Prayers of university presidents and school superintendents for commencement exercises to be executed as planned often are short-circuited.
Some leaders are extremists--the kind who decree that neither blaring air horns nor unseemly yells will be tolerated. Their wish is for “pomp” to be exceeded only by “circumstance.” Often, they experience countless “slips ‘twixt cup and lip.”
On occasion, though, commencement “foul-ups” are trumped by what may well be “Acts of God” that ascend to the peak of memories’ mountains….
One recently occurred in Nacogdoches, TX, home of Stephen F. Austin State University. Hours after Mother Nature lashed out, a series of graduation exercises were scheduled for various university schools.
Around 1 a.m., a strong thunderstorm struck. Several trees crashed earthward, severing powerlines. At least one darkened what is arguably East Texas’ most beautiful hotel. (The Fredonia Hotel, built in 1955 by Nacogdoches residents, was returned to opulence in 2017. That’s when Richard and Barbara DeWitt gave it a multi-million dollar make-over.)
Loss of electricity meant more than darkness. It meant no elevators, no room service, no restaurant, no gift shop. Essentially, “no nothing.”…
The Fredonia was packed with graduates’ parents and other relatives, all filled with thanksgiving when their slumber began, wondering soon what “God hath wrought.”
Earlier, lobby chatter between a few fathers of graduates agreed that “Acts of God” might be needed for their hard-to-motivate offspring to get diplomas.
Some may have just begun dreams of thanksgiving--thinking of sacrifices made, financial burdens borne and frustrations endured--now seemed worth the price. At least they’d have one memorable night at a top-tier hotel to remember….
It seems unlikely that my wife and I would not only be witnesses, but also participants, on this peculiar night at the Fredonia. We were in town to spin stories at a banquet of the Primetimers (senior adult group) at First Baptist Church.
We had yesteryear thoughts about things that went wrong during my “handing out” a few thousand diplomas at dozens of commencement exercises across two decades.
Gallows humor or not, we laughed while getting things together at 6 a.m., still engulfed in darkness. Only cellphone flashlights lit our way. I couldn’t find my mouth to brush my teeth without jaw movement, so I told myself a joke. Luggage in hand and assisted by a friend, we made our way down five flights of stairs. Thankfully, safe descent was made possible in near total darkness by beams of cellphones--the very devices we’ve railed against so many times….
Only later did we learn that critical technology had gone afoul during one ceremony. Graduates’ names--recorded earlier to ensure correct pronunciation--could not be summoned from their technological hideout.
Time was of the essence, so a real live person was enlisted to recite several hundred names, few of which he’d ever seen before. Dr. Tom Webster, FBC worship leader, accepted the challenge.
Long-time Nacogdoches folks may have remembered a statement often made by one of their favorite sons, nationally renowned after dinner speaker Bob Murphey. He claimed to speak “fair English and perfect East Texas.” Some graduates from countrie--whose languages have no vowels but lots of syllables--may disagree….
Before leaving town, we saw the statue honoring Murphey. He was my hero, this man who declared that Nacogdoches--the oldest town in Texas--was the “birthplace of the zip code.” He added, “None of us could spell it, so we decided to number it instead.”
Upon unpacking back home, we discovered a small sign from the hotel room that wound up in our luggage. It informed guests that the Keurig coffee maker was intentionally unplugged, so it could easily be moved to a more convenient electrical outlet. We would have settled for an outlet that worked.
That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. Others caught up in this “Act of God” storm also have stories to tell. They can stick to theirs, too….
Dr. Newbury is a longtime public speaker and former university president who writes weekly. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone: 817-447-3872.
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