JACKSON, Tenn. – May 21, 2011 – Remember.
That was the challenge of Union University President David S. Dockery to a class of 617 graduates during Union’s 186th annual spring commencement ceremony May 21 on the university’s Great Lawn.
“The most frequent exhortation in the Bible is to remember,” Dockery said. “Remember what God has done, remember his faithfulness, remember how he has sustained us through the tornado and remember how he has brought us to this place in life now.
“Leave Union University with the goal of being an ambassador for this university and an ambassador for the gospel of Christ.”
The spring class of 617 brings to about 1,250 the total number of Union graduates for the academic year – a university record that surpasses last year’s total of 1,130 graduates.
This year’s graduating class was the last class to experience the Feb. 5, 2008, tornado. The tornado caused massive damage to the Union campus and led to an outpouring of generosity and support from donors and volunteers all over the country.
As part of the commencement ceremony, Union presented the M.E. Dodd Denominational Service Award to Chester Harrison, pastor of First Baptist Church of Camden, Tenn. Following the tornado, Harrison led his church to donate $61,000 – or 11 percent of the church’s annual budget -- to Union’s rebuilding effort.
“Chester Harrison and First Baptist Church of Camden symbolize the generosity and sacrifice of 4,500 volunteers and 8,000 donors who came to the rescue of Union University in our darkest hour,” Dockery said. “Because of them and people like them, this class is able to graduate and Union University is able to move forward and carry out its distinctive mission in the days ahead.”
Also as part of the ceremony, Union presented the Elizabeth Tigrett Medal to Kate Elizabeth Cline, of Washington D.C., who double majored in history and English. This marked the 100th year for the presentation of the Tigrett Medal to an outstanding senior.
The award honors the mother of Isaac B. Tigrett, a former interim president at Union and trustee, and has been awarded since 1912 by vote of the entire Union faculty to an outstanding member of the senior class. Twenty-eight previous Tigrett Medal winners were on hand at the ceremony and were recognized at the graduates’ reception earlier in the day.
The commencement ceremony also featured the first graduates from two different programs – the Doctor of Nursing Practice and the Master of Urban Education.
Dockery, who delivered the commencement address, encouraged graduates to remember a number of things – their wonderful moments at Union, those who helped following the tornado, God’s faithfulness and compassion, how faculty and staff have prepared them for the challenges of life and, most importantly, the gospel.
Dockery said this was a special class that would be greatly missed.
“They are some of the finest campus leaders we’ve ever had on this campus,” he said. “They were asked to grow up quickly when they were freshmen. Many of them moved into campus leadership roles right after the storm and they’ve been there for three years now.”
Angela Abbamonte, a graduate from Woodstock, Ga., said the graduation was an opportunity for her to reflect on her time at Union.
“Union has always been a great place to receive a quality education in a Christian context, but the community of Union that was displayed after the tornado is what made me realize I had made the right choice in coming here for my undergraduate education,” she said.
She added that the tornado solidified the community spirit on campus and forced students to mature quickly.
“I saw how great our administration is and it made me proud to come back every semester since then,” she said. “This graduation is bittersweet. Our class made it through together, and I hope the remaining students at Union will never forget how blessed we were that night.”
Micah Gentle, a graduate from Tallassee, Ala., said the tornado gave him a sense of what truly mattered in life.
“When you’re not sure if you lost your school, or much more if you lost those whom you go to school with, it’s really hard not to be thankful for what you walk away with,” Gentle said. “The way in which Union, led by Dr. Dockery, handled the situation so lovingly, professionally and successfully really makes me proud to say I attended the ‘U,’ especially in the ‘tornado years.’”