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Eschewing his velvet beret at the outset and donning a Bonnies ball cap at the end, journalist and author Dan Barry offered up a heady mix of humor, humility and honor to more than 560 students Sunday morning at St. Bonaventure University’s 156th Commencement Exercises.
“I have a pretty good sense of how you feel right now. I’ve been there — in this same arena, in these same seats. Probably in the same gowns,” said Barry, a class of 1980 alumnus. “Granted, it was 36 years ago — soooo last century! — but I’ve been there.”
As the New York Times’ “This Land” columnist since 2007, Barry has traveled to all 50 states, taking readers beneath news stories and into obscure and well-known corners of the United States.
Barry’s parents, neither a college graduate, played no role in his decision to attend St. Bonaventure. He came home one day and announced: “I’m going to St. Bonaventure. … I might as well have said: ‘I’m joining the French Foreign Legion.’”
And then his dad told him to get him a beer.
Barry admitted the Long Island cockiness he brought with him to Bonaventure was “empty swagger.” The false bravado was his way of saying: “I’m an uninformed mess, with only the faintest sense of what I want to become.”
The people he encountered at Bonaventure helped clean up the mess.
Fr. Dan Riley taught Barry “the gaping chasm between cynicism and skepticism.” Jean Trevarton Ehman taught him the “excitement of going out and finding a newspaper story.” Custodian Tony Villani, a man others often belittled, helped him recognize the “‘otherness’ that exists in society — the segregation we impose on people we think are not like us.”
Dr. Rick Simpson, who read the citation conferring an honorary doctorate on Barry, meant more to Barry than anyone. The English professor is retiring after 46 years at St. Bonaventure.
“I have never forgotten the epiphany I had in his freshman honors English class,” Barry said, “the epiphany of how words, when properly assembled, can articulate what seems beyond articulation.
“Even today, when I write a newspaper story, or a chapter in a book, Rick Simpson is there beside me, urging me to find a better word … to seek the electricity that can be sparked by language.”
Barry previously worked for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn., and for The Providence Journal, where he was part of an investigative team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for a series of articles about Rhode Island’s court system. Twice more he’s been nominated for a Pulitzer while at the Times.
Barry is also the author of four acclaimed books, including the forthcoming “The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland,” which was just named the All Bonaventure Reads selection for incoming freshmen in fall 2016.
Sebastian Bellm of Mishawaka, Ind., gave the student speech and urged his classmates to choose hope over doubt.
“That St. Bonaventure diploma issues a challenge to each and every one of us. It challenges us to stop believing those who cast doubt upon us, but to start believing in ourselves,” Bellm said. “It challenges us to shift our thinking, so that when an opportunity or challenge comes before us, we don’t ask ourselves ‘Why me?’ but rather ‘Why not me?’”
Bellm said he spent most of his childhood moving every three or four years.
“My entire life … I was thrown into a place where I didn’t speak the language or didn’t know the culture, and often saw my schools, homes, teachers and friend groups pass by,” Bellm said. “But today I stand before you, comfortable, knowing that many of you will be my friends for the rest of my life.
Barry was among four people who received honorary degrees at Commencement. Also being honored were Fr. André Cirino, O.F.M., of Immaculate Conception Province; and Maureen and Ray Dee, ’64, longtime benefactors of the university.
Fr. André is a Franciscan itinerant preacher whose ministerial experience includes parish work, Franciscan formation, pilgrimages, retreats, as well as secondary and graduate education.
Fr. André helped establish the Little Portion Retreat House for the poor in Bronx, N.Y., and worked on a team in collaboration with Secular Franciscans offering retreats free of charge for eight years. He helped establish the TEC retreat program in the New York archdiocese and co-authored a retreat handbook, “Teens Encounter Christ.”
The Dees’ support of the university goes well beyond the three children they sent to St. Bonaventure.
Their philanthropy has included both major gifts in support of campus initiatives and numerous less heralded projects, such as helping students attend service trips. In 2011, the Dees established the Dee Family Endowment for the School of Business, providing funding in perpetuity for such things as curriculum development, technological upgrades and more.
The Dees also established an endowment fund for Mt. Irenaeus, the Franciscan mountain retreat in Allegany County.
Three SBU faculty members were recognized at Commencement for professional excellence.
Honored with the Faculty Award for Professional Excellence in Research and Publication were Dr. Gregory J. Privitera, associate professor of psychology, and Dr. Kimberly Young, professor of journalism and mass communication, and director of the online master’s program in strategic leadership. Dr. Gerald Boersma, assistant professor of theology, received the Junior Faculty Award for Professional Excellence.
About the University: The nation’s first Franciscan university, St. Bonaventure University cultivates graduates who are confident and creative communicators, collaborative leaders and team members, and innovative problem solvers who are respectful of themselves, others, and the diverse world around them. Named the #5 best college value in the North by U.S. News and World Report, we are establishing pathways to internships, graduate schools and careers in the context of our renowned liberal arts tradition. Our students are becoming extraordinary.
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