March 24, 2020

Roy Peter Clark ’70: Class of 2020: You have a great story

By Roy Peter Clark ’70 & ’17Hon.

Roy Peter Clark '70 & '17Hon. accepts his diploma from College President William P. Hass '48.
Dr. Roy Peter Clark, O.P. ’70 & ’17Hon., accepts his PC diploma from College President William P. Hass ’48. Commencement was held at the Grotto on campus weeks after students were sent home early due to unrest at colleges across the country.

To my PC brothers and sisters, Class of 2020:

Cheers on your four years of hard work — and lots of playtime, I hope. Cheers on your upcoming graduation. I have no doubt that our alma mater has prepared you perfectly to face a global pandemic and a world-wide economic recession.

Even worse than debt and unemployment, they want to close the bars and coffee shops. How could they?

Let’s get to the important, emotional questions. What about Commencement Exercises? What about that glorious ritual of walking across the stage, your three relatives cheering from the balcony of the Dunkin’ Donuts Center?

This was to be Father Shanley’s last rodeo as president of the college. I wondered if he would have shaken every hand as usual? And then wiped his own each time with hand sanitizer? Instead of academic gowns, everyone could have worn a hazmat suit.

Let me express some solidarity with your disappointment. Your ceremony was postponed and now so is mine: the 50th reunion of the Class of 1970.

I am praying to St. Jude, patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes, that you get a chance — at some point in time — to flip your tassels and hug your classmates goodbye.

Our prayers need to extend across the globe to the millions affected by the pandemic. It feels, more than ever, that humankind is a mystical body in which all of us are connected.

This disruption may feel unprecedented. But I want to share with you a little history to provide a dose of consolation.

Providence College was founded in 1917, but did not open until 1919. Why? Because of two fairly significant events: The Great War (what we have come to call World War I) and a global pandemic that has come to be known as The Spanish Flu. That virus infected a third of the world’s population, killing as many as 50 million people, including almost 700,000 Americans.

But that crisis passed, and the College opened and grew until a collision with two other fairly significant events. We call them The Great Depression and World War II. Imagine the education PC students got when they went off to war, invaded Europe, and liberated concentration camps. I just learned that 37 members of a group of PC students known as “The Lost Class of 1944” were killed in action.

Compared to those cataclysmic world events, maybe my class — the Class of 1970 — had it easy. Except for this: During our four years, thousands were killed in the Vietnam War, we were subject to the military draft lottery, and we became involved in social and political upheavals the likes of which we had never seen before.

Back in our day, graduation ceremonies took place in June. On May 4, 1970, four unarmed college students were shot and killed at Kent State University by members of the Ohio National Guard. We wondered whether our government had declared war on students.

Fifty years ago, students went on strike. Fearing violence, many colleges closed their doors early and sent students home. PC did the same.

The Class of 1970 made a kind of history: We were the first full PC class to never have completed our final year.

About six weeks went by, and seniors were able to return to the college and convene in the outdoor setting of the Grotto for our graduation ceremonies. I got to deliver the “class oration” on how to imagine a peaceful world at a time of war.

Roy Peter Clark '70 & '17Hon.
Dr. Roy Peter Clark ’70 & ’17Hon. returned to the commencement stage in 2017, this time at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, to receive an honorary degree and present the address to graduates.

So here we are again, and how alike we seem, the classes of 1970 and 2020.

• We both benefited from cool class numbers. The number 1970 is cool, but can there be a better class number than 2020? My ophthalmologist thinks not.

• Our president back then left office in disgrace. Yours was impeached.

• We both attended college during periods of political polarization, social unrest, and struggles for racial justice and gender equality.

• The graduates of both classes faced existential crises: war and pandemic.

We never got to finish what we started — and neither have you, yet.

• Oh, and we had the Beatles and you … well, sing it with me: “All You Need Is Love.”

Here is the good news, and there is a lot of it:

• You WILL see your classmates again. I promise. For 50 years I have been in close touch with my three roommates. They are like family. I love them as brothers.

• While we mourn and pray for those families most affected by the pandemic, there is no capstone course you could have taken that will be more valuable to you than this experience. The lessons of fear, loss, tragedy, betrayal, intolerance — but also courage, hope, community, science, and culture: these are learned abstractly in our studies of the humanities but are now made manifest in real time in your final days of college.

We were never sure when the Vietnam War would end, but it did end. We are not sure when the pandemic will resolve itself, but it will. There will come to be a Before and an After. We will come to savor the simple pleasures of life: that party on St. Patrick’s Day, that family reunion, a baby’s first step, that iced vanilla latte.

Finally, I believe that “God writes straight with crooked lines,” that what appears catastrophic will be redeemed in ways we cannot imagine.

You think this pandemic has ruined the celebration that you have earned and deserved. In the long run, you may change your mind. It may have given you a special legacy and one of the greatest gifts of all: A great story.

Think of the story you will tell in the days and years ahead. To your grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Back in 2020, you will say with your perfect 2020 hindsight, we made history.

Roy Peter Clark ’70 & ’17Hon. is the retired senior scholar at The Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Fla. He graduated as his class salutatorian and earned a Ph.D. in English from Stony Brook University in 1974. He did not attend the Stony Brook graduation ceremony. “It was too hot,” he said.

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