Notice of Online Archive

  • This page is no longer being updated and remains online for informational and historical purposes only. The information is accurate as of the last page update.

    For questions about page contents, contact the Communications Division.

At Lafayette’s 164th Commencement May 22, Maya Angelou addressed the 465 graduates and their families, urging the young people to remember the difficult trials of their forebears and, in turn, to “knock down the walls” for generations yet to come.

“You are obliged to bring down the walls of ignorance,” Angelou said, “the walls of racism and sexism and ageism, and all those walls that keep us apart, keep us limping.” More excerpts from her talk:

There’s a statement of Terence that I would ask you to keep as a memento: “I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.”

He was an African, a slave sold to a Roman senator. Freed by that senator, he became the most popular playwright in Rome. Six of his plays and that one statement have come down to us from 154 B.C. This man, not born white or free or with any chance of ever achieving citizenship in Rome said, “I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.”

This statement liberates you. Suddenly you are able to reach into the teachings of Aristotle, James Weldon Johnson, Nikki Giovanni, Emily Dickinson. You are able to reach into the statements, into the hearts, of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Garcia Lorca and Marquez, and all the writers, all the dreamers, all the hopers, so you do not have to be forever bound and strangled by the ignorance of someone who went before you.

I would also like you to remember you have already been paid for, whether your ancestors came from Ireland or Germany in the 1850’s, trying to escape the potato blight which assaulted both those areas; or from Eastern Europe, trying to escape the pogroms, arriving at Ellis Island; or from Asia in the 1850’s to build this country, to build the railroads, unable legally to bring their mates for eight decades; or from Hungary or Italy or Malta, South America, Delhi or New Delhi, or from Africa, unwillingly, lying bound and tied, spoon-fashion, in the filthy hatches of slave ships, in their own and each other’s excrement.

You have to knock the walls down for those who are yet to come. One of you, or ten, en masse, will figure out how to rid this country of this blight of ageism and sexual bashing. Somebody in your class is going to help us eradicate AIDS, and cancer. There is much to do, and as you achieve each pulling down of a wall, know you have just paid for somebody else who is yet to come.

Trustee Emeritus Edward A. Jesser Jr. ’39 was presented the College’s highest honor, the Lafayette Medal for Distinguished Service, by President Arthur J. Rothkopf. Jesser was employed in the banking field for more than four decades and was president or chairman of United Jersey Banks for 22 years.

Renaldo A. Trancoso of Brooklyn, N.Y., recipient of the George Wharton Pepper Prize, awarded to the senior who most closely represents the “Lafayette Ideal,” delivered farewell remarks for the class of 1999. Gerrit Nieuwenhuizen of Lakehurst, N.J., and Kairn Mary Gebauer of Maplewood, N.J., the co-chairs of the class gift committee, presented a gift of $6,500 from the class.

Angelou was awarded the honorary degree of doctor of letters. Also receiving honorary degrees were William H. Willimon, dean of the Chapel and professor of Christian ministry at Duke University, who delivered the baccalaureate sermon (doctor of divinity), and Lucy Wilson Benson, vice chair of the Lafayette board of trustees and president of Benson & Associates, Amherst, Mass., consultants to business and government (doctor of laws).

Three retiring faculty members who have been elected to emeritus status were recognized, Jean-Pierre Cap, Oliver Edwin Williams Professor of Foreign Languages and Literatures; William A. Jeffers Jr., professor of physics; and Terence J. McGhee, Charles A. Dana Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Also recognized was Gerald E. Colver, longtime manager of the College store, who is retiring as assistant to the vice president for auxiliary services.

Two retiring members of the board of trustees, Richard S. Gurin and William C. Cassebaum ’53, were recognized. Cassebaum has been elected trustee emeritus.

Categorized in: News and Features