
    Commencement 2014
    Chancellor Robert M. Gates '65 presents Alan B. Miller '58 with an honorary degree.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2014
    Commencement 2014
    U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anton Scalia offered welcoming remarks at the Commencement ceremony. Later in the day, he served as the speaker for the W&M Law School Commencement ceremony.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2014
    Commencement 2014
    Hannah-Lee Grothaus '14 served as the student speaker for Commencement.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2014
    Commencement 2014
    Ernest Russell is recognized during the ceremony as the 2014 Duke Award recipient.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2014
    Commencement 2014
    President Taylor Reveley told the Class of 2014 that they would always be a part of W&M.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2014
    Commencement 2014
    Graduates show off their diplomas following the Department of Government's ceremony.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

You don’t have to be nationally recognized or wear a uniform to be a hero to someone, Medal of Honor recipient Leroy Petry told William & Mary’s Class of 2014 on Sunday.

“It could be something as simple as listening to someone’s problem or acknowledging them, working to make your community and country a better place,” said the Army sergeant first class. “The fact is you have the ability to significantly impact others around you every day.”

Petry, who has become an inspirational figure for wounded soldiers since losing his hand during heroic actions taken in Afghanistan in 2008, addressed a packed William & Mary Hall on Sunday as the university’s 2014 Commencement speaker.

Petry received an honorary degree at the ceremony along with Alan B. Miller ’58, chairman and CEO of Universal Health Services and namesake of the Mason School of Business’ Miller Hall. Former Secretary of Defense and current W&M Chancellor Robert M. Gates ’65, L.H.D. ’98 was also in attendance and spoke at the event, as was U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anton Scalia LL.D. ’91. Scalia served as the speaker at the William & Mary Law School’s Commencement ceremony, and he also offered brief remarks at the university’s main Commencement ceremony.

{{youtube:medium|29HDdr8JTvg, 2014 senior walk across campus}}

Scalia relayed advice he had received from his father, a college professor, who told him that “brains are like muscles; you can hire them by the hour. The only thing not for sale is character.”

Although the graduates’ parents had been largely responsible for shaping the character of their children, the graduates are now responsible for taking on that job, he said.

“It’s a job worth taking seriously, to cultivate the virtues of honesty and courage,” Scalia said. “That is, at the end of the day, what you’ll be tested on.”

Gates also offered welcoming remarks at the ceremony, reminding the graduates that they will always have a home at William & Mary.

“It is more than just a common place that binds William & Mary’s generations together. It is a common purpose, a legacy of service and making a difference for our communities and for our country, that is the greatest tradition of this College,” he said. “That shared legacy is what makes this home so special, so worth cherishing for a lifetime. So, as you graduate today, know that you, too, are destined to make a difference.”

Introducing Petry as the Commencement speaker, Gates shared an observation once made by an Olympic champion.

“The champion said, ‘A celebrity is someone you want to meet. A hero is someone you want to be like.’ Please welcome someone we would all like to be like.”

Obstacles as opportunities

Petry, who received several standing ovations from the audience, drew parallels between his life as a soldier and the lives of college students.

“We started out on a journey in life to do something that was important to us; we worked hard and had fun along the way,” he said.

But the journey doesn’t end with graduation. The graduates may face obstacles as they enter the job market or as they find the right career.

“There will be ups and downs anywhere you go and in anything you do,” Petry said. “But have faith. Keep moving forward.  You have been through tough situations before -- just remember how you’ve overcome obstacles in the past, earlier in life or here at William & Mary. Follow your dreams of what you want to do and make a difference in that field.”

{{youtube:medium|vrBuginxPEk, Leroy Petry's Commencement address}}

Petry has found inspiration in working with others who have been severely wounded in combat, he said. Although the W&M graduates will likely not experience that kind of trauma in their lives, they may still face daunting challenges, he added.

“At some point you will face what seems like a crushing setback or far-too-high obstacle,” Petry said. “It is at those times when you have the opportunity to stand out and show that you can handle the pressure and responsibility, take calculated risks and earn the respect of others.

“The degree you receive from William & Mary will be a testament that you earned your education -- you didn’t win it, no one gave it to you. You had to work hard and stick it out while dealing with all the other distractions of life.”

Awards and honors

Several students, faculty and staff members received awards or recognition during the Commencement ceremony.

The Lord Botetourt Medal, which is awarded for “the honor and encouragement of literary merit,” was presented to Stephen Cameron ’14, and Gabriel Manion ’14 received the James Frederic Carr Memorial Cup, which is presented for “character, scholarship and leadership.” The Thatcher Prize, awarded to a graduate student for “scholarship, leadership, character and service,” was given to Andre Buchheister, who earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS).

The Algernon Sydney Sullivan Awards, presented for “characteristics of heart, mind and helpfulness to others,” were presented to two students and a person with a close relationship to the College. The student recipients were Rachel Brooks ’14 and Chase Koontz ’14, and the third award went to John Kerr, an Episcopal chaplain with Campus Ministries United.

The Thomas Ashley Graves, Jr. Awards for Sustained Excellence in Teaching were given to Elizabeth Canuel, professor of marine science, and John Moore, professor of education.

Ernest “Vinnie” Russell, a lead grounds worker, was also recognized at the ceremony as this year’s recipient of the Charles Joseph Duke, Jr. and Virginia Welton Duke Award.

Hannah-Lee Grothaus '14 served as the student speaker for Commencement.

The ceremony was part of a weekend full of events, including the Donning of the Kente ceremony, W&M Alumni Induction and ROTC commissioning, in which three William & Mary students, became officers in the U.S. Army: Emily Anne Bessler, William Michael Johnson and Casey Jensen McGrath.

Approximately 2,000 students – including 1,348 undergraduates – received their degrees this weekend Among the graduate students was Williamsburg City Councilman Scott Foster, who will soon begin his second term. Foster, who received his undergraduate degree from William & Mary in 2010, was the first student ever to be elected to the council. On Sunday, he graduated from the W&M Law School.

“I'm excited to be finishing up but will miss being a full time member of the Tribe,” Foster said. “Serving on city council has made it easy to apply what I've learned in law school, particularly with zoning and land use issues. Juggling both city council and law school has been trying at times, but overall it has been a great and unique experience. I am looking forward to what the future holds for both Williamsburg and William & Mary, and I am thankful to have been a part of them both.”

An enduring, powerful tradition

As Sunday’s ceremony came to a close, William & Mary President Taylor Reveley gave the graduates a charge, delivered with his usual dry wit.

“By the power invested in me by the Royal Charter, the Chancellor, the Board of Visitors, the Griffin, and the entire Avenger team of assorted super heroes, I declare that your time at William & Mary has prepared you to go out and change the world,” he said. “If you change it for the better, and I do believe you will, we will all be in your debt.”

{{youtube:medium|qoVs-eUFPrg, President Reveley's closing remarks}}

The university president urged the graduates to remember their alma mater, telling them that “once you’re a part of William & Mary, you’re always a part.”

“Come back to campus often -- you will always be welcome where the red brick walks extend as far as the eye can see,” Reveley said. “Cheer for the Tribe, make common cause with other members of Tribe wherever you may find yourself in the galaxy, and help us all sustain William & Mary as a close community with an enduring, powerful tradition of excellence in all that we do.”