John Krull: At commencement, a good day in a long line


The soon-to-be graduates, my son among them, file onto the great lawn on the St. John’s University campus in Queens, New York.

They’re dressed in brilliant red gowns, their caps perched jauntily upon their heads. The parents, other family members and friends gathered to watch them graduate from college applaud and cheer.

It’s a beautiful day, warm but not hot, with a cooling breeze and just enough cloud cover to keep the sun from beating down.

Every time someone in the crowd recognizes one of the red-gowned students as she or he files in, cheers and shouts of “I love you” or “So proud of you” erupt.

The woman behind me keeps apologizing for shouting in my ear.

I tell her that it’s OK. This is the right occasion for high spirits.

“It’s a big day,” I say.

“It sure is,” she says with a wide smile. “For our whole family.”

That’s the nub of it, right there.

For the whole family.

As I sit waiting for the ceremony to begin, I hold in my hands two T-shirts I bought at a tent selling commencement gifts. The shirts congratulate the St. John’s class of 2024 and bear the names of each graduate in small print.

I bought one for my son and one for me.

But not really for me.

My late father, who died not quite a year ago, rarely got dressed without sporting some piece of apparel from a college or university one of his grandchildren attended.

On top of that, there was this: My son’s middle name was my father’s first name. For several years after my son was born, Dad took delight in introducing his grandson to friends and acquaintances by his full name, stressing at times my boy’s middle name.

Because this shirt bears the name of the school from which my son graduated and my son’s name, my father would have worn it until it was nothing more than a rag.

College was a big deal in my birth family.

My maternal grandfather was the first in his family to attend college, walking out of the Southern Indiana hills a little more than a century ago to get his degree and change the arc of his family’s destiny. He became a teacher, a school principal and a Boy Scout troop leader.

Dad was the first in his family to earn a college degree.

Never a boastful sort — unless he was talking about his grandchildren, whom he loved to praise — he always downplayed that achievement. He struggled his entire life with communicating — or even allowing himself to experience — either joy or grief. He spent much of his childhood in an orphanage and learned early life’s capacity to break an unwary heart.

But he allowed himself to take joy in his grandchildren’s accomplishments.

That’s why I find myself thinking of him and of my late mother and my long-dead grandfather on this fine day.

They all saw a college education as something more than an individual success. They believed it was a family milestone, a sign that our line had made it.

That we belonged.

My birth family is not the only one that feels that way.

As I scan the crowd of parents, grandparents, siblings and extended family members, I see tears of joy on many faces when their loved one’s name is called and he or she marches across the stage. They jump and cheer, then hug each other, drawing together in shared triumph.

After we hear my son’s name, my wife and I hold hands for a moment, each of us thinking of the baby boy who now is a grown man — and all the steps that brought him to this point.

I find myself thinking of the ways family stretches backward and, God willing, forward. I think of all the ways those who came before shaped my life with their acts of determination and sacrifice.

I ponder this moment and how my son’s hard work and commitment will shape the lives and possibilities of those who will come after us.

I decide to wear the St. John’s graduation T-shirt as my father would have.

Because, just as I am my children’s father, I am my parents’ child, just one part of a long line that worked hard to get where we are.

On this lovely, lovely day.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students, where this commentary originally appeared. The opinions expressed by the author do not reflect the views of Franklin College. Send comments to [email protected].

No posts to display