The overarching theme of the Friday night commencement for those of the Class of 2011 at Jacksonville State University was a remembrance of Alabama residents affected by Wednesday’s rash of tornadoes.
The 238 people who died as a result of those storms were mentioned in the opening prayer by Michael Rich, the rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jacksonville.
JSU president Bill Meehan discussed the statewide natural disaster and the university’s volunteer efforts in his commencement remarks.
Gov. Robert Bentley, originally scheduled to deliver the main speech to graduates and some 4,000 family members and friends who attended the event at the Burgess-Snow Stadium, had to cancel in order to remain with emergency workers and President Obama in Tuscaloosa.
Instead, Jim Bennett, chairman of the JSU Board of Trustees, gave a short speech. He offered regrets on behalf of the governor and also focused his comments on the devastation left in the aftermath of the tornadoes that swept across Alabama.
“As Governor Bentley’s labor director, he has asked me to express his keen disappointment for not being able to be here tonight,” Bennett said from his place at the podium in the center of the football field. “We cannot control when or where storms occur, but we can control how to recover from them.”
During his address, Meehan thanked those JSU graduates who have aided emergency response search-and-rescue efforts in the areas of Calhoun County that were ravaged by tornado-producing storms late Wednesday.
“We are proud of our graduates tonight…it is time to note your accomplishments,” Meehan said.
The university president asked those of the graduating class who volunteered after the storms to stand in their seats for the audience to recognize them.
About half of the graduates stood.
Many graduates and guests at the ceremony said they were more worried about Alabama residents who had homes destroyed and lost loved ones Wednesday than they were disappointed by Bentley’s absence at the commencement.
“I’m mainly just excited, and I’m glad graduation is here,” English major Whitney Satterfield said. The 24-year-old Springville native said she understood it was necessary for Bentley to stay focused on the storm disaster zones across Alabama. “I’m not bitter that he isn’t here.”
Daketha Fancher, a 38-year-old graduate of JSU’s nursing school, said she thought it was imperative the governor keep his mind on disaster response “in lieu of everything.”
“I’m sad about the storms; I understand that the governor is where he needs to be,” Fancher said.
Darren Blount and Amber Connell came from Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, respectively, to watch a friend from high school receive a diploma Friday.
As they sat in the stands of the Burgess-Snow Stadium, they each recounted how close they were to the tornadoes that touched down in their home cities.
“The storms most definitely have made everything here more serious,” Connell, 22, said. “You have students who came from places that were (struck), families who lived near affected areas … I think what the governor is doing right now to help out those areas is more important.”
But that serious tone did take turns both celebratory and hopeful toward the end of the evening. Cheers erupted from family members as the name of each graduate was called. A fireworks display and music from the Jacksonville State University Band commemorated the graduates’ accomplishments at the end of the two-hour ceremony.
“‘Those who win are those who think they can,’” Bennett said, quoting famous golfer Arnold Palmer at the end of his 10-minute speech.
“I know you can; I know you will win,” Bennett told the graduates.
Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562.