William & Mary’s Class of 2011 got an unusual piece of advice from their Commencement speaker on Sunday afternoon: “Go play in traffic.”
“That’s right, nothing is going to happen unless you go play in traffic. Don’t be afraid to play in traffic,” said Joseph J. Plumeri ’66. “Do things. Take some risks, whether they be personal risks or risks that you feel are needed to get your dreams to be fulfilled.”
Plumeri, chairman and chief executive officer Willis Group Holdings, gave a dynamic speech to a packed William & Mary Hall during the College’s Commencement ceremony May 15, the day on which 1,944 undergraduate and graduate students received their degrees from the College.
Plumeri received an honorary doctor of public service degree during the event. Two others also received honorary degrees during the ceremony. Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, received an honorary doctor of public service degree, and Brian Lamb, president of C-SPAN, received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.
“We are all gathered to rejoice,” said President Taylor Reveley at the beginning of the event. “So let’s get on with celebrating the Class of 2011.”
Playing in traffic
Plumeri, who said he looked like a combination of Fonzie and John Travolta from Grease during his time at the College, told the graduates that he is “living proof that you can dream.”
“I am one of the world’s great dreamers,” he said. “You can’t tell me I can’t do this; you can’t tell me I can’t do that. Number one I am not built that way, and number two, I am a graduate of the College of William and Mary.”
While “playing in traffic”, Plumeri said, graduates should keep four big ideas – or “road signs” – in mind: vision, passion, integrity and a belief in the endless possibilities.
“You have to believe that because you are a graduate of the College of William and Mary that anything – anything -- is possible,” he said.
Rarely standing at the podium during his half-hour speech, which was often interrupted by applause, Plumeri walked the stage and engaged the crowd, asking them to give standing ovations to the graduates’ parents and the William & Mary faculty. Plumeri peppered his remarks with stories from his own life and family as well as stories about some of the graduates – including Nat Baako, Brian Focarino and Michelle Munikwa -- that illustrated his four “road signs.”
Many people know the words, but they don’t “know the music,” said Plumeri.
“In the years at William & Mary, you’ve learned words, I just told you where the music comes from. It comes from your heart. That’s what you’ve learned here, you’ve learned heart. You know the words, and you know the music. And by knowing the words and the music, anything is possible,” he said. Plumeri then had the graduates repeat “Anything is possible” several times.
Some people in life are “ready, set” people, and others are “ready, set, go,” people, Plumeri said in the conclusion of his speech.
“All the years you’ve been here, you’ve been hearing what? Go, Tribe! Now you know why you’ve been yelling ‘Go, Tribe!’ for all the years you’ve been here because you are the go people. You are the people that will make a difference. Go out and make something happen. Play in traffic. Go, Tribe!”
Awards and honors
Kalyani Hemant Phansalkar ’11 served as the student Commencement speaker during the ceremony, saying that luck comes in different forms: the kind that happens to you and the kind that you make happen. Finding what you are passionate about so you can make your own luck can be hard, she said, but William & Mary has helped the graduates get ready for that challenge.
“Our experiences at the College have taught us how to search,” she said. “The people we have met and the time we spent together has allowed us to be inspired. Wherever our passion is – these years (at the College) have shown us we have the capacity to find it.”
Several students and faculty members received awards during the ceremony.
Ronald Wilcox ’11, who graduated with a degree in physics with a minor in mathematics, received the Lord Botetourt Medal. Established in 1772 “for the honor and encouragement of literary merit,” the medal is presented to a graduating senior who has “attained the greatest distinction in scholarship.”
Samanthe Tiver ‘11, who graduated with a degree in economics with a minor in mathematics, was presented with the James Frederic Carr Memorial Cup. The cup is presented annually to the graduating senior "who best combines the qualities of character, scholarship and leadership."
Edward Maris-Wolf, who received his Ph.D. in history on Sunday, was the recipient of this year’s Thatcher Prize for Excellence. The prize is presented annually to a graduate or professional student of outstanding scholarship, service and character.
The Thomas Ashley Graves Jr. Award for Sustained Excellence in Teaching was presented to two professors: Phil Kearns, associate professor of computer science, and Larry Ring, chancellor professor and Executive MBA Alumni Professor at the Mason School of Business.
The Algernon Sydney Sullivan awards, which are presented to two members of the graduating class and one person who has “a close working relationship” with the College, were presented to Lauren Edmonds ‘11, John Pothen ’11 and Pamela Garrette, who worked at the College’s Career Center for 30 years before retiring this academic year.
Mike Blum, this year’s Charles Joseph Duke, Jr., and Virginia Welton Duke Award recipient, was also recognized during the Commencement ceremony. The Duke Award is presented annually to staff member who exhibits exemplary service and dedication to William & Mary.
Constellation of pluses
When Reveley took the podium the end the ceremony, he joked that he felt a bit like “the corpse at an Irish wake.”
“They need you there to have the party, but they don’t expect you to say much,” he said.
Reveley said that though admitted students see the phrase, “There’s only William & Mary – and now it’s yours” in their admittance materials, the sentiment also speaks directly to William & Mary’s graduates.
“It’s you who have spent enormous amounts of energy climbing William & Mary’s steep academic mountain, and it’s you who now stand at its summit, ready for the journey ahead,” he said. “And it’s you who a few minutes ago were anointed with a William & Mary degree when I intoned the magic words making you alumni and alumnae. In my view, your William & Mary degree will nurture you richly for the rest of your lives, until you shuffle off your mortal coils.”
William & Mary has provided the graduates opportunities to forge life-long friendships, Reveley said. It has also provided them with a high-caliber education from a distinguished university, which will give them an advantage as they move forward.
“People who know higher education in America understand the high caliber of our faculty and students and the superb education inherent in a William & Mary degree,” Reveley said. “As many of you have already discovered, graduate and professional schools love to recruit William & Mary alumni and alumnae. Employers who have hired William & Mary graduates speak lyrically about them and return wanting more. It helps, and it feels good, to have a degree that commands attention and respect.”
With a good education, life-long friendships and “a powerful credential tooted in the College’s renown,” the graduates leave William & Mary with “quite a constellation of pluses for the road ahead.”
“Truly, there is only one William & Mary – and now it’s yours!”