Despite winning an Olympic gold medal and four consecutive world and national figure skating championships, Scott Hamilton stood before the 1,355 graduates at Ithaca College's 109th commencement and expressed his amazement that he had been chosen as their graduation speaker.
"I'm a short, bald, over-the-hill figure skater who had to negotiate his high school diploma," the five-foot-four, 115-pound Hamilton told his audience. "You think I'm going to impart wisdom?"
Hamilton's self-effacing opening was the prelude to his message of embracing adversity and converting it into strength. In recounting the touchstone events of his life, Hamilton revealed his own encounters with hard times. An adopted child, he was stricken by a malady that stopped him from growing for four years. When medical treatments failed, he took up skating.
"I was the shortest, the weakest, the frailest," Hamilton said. "But skating gave me a way of building self esteem."
Hamilton began working his way toward the top ranks of figure skating. When he was 18, though, his mother was stricken with the breast cancer that would eventually take her life. Hamilton decided to take the strength and dignity she had shown through the course of her disease and apply it to his skating. The result was a stunning series of triumphs that led to a gold medal at the 1984 winter games in Sarajevo.
Thirteen years later, however, while performing with Stars on Ice, Hamilton was diagnosed with testicular cancer. After three months of chemotherapy followed by surgery, Hamilton began skating again--but with a different attitude. He had lived his entire life with a sense of dread and doom, worried that for every wonderful thing that happened, something terrible was going to follow it.
"But when I was diagnosed with cancer, I realized that I'd had it all wrong. It wasn't for every blessing there's an equal curse. It was for every curse, for every setback, there's a phenomenal blessing. It started with me being an unwanted pregnancy, and I was adopted. I got sick, and found skating. I'd failed, I succeeded. I went through the success part, which put me in touch with a really disappointing part of my character, to find my true self when I was diagnosed with cancer."
The greater the struggle, Hamilton said, the greater the feel of success.
"A positive energy is the greatest energy, and if I can leave you with anything, it's this: you will never, ever, ever regret taking the highest road in every situation. Hold yourself above anyone else that you judge, bring them up, lend them a hand, help them."
Hamilton reminded the new graduates that whether they realized it or not, they had already made great strides on that higher path.
"You've helped each other through this entire educational process," Hamilton said. "These are relationships that you'll keep for the rest of your life."
The Commencement ceremony began with William Haines, chairman of the Ithaca College Board of Trustees, welcoming the new graduates to the fold of Ithaca alumni.
The assembly also heard from senior class president Melissa Ferraro, who joined with her fellow class officers to present College president Peggy R. Williams with the record-breaking class gift of $30,216. The money will support a number of projects, including IC Square, an area in the soon-to-be renovated snack bar and food court that will be used to display College memorabilia.
In her address, Ferraro compared the tests facing the class of 2004 with the struggles that faced Frodo, the hero of the recent blockbuster film trilogy, Lord of the Rings. Just as Gandolf advised Frodo to trust in himself, Ferraro told her classmates to have faith in their abilities.
"We have all spent four years growing up, each in our own ways, attempting to establish ourselves as individuals of strength, knowledge, and confidence," Ferraro said. "This knowledge and understanding that you have received while at Ithaca College should serve as a constant reminder of the person that you now are, as well as the person that you will strive to become. Despite the unfamiliar and indefinite paths that lie ahead, that strength, knowledge, and confidence that I have spoken of will allow all of you to prevail as an individual who is diverse, educated, and strong in your own ways. I ask that none of you allow uncertainty to hinder your future endeavors, and that all of you trust yourselves. We will all be tested throughout the future, but if we trust ourselves, we will continue to learn and experience."
President Williams then addressed the gathering, directing her comments to the inscription on the medallions traditionally passed out to the graduates before they entered the stadium. This year's medallions bear a quote from Albert Einstein:
"Imagination encircles the world."
"We have been blessed throughout history with individuals -- some famous and some not so famous -- who have applied their imaginations to solve the greatest and smallest of the world's challenges, and who have explored questions and opportunities of every proportion," Williams said. "While some have imagined cures for disease, others have envisioned space travel and exploration. Others have dreamed of technology that would connect us to one another around the world with the click of a button, while others -- through their art, music, and writing -- have expanded our worlds by taking us to places beyond the known and the familiar."
Williams encouraged the new graduates to follow in the footsteps of those creative pathfinders and to never forget that imagination is not limited to any culture, nation, or personality trait.
"As you continue to create the futures you imagine, and you look out into the unknowns of a complicated and exciting world -- a place in need of powerful hope and enlightened leadership -- you hold opportunity in your hands," she said. "Cherish it. Use it wisely and humanely, and enjoy yourselves in the process. Let your knowledge and character be your foundation, and your imagination be your guide and inspiration."
In addition to honoring its new graduates, the College awarded Herman E. "Skip" Muller Jr. '51 with an honorary doctor of letters degree. Muller was elected to the board of trustees in 1966 and served as chairman from 1993 to 2001. In 2003 he was named an honorary trustee. Formerly a partner with the New York City accounting firm of Pannell Kerr Forster, Muller is now a private financial consultant.
In addition, emeritus status was bestowed on retired faculty members Dorothy Buerk (mathematics), Richard Creel (philosophy/religion), Ahren Sadoff (physics), Imre Tamas (biology), and Steven Thompson (biology).
Contributed by David Maley