Jim Heffernan column: A brief history of UMD grad rites
Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist.
DULUTH — I got caught in a big traffic backup last weekend en route to the Canal Park area. What the heck could be going on, thought I, as I joined the mid-afternoon lineup of cars, most of which were headed to the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center area.
Well, come to find out later, the caravan was headed to UMD commencement exercises at Amsoil Arena. I also learned later that some 2,500 seniors were receiving their diplomas. Lots of pomp, under the circumstances, with robes galore and regalia resplendent, I saw on the TV news that evening.
It prompted memories of my own less auspicious graduation from UMD many moons ago. Oops, not sure moons describes it. Ages is more like it; decades hits the nail on the head. Let’s say more than half a century.
It was a sunny, warm August afternoon in 1962 when I lined up outside what was then known as UMD’s Physical Education Building in a cap and gown to march into what is now Romano gym. The basketball court was fitted with rows of chairs for grads and guests, placed before a makeshift stage for dignitaries and some faculty.
I don’t know how many capped and gowned graduates there were that day, taking advantage of a smaller August ceremony rather than the traditional May or June commencement. Maybe a couple hundred.
As the lineup marched into the building to the usual musical accompaniment and rows converged, I ended up in the front row seated next to the faculty member who was in charge of arranging the whole ceremony. I noticed he was taking notes under the heading “Next Year’ and the first item was, “Don’t wear hush puppies.” Hush puppies in those ancient times were a brand of casual shoes.
I wonder now if my old biology teacher was there. He’s the faculty member I wrote about a couple of months ago who, when as a student I had questioned my “D” grade in zoology, had told me I was lucky to get that basement passing grade. In the column I called him Professor Frogstad not wanting to use his real name, even though it was so long ago I figured the professor would have lived out his days.
Well, he hasn’t. I will use his real name now —Dr. Blanchard Krogstad — because even though more than 60 years have passed, he saw the column. He emailed that he is now 100 years old, living in rural Minnesota. He didn’t mind my punning up his name, and I’m sure he didn’t remember me (I beat it to the English Department as soon as I could), but he indicated he appreciated the column and noted that over his many years of teaching he’d told numerous other students the same thing: Lucky to get a D.
Any educator who bends over backwards not to fail students is fine with me.
Meanwhile, back at my graduation ceremony lo those many years ago: My parents were there, of course, along with a host of other well wishers attached in various ways to my fellow grads. I don’t remember too much about the program. The usual stuff, I suppose, a speech or two and a procession of students walking across the stage to receive diplomas.
One thing about it all stood out. The Minneapolis campus-based president of the University of Minnesota — all campuses — at the time was O. Meredith Wilson — not the Meredith Willson (double L) who wrote the Broadway musical “The Music Man.”
The University’s President Wilson messaged that regrettably he could not attend our ceremony in Duluth but he sent his good wishes to the graduates. The message was related by one of the robed ceremony officials. The University’s President Wilson was mentioned several times, always simply as President Wilson this, President Wilson that.
So when it finally all came to an end, we marched back out and met our well-wishing family members and friends. My father seemed somewhat perplexed, though. He was a veteran of World War I and had served when a different President Wilson, Woodrow, was the wartime U.S. president.
All those references to President Wilson in the program made him wonder if all these brainy academicians knew what they were talking about.
“Don’t these people know who the president is?” he queried as we walked out of the building.
For the record, the U.S. president at the time was John F. Kennedy. We didn’t hear from him that day, but he spoke in that same UMD gym a little over a year later, a couple of months before he was assassinated. Call it history.