University of Virginia marks commencement with thoughts of lost classmates

The University of Virginia awarded slain lacrosse player Yeardley Love with a posthumous degree. Whit Johnson reports.
By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2010

It took nearly an hour for about 6,000 University of Virginia graduates to "walk the Lawn" through the heart of the historic campus during commencement Sunday, past tens of thousands of relatives and friends.

It was a parade of black gowns and lushly colored hoods, colored flags and helium balloons, high-fives and hugs, picture taking and texting, cheering and laughing.

But as soon as everyone was seated, the crowd quieted for a moment of silence to remember four members of the Class of 2010 who did not live to see graduation. They included Yeardley Love, 22, a lacrosse player who was slain three weeks ago, just before final exams.

There was no mention of her ex-boyfriend, fellow senior and lacrosse player George Huguely V, who has been charged with her murder. Huguely probably would have graduated as well Sunday but withdrew from the university after Love's death. Members of the men's lacrosse team, some of whom served as pallbearers at Love's funeral, were unable to attend because they were playing, and winning, an NCAA tournament quarterfinal game.

Love's name was listed in the commencement program, and she was posthumously awarded a bachelor's degree in politics and government. Many of the graduates wore small white ribbons on their gowns to raise awareness of violence against women. More than $350,000 has been donated to a scholarship fund set up in her name.

"I wish Yeardley was here," said Fran Holuba, 22, a graduating senior from New Jersey who coached a club lacrosse team and is friends with many varsity lacrosse players, including Love. "She was a good person, and she deserved to be walking with us."

Others who would have graduated Sunday were Stephanie Jean-Charles, a master's student who died in the Haiti earthquake; Scott May, who died of natural causes; and Joseph Arwood, who was found unconscious in a fraternity house and died at a hospital.

Officials worried that the outdoor ceremony would be ruined by a thunderstorm. But just as the procession of graduates began, clouds parted, revealing a sunny day.

The students listened to advice from a man who has spent much of his life on the grounds: U-Va. President John T. Casteen III, who will retire this summer after 20 years in the job.

Casteen earned all three of his degrees at U-Va., and half of all living alumni earned their degrees during his tenure as president. He has overseen the construction of 134 buildings, created the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and increased financial aid offerings, among other accomplishments.

At first, Casteen's keynote address took an academic tone. He recounted the history of "Final Exercises" and how generations of U-Va. graduates have ventured into the world. Using the words of Jefferson, Emerson and Keats, he encouraged graduates to think about how they would use their intellect and apply the lessons they have learned in their classes. He told them that "the world to which you go is flawed and, in some cases, corrupt."

"The challenge, of course, is for you to use what you have learned here in the role of agent for good," he said. "You have presented yourselves today well prepared to accept that challenge."

At the end of his speech, Casteen turned his focus to what college really meant to the students sitting before him in plastic sunglasses, mud-covered flip-flops and decorated mortarboards. It was a personal message, one that did not appear in advance copies of the speech given to the media.

He told them not to sweat the small stuff, to seek the company of those with "vision, ambition and worth," to become mentors, and to test their friendships on the basis of "genuine human worth," not titles, birth, wealth or appearance.

He reflected on simple memories that students should take with them: the murmur of study groups in the libraries. Music. Students talking to their parents on cellphones, walking through the corridors or down the Lawn. ROTC units running in the morning. Marching band practices. The sound of student life, of sorority rush and student organizations. Traffic. Holiday carols.

Casteen continued the list of memories, of sounds that personify the university, as he wrapped up his last major public speech as president.

"The sounds of children on the Lawn during Halloween. The chapel's bells. The cheers at games, no matter what the sport. And the name of Yeardley Love."

The Class of 2010 -- missing Love and three of her classmates -- stood and applauded.

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