"Gail Sheehy Urges Class of 2016: Dare to Care"

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May 22, 2016 by Thomas James Weaver, University of Vermont

Famed author Gail Sheehy spun out a commencement address to the University of Vermont’s Class of 2016 that transported her audience back to the UVM alumna’s own college days in the late 1950s, put them on the presidential campaign trail in 1968, and dared to ponder the essential definition of humanity in our technological age.

Putting a new spin on French philosopher Rene Descartes’ famous phrase “I think, therefore I am,” Sheehy told the grads, “Today, we may better define what sets us apart as humans with a different declaration: ‘I care, therefore I am.’ Caring may be the key to establishing the unity of mankind.”

Caring and daring were central themes throughout the commencement address by the Class of 1958 UVM alumna, a pioneer of “new journalism” whose 17 books include Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, named one of the 10 most influential books of our time by the Library of Congress.

On a cool, overcast May morning, Sheehy spoke from the podium in front of the Waterman Building. Assembled before her across the university green were an estimated 2,937 graduates and thousands more friends, families and faculty. The degree recipients hailed from 41 state and 22 countries.

As the graduates reflected on their own college years, Sheehy took them back to her own late 1950s experience at UVM in a speech delivered with a natural storyteller’s conversational rhythm. She recalled a University of Vermont where women endured a skirt’s-only dress code through northern New England winters, where there was a lone African-American student, where her father insisted she study home economics rather than English.

But Sheehy found a very different education than what one might assume. “The home economics department was really the closest thing to a business school,” Sheehy said. “So while my father thought that I was learning how to make cherries flambé, I was taking courses in economics, public speaking, design…even advertising! “ And, without mentioning it to her father, she added a second major, in English.

Speaking to the importance of daring, Sheehy described two key moments in her life as she furthered her education and career. A single mother after the end of her first marriage, an early stumble in her writing career behind her, Sheehy enrolled at Columbia University, studying for her master’s degree with the famed anthropologist Margaret Mead.

“Mead was the new American cultural prophet,” Sheehy said. “She encouraged me to become a cultural interpreter: ‘Whenever you hear about a great cultural phenomenon — a revolution, an assassination, a notorious trial, an attack on the country — drop everything. Get on a bus or train or plane and go there, stand at the edge of the abyss, and look down into it. You will see a culture turned inside out and revealed in a raw state.'”

She would put that advice to the test when the editor of New York magazine assigned her to cover a West Coast campaign swing during Sen. Robert Kennedy’s 1968 run for the Democratic nomination for President. Sheehy described her initial reticence to jump out of her comfort zone in covering politics. She spun the tale of a harrowing small airplane flight in rough weather, interviewing Kennedy as the plane bounced through a fierce storm over the Cascade Mountains. Two days after her interview, Kennedy was murdered.

“If I hadn’t taken that risky trip, I wouldn’t have had an insight about Kennedy. And with my education in the humanities, I knew what I could do with that insight,” Sheehy said. “I didn’t have to write about politics like the boys do, focusing on the horse race and daily polls. I could explore the character of the candidates. That was the epiphany: issues are today. Character is what was yesterday and will be again tomorrow. From then on, this became my motto: when I fear, I dare.”

She also turned the lens on the graduates themselves with three stories from Class of 2016 members Grace Gaskill, Claire Wiggin and Finn Galloway-Kane. She spoke to the growth of their UVM years and plans for the future.

Addressing the diverse experiences of the entire graduation class, Sheehy said in closing her speech, “These kinds of intangible experiences, I promise you, have seeped into your brain, expanded your emotional intelligence, and helped to shape what people will sense about you — your character. Your intelligence will open some doors for you, but it’s your emotional intelligence that will allow you to hold doors open — for others.”

In addition to Gail Sheehy, the university presented honorary degrees to Paul Bruhn, Richard Erdman, Jaime Laredo, Dr. William Luginbuhl and Viola Luginbuhl and William Ruprecht.

Recipients of the 2016 senior awards for UVM students included Jacqueline Cardoza, Mary Jean Simpson Award; Michael Barnum, Kidder Medal; Stephanie Kirk and Isaac de La Bruere, Class of ’67 Award; Hira Haq and Benjamin Kennedy, Keith M. Miser Leadership Award; Finn Galloway-Kane and Samara “Sammie” Ibrahim, Elmer Nicholson Achievement Prize.