In the spring of 1970, at Kent State in Ohio, an angry group of students was demonstrating against the Vietnam War.
Some of these students started throwing rocks at a National Guard unit when the order to shoot was given. Thirteen students were shot, four killed.
The repercussions of this shooting were widespread and dramatic. At Fresno City College, a number a anonymous notes were sent to teachers and administrators demanding that we better cancel graduation — or else!
President Clyde McCully convened a special meeting of the president’s cabinet to discuss the matter. The first speaker was Fresno’s police chief. He was a tall, thin, quiet man who spoke in a determined monotone as he told us that when you face a danger like this — even if you think it may be remote — it’s always prudent to take precautions.
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Bottom line: He counseled canceling graduation. Several administrators agreed. It would be an easy matter to simply mail out diplomas.
It was at this point that I made my big speech.
“These threats are only from a few extremists,” I told the cabinet. “We’re reacting just like they want us to, retreating into fear and disarray. When our students walk across that stage, it means something very, very special to them and their families.”
With that, I made a motion to go ahead with graduation as usual, and the cabinet voted. To make sure of the result, the president counted the votes twice.
The motion passed. Graduation was on.
On the night of the ceremonies, backstage at the Saroyan Theatre in downtown Fresno, everyone was on edge. Somebody saw a package that looked like a bomb sitting on a ladder. It turned out to be a stagehand’s lunch.
Shortly after the program started, as the graduates filed in, a man came running down one of the aisles. Immediately, some people figured he was a demonstrator bent on disrupting the proceedings. A few even thought he might immolate himself because there had been some instances of that.
Our Fresno City College police cadets, in civilian clothes, were on him like a blanket — only to find out that he was a parent wanting to get a good photo of his daughter coming down the aisle.
And then the most extraordinary thing imaginable happened! After the singing of “The Star Spangled Banner,” Alex Molnar, our beloved piano teacher, was playing the organ on stage. Somehow, he pressed the wrong lever, button or knob — and the loudest screaming siren you’ve ever heard came on.
Everybody in the auditorium was dumb-founded, looking around in dismay and expecting the worst.
You could just see them asking, “Now what?” Whoever heard of a siren on an organ anyway? Well, it took a few minutes for everyone to settle down, and the program proceeded.
For me, the best part of graduation is the part where the grads walk across the stage to receive their diplomas. I lobbied to have someone read the graduates’ names with some sensitivity, as far as pronunciation is concerned, especially when it came to Spanish names. And even though we had asked the audience to hold their applause, just about every single graduate had some family and friends to cheer them on.
Tonight was the payoff they had been working on for years — biology majors, secretaries, dental hygienists, auto mechanics, paralegals, radio and television repairmen, and history, business and sociology majors, architects, engineers, inhalation therapists, nurses with their rose of mercy corsages, electricians, future teachers, welders, artists, musicians — hey, even a couple of English majors.
The last ones up there were our disabled graduates. They put them at the end of the line because they couldn’t get up the steps and walk as fast as the others. As they rolled their wheelchairs and walkers across the stage, the audience responded with swelling applause.
The very last one turned out to be a severely disabled young man, all of about 4 feet, 6 inches tall. He had half-again his weight in metal prostheses on both legs and arms, with a broad stainless-steel collar that seemed to hold his head to his body.
With a winning smile, it took him a long, long time to clink and clank, only a couple of inches at a time, toward the dais. The audience, on its feet by now, cheered him on relentlessly. And when he finally got his diploma, he held it high in the air. The audience, expecting him to say something, became totally silent.
“Damn!” he said, “I actually made it!”
And that’s when President McCully, dressed in his colorful academic gown, came out from behind the podium, shook his hand and — to our great surprise — gave him a big hug. The hall went bananas.
Franz Weinschenk is a retired speech and English instructor as well as the first dean of the Humanities Division at Fresno City College.