'The Greatest Word is "Encourage"'

Commencement 2003

'The Greatest Word is "Encourage"'

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Erik Weihenmayer '91, first blind climber to scale Mt. Everest and each of the highest peaks on the world's seven continents, exhorted members of the Class of 2003 to reach undaunted into the unknown, and by daring great things, inspire others to do likewise.

Erik Weihenmayer '91, accompanied by his guide dog Seego, addressed the Class of 2003 - including this enthusiastic group of Connell School of Nursing graduates - at Monday's Commencement Exercises. (Photos by Lee Pellegrini)
"The greatest word is 'encourage,'" Weihenmayer told 3,236 graduates at BC's 127th Commencement Exercises on May 19 at Alumni Stadium. "By your own personal example, give the people around you the courage to do great things."

Weihenmayer, who delivered the Commencement Address extemporaneously, and was accompanied on stage by his guide dog Seego, recalled the first attempt at rock-climbing that would lead him ultimately to conquer the world's tallest mountains.

"I left a lot of blood and skin on that [rock] face, but I got to the top," he said. "What hasn't changed since that first rock-climbing experience at 16 is the reach. I'm constantly reaching out into the darkness."

Doing so carries a risk of falling flat or looking foolish, but that's life, he said.

"There's a difference between a winner and a champion," Weihenmayer said. "A winner plays the game once. A champion understands the game never ends. Life is an ongoing process of reaching into the darkness, not knowing what we'll find."

He said the lesson has stayed with him that he learned as he clasped his hands around the cool stones atop the first rock face he climbed:

"I knew everything I needed to succeed in life was inside me or right in front of me," he said. "I just had to reach for it."

The mountaineer was one of five distinguished alumni receiving honorary degrees at the ceremonies. Others honored were Sister Kathleen Carr, CSJ, MEd'84, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Boston; Prof. Emeritus John L. Mahoney Sr. '50, MA'52, holder of the Rattigan Chair in English at Boston College; Dawn McNair '82, MEd'83, a first-grade teacher at the Bowen Elementary School in Newton and recipient of the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year Award for 2001-2002; and Thomas A. Vanderslice '53, a private investor and a Boston College trustee associate.

University President William Leahy, SJ, in welcoming remarks, noted the world stage upon which graduates will enter is troubled.

An encouraging sign for the Class of 2003 during the processional for Monday's Commencement Exercises. (Photo by Suzanne Camarata)
"We continue to live in the long shadow of Sept. 11, 2001, and the threat of terrorism, as recent terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco have vividly reminded us," he said.

"The SARS epidemic shows us how interdependent our world is, and how quickly and dramatically a health issue can threaten global communication, prosperity and stability. Unethical and illegal activities of leaders in leading American corporations have harmed our economy and public trust.

"We had to deal, and continue to deal with, the war in Iraq. And of particular importance to BC's Jesuit, Catholic heritage and mission [is] the clerical sexual-abuse scandal, [with] all it has done to the Church.

"These and other challenges that we cannot foresee will require much of you who graduate today, not only calling on you to use the intellectual gifts that were honed during your time at Boston College for the good of society, but also asking you to make wise, moral decisions and invest yourself in bettering the community in which you live and work.

"As it says in the New Testament passage, from the First Letter of John, 'Let us love in deed and in truth, and not merely talk about it.'"

Vice President for University Mission and Ministry Joseph Appleyard, SJ, a newly minted Golden Eagle as a member of the Jubilee Class of 1953, gave the Invocation in English and the Reading of the Degree in Latin. Offering the Benediction was Bishop Richard Lennon, apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Boston.

Weihenmayer recalled being inspired as a youngster by the story of Terry Fox, who lost a leg to cancer, then ran the length of Canada on crutches. "People like Terry Fox are modern-day alchemists, who take the lead of their lives and transform it into absolute gold," he said.

As for his own aspirations, Weihenmayer said, "I didn't want to meet expectations. I wanted to blast them so hard they shattered into a million pieces."

Weihenmayer received a standing ovation from graduates assembled on the searing Alumni Stadium playing surface, where on-the-field temperatures were in the 90s on a sunny and cloudless day.

Weihenmayer said he sees in the current world crisis great opportunity.

"This is the best time in history to emerge as a pioneer and, by your example, lift up those around us and give them courage," he told graduates.

"Never forget the light that exists within the human heart. To the Class of 2003, congratulations - and climb high."


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