Former U.S. president challenges and reassures Hobart and William Smith graduates in commencement address

“We are in one of the most exciting, rapidly changing periods in human history,” President Bill Clinton said before hundreds of people gathered Sunday for commencement at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. The 42nd president of the United States and founder of the charitable Clinton Foundation delivered a commencement address filled with optimism. Clinton also challenged graduates — to relish diversity and work together.

“Your generation will decide,” Clinton said. “Will diversity be a strength or a problem? Everything else will be background music.”

The former president was a much-anticipated speaker for the Colleges’ commencement that took place on the Hobart Quad. Before Clinton arrived, tucked in a motorcade that quietly moved in behind buildings, graduates and dignitaries prepared for their bagpiper-led procession.

“It’s absolutely amazing. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I can’t wait to see him,” said graduating senior Todd Collier, a history major who plans to be an executive in his family’s food manufacturing business.

Ashley DeLos Santos, a political science and Africana Studies major headed for a career in social justice, said she was also thrilled — though not surprised — Clinton was speaking on this day.

“It is President Gearan’s last year, so I knew he’d go all out,” she said.

President Mark D. Gearan, the Colleges’ long-serving president, announced last summer he would conclude his duties at the end of this academic year. Gearan, who was the Colleges’ president for 18 years, had been a director of the Peace Corps and a White House senior staff member under Clinton.

“What a day,” Gearan said, as he led off commencement speeches, adding after a pause and to laughs, “This officially brings the reign of Mark Gearan to an end.”

Gearan went on to congratulate the graduates. “In dazzling ways you will lead us into the future,” he said.

Receiving praise from both Clinton, who mentioned last visiting Gearan and HWS in 2001, and from Thomas Bozzuto, chair of the Colleges’ Board of Trustees, Gearan received a Doctor of Humane Letters honorary degree. Gearan’s wife, Mary Herlihy Gearan, also received the honorary Doctor of Humane Letters for her service to the Colleges.

Bozzuto also presented Mark Gearan with a historic and surprise honor: Gearan was named the Colleges’ first President Emeritus. The surprise announcement drew applause and a standing ovation.

In his commencement address, Clinton talked about coping in a world that seems in chaos and keeping an eye on the future. “America is a work in progress,” he said.

The former president emphasized the importance of thinking of “us” instead of “them.” Clinton said that “what we have in common is more important than our differences.”

“You don’t have to have all the answers,” he said. “It’s your attitude. Your beliefs. Believe our common humanity matters the most,” Clinton said.

“The future can always be better than today. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.”

 For more on the commencement and Clinton’s address, see Tuesday’s Messenger