In 1944, a young man named John F. Eccles was killed while fighting to free Italy from Nazi power.
Exactly 70 years later, a group of University of Lynchburg students on a study abroad trip found the soldier’s grave and sent a photo to their beloved dean of students, the soldier’s nephew and namesake.
“His sacrifice took on new meaning to me, and I think it certainly took on meaning to those University of Lynchburg students,” said John G. Eccles during his Commencement address for the Class of 2016. “They realized that sacrifice is not some abstract virtue that’s in a book somewhere, but that it is an intensely personal choice.”
Eccles’ speech was one of the highlights of the 2016 Commencement on Saturday, during which more than 730 students graduated from LC, including 517 undergraduate and 218 graduate students. Friends, families, faculty, staff, and alumni filled the Dell to celebrate the graduates accomplishments.
The senior class had asked Eccles, who is retiring at the conclusion of his 30th year with the College this summer, to deliver the Commencement address for his final official commencement with the College. He used his speech to share ten items that he wants graduates to remember as they go forward in their lives.
The points included advice to “be careful what you wish for,” look for the good in any situation — “When things are awful, find something good, and hang on to it” — and acknowledge the obvious. He shared the story about his uncle while encouraging the graduates to recognize the sacrifices that others make on their behalf.
His fifth point was that a situation’s appearance may not be reality. “Listen to people and their stories. Assume nothing,” he said. “Listening is a little harder than judging, but it will generally get you to the truth faster.”
His last item was a familiar refrain to anyone who knows Eccles: “It is a great day to be a Hornet.”
“Our hope is that University of Lynchburg has gotten into your bones, that you beat Hornet red in your heart, and that you always remember what University of Lynchburg has done for you,” he said.
Eccles said sitting on the stage at Commencement and watching students receive their diplomas is the aspect of the job he will miss the most in retirement. “I get to see the eyes that realize a dream come true,” he said. “I get to see the smile that acknowledges satisfaction and commitment. I get to see tears of joy, war cries of victory, and bear hugs of appreciation. I get to see miracles walk across this stage, and that is an honor and a privilege that I will always treasure.”
Polly Blackwell Flint, ’71, ’73 MEd, chair of the LC Board of Trustees, opened Commencement with a discussion about the enduring value of education. “At University of Lynchburg, each generation has learned how to read deeply, listen carefully, and communicate clearly; to understand and appreciate complexity; how to think critically and creatively; and to be nimble and resourceful in the face of uncertainty; how to put words into action, to engage the world, and challenge the status quo in Lynchburg and around the globe,” she said. “These are the skills of a lifetime, the building blocks of a productive, ethical, and satisfying life. These are the fruits of a University of Lynchburg education.”
She advised the graduates to hold fast to the relationships they have forged at LC. Likewise, Alumni Association President Wendy Bradley ’91 encouraged them to create new relationships by interacting with alumni who can help as the students move on and start careers. “Some of you may think of this as the end of your time at University of Lynchburg. I want to share with you that it’s a new beginning,” she said.
Jennifer Lynch, president of the Class of 2016, commented on the academic and athletic accomplishments of the senior class, as well as the changes that the College has experienced during the past four years.
She also paid tribute to Kristine Kitts ’16, who died in 2014, and Melissa Smith ’16, who died in 2013. Later, the College presented posthumous degrees to these students’ family members.
“This place is so much more than a building and people. This place is home,” Lynch said. “University of Lynchburg is family.”
The College awarded honorary degrees to E.W. Tibbs, the president and CEO of Centra, in honor of his contributions to the community and his partnership in LC’s development of health sciences education programs; and to William and Ellen Jamerson, who have served on numerous nonprofit boards, provided the lead gift for the Jamerson Family YMCA in Lynchburg, and, through William’s company, have worked on many construction projects on the LC campus, including the Drysdale Student Center.