Below, Class President Jake Powers, left, and Charles F. Desmond, chairman of the Board of Higher Education. See more photos here.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Graduations by their nature are both sad and sweet — the excitement of new adventures weighed against leaving friends and mentors behind.
At Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts on Saturday morning, the 115th commencement exercises seemed both sweeter, and sadder, than normal.
Among the raucous cheers, hoots as President Mary Grant took a selfie of the entire class, and calls by keynote speaker Charles F. Desmond, chairman of the Board of Higher Education, to hear some "real MCLA noise," the college also took a moment to remember its losses.
Avaz Hajizadeh, emeritus professor of business administration and economics who taught at MCLA for 30 years, died at the beginning of the fall term, and Rebecca A. Haskell, 31, a business administration graduate, died just a week before she would walk across the stage to receive her diploma.
Grant, her voice breaking, asked that the assembly take a moment of silence in recognition of all the family, friends and mentors who could not be there on such a joyful day.
Haskell's mother, Karen Flynn, and her two young sons, Caimin Ketchum, 10, and Avry Haskell-Ellerbee, 5, accepted Haskell's diploma, a bachelor of science degree in business administration.
The young Dalton mother had returned to school and was working two jobs while attending MCLA before she was stricken exactly a week ago. Her family, including her grandmother, were welcomed as special guests of the college.
"She was so happy to be here and so excited about graduating," Flynn said afterward of her daughter. She was appreciative of Grant's efforts in ensuring that Haskell's academic efforts were recognized, and that her children were able to participate a special moment on their mother's behalf. "She touched my heart from the time I met her."
Also noted were retiring professors Ben Jacques and Edward Miano, of English/communications and management and accounting, respectively. Local officials attending included Mayor Richard Alcombright, state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, state Reps. Gailanne Cariddi and Tricia Farley-Bouvier, and state Sen. Michael Moore, D-Millbury, chairman of the Joint Committee on Higher Education.
Given honorary degrees were conservationist Lila Berle; Michael Christopher, former president and chief operating officer for Legacy Banks; Michael Conforti, director of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, and Desmond.
What the class of 2014 had earned by getting to this day, said Desmond, in his remarks, was practical expertise from a "magnificent institution."
"You've received a precious gift, those of you who are graduating here today," he said. "The gift of a liberal arts education from a public institution whose mission is to educate practical problem-solvers and engage resilient global citizens."
Desmond's own path was rocky: the youngest of 10 in an impoverished family, he attended Boston University but failed to achieve anything other than "teaching rich kids how to part with their cash" as a pool shark. After being asked to leave BU, "The U.S. government invited me to go to Vietnam."
He would earn Silver and Bronze stars in combat, but had a "clear and powerful epiphany" while left for dead on the field of battle.
"I had allowed other people to make choices for me," he said, vowing to God that if he lived, he would do something with his life. "I was one of the lucky ones. I made it back to Massachusetts with the mind, body and spirit intact."
Desmond said he began to take responsibility for his life — that would lead him to Northeastern Unversity, a Fulbright scholarship, 31 years at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and a loving family.
He told the graduates that having a background of modest means was an asset in giving them an understanding of life, and that the critical and problem solving skills they had learned were what employers were looking for - and if not, they had the ability in this new economy to invent their own jobs. Moreover, Desmond said success isn't all measured by paychecks.
"The building blocks of happy purposeful and meaningful life are not found in fast hustles, or expensive toys, but rather enriched by those caring places filled with the types of friends, colleagues and relationships built in institutions just like this one," he said.
Indeed, the class wouldn't have made it through without the support of family and friends, said Christopher Willis of Lanesborough, speaking on behalf of the professional masters in business administration candidates. And what they had received, he said, was an opportunity to further their abilities that will resonate with them for the rest of their lives.
Grant encouraged them to "engage deeply and meaningfully in your daily lives, with your family, as part of your community, and in your professional work, your civic work, in ways that make a difference, in ways that matter."
The college conferred 365 bachelor's degrees, 25 master's of education, four certificates of Advanced Graduate Studies in Educational Leadership, and 15 professional master's of business administrations degrees.
Then the cheering crowd buzzed out onto the front lawn for refreshments and pictures. Some of the graduates will be taking their degrees and heading into the work force, for others, like Terrence Jude "TJ" Pellerin Jr., this was brief respite before jumping back into the classroom.
TJ Pellerin and his parents, Donna and Terry, after the ceremonies.
"I got my degree in sociology. I'm going to Becker (College) in Worcester ... into visual media with a concentration in computer programming," said Pellerin, who'd transferred to MCLA after two years at a community college.
Pellerin, somewhat of an indifferent student in high school, according to his proud parents, Terry and Donna Pellerin of Worcester, had grown tremendously at MCLA.
"We are so excited he got a degree," said Donna Pellerin. "He wasn't always a great student but MCLA really pushed him and they were really so close and made him feel confident in himself ... so for him to go get another degree ... ."
Terry Pellerin thought MCLA's size kept his son from getting lost like he would at a larger school.
"It was one of the reasons I chose it," TJ Pellerin said. "Because it was small." He's planning to start work on Monday but it is eager to pursue his education in video game development in the fall.
Getting to Saturday's commencement was "no small task to complete," Jake Powers, president of the class of 2014 told his classmates earlier in the ceremony. He left them with words of wisdom from his father, to "take a break if you need to, but never ever quit."
"You're all Trailblazers, you can do anything because we've been prepared by an institution that breeds success," he said. "Let's get those diplomas."