Commencement Address by Robert W. Hill III

Editor’s note: The following speech was presented by Head of School Robert W. Hill III during the 172nd Commencement Exercises at the Williston Northampton School on May 26, 2013.

Good morning and welcome parents, families, guests, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, students, and especially the Class of 2013.

On Tuesday, this grand canopy that we are gathered under transformed our quad so that we could experience Commencement as one upper school for the first time in anyone’s memory (I even asked Mr. Teller). It seems right to me as well that we are all under one big tent, because as all of you students know better than anyone else, the essence of our school is found in community.

Before you get too settled, Class of 2013, there’s one thing I would like you to do: each of you has someone sitting behind you who has figuratively, if not literally speaking “had your back” and helped you get to the stage today. Would you seniors please stand and turn towards the audience and show your appreciation for those here today. Thank you.

The Williston Northampton School’s 172nd Commencement represents a beginning for the Class of 2013— and for the school as a whole since you have begun a new tradition—sharing your commencement with all students. With the spotlight on the Class of 2013, I urge the classes of 2014, 2015, and 2016 to enjoy this moment and cheer for friends, but also to project forward and imagine yourself on this stage a year or two or three hence and to consider what you need to do to get to this point as the seniors before you have done so successfully.

Traditions are very much a part of our lives at Williston and we sometimes take them for granted or forget what they are: ringing the victory bell, Willy Gras, Senior prom, the Holiday Dinner, painting the Lion, Diversity Day. There are those that get sustained year in and year out by design, and others that are carried forward as part of our shared culture, part of the school’s perpetual current. One tradition that you have not experienced Class of 2013 is returning to your alma mater for your first reunion, and I want to plant that seed now so that we can count on seeing you again in five years’ time.

By way of introducing our Commencement speaker, I want to leave the Class of 2013 with a thought that does not come from Iron Man. I ask you to consider the short phrase: “Answer the Call.” What does that mean to you? There have been times at Williston where you probably had to do something that you did not really want to do—something that you did either because someone asked you or because that voice inside you said: “step up, take action, volunteer.” It’s that latter case that I am speaking about—where you take action for good and get engaged in making your dormitory, campus, town, or city a bit better off by your efforts.

Our speaker this morning—and I confess to knowing him through his wonderful wife, Maddy Blais who has brought us years of prominent authors for the Writers Workshop—is Mr. John Katzenbach. Mr. Katzenbach, literally, answered my call—a panicked cell phone call two weeks ago. Ordinarily, when one welcomes a speaker, it is wise to save some gratitude for post speech remarks. But in this case, I want to express my enduring thanks to Mr. Katzenbach for just being here this morning. When Williston Alumnus and Columbian Ambassador to the US pulled out of today’s engagement due to Vice President Biden’s changed schedule to visit Columbia, I confess to being at sea. After all, Commencement speakers are lined up months in advance rather than weeks.

The first person I contacted, however, unhesitatingly recommended John Katzenbach—“if you can get him to say yes.” If you have ever had your prom date drop you at the last minute and called someone else, then you might have a sense of how I felt making that call.

John could not have been more gracious and we are lucky and honored to have him here this morning. Parent of Nick (graduate from the Class of 2000 and teaching intern in the Middle School last year, and Justine, Class of 2004) John Katzenbach is a critically acclaimed writer with a New York Time’s best seller to his credit (The Traveler) and two other novels which were turned into films, among a very long list of accomplishments. We are incredibly fortunate to have with us an author of such stature, and Mr. Katzenbach’s mere presence today is a testament to his “answering the call” and, I hope, a model for each of you in the wide open years that lie ahead for you.

Please join me in a warm Williston welcome for past parent, John Katzenbach.

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