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Reflections of a North Country Girl At Heart: The Beginning


EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an occasional column contributed by Ogdensburg native Marguerite (Peg) Cordwell Brown about her memories of growing up in St. Lawrence County. Peg, daughter of Vivian and Benjamin Cordwell, worked as a reporter for The Journal while she was a college student in the 1960s, and currently lives in Rhode Island where she is the director of development for Button Hole Golf Course and Learning Center, Providence. She hopes her column will serve as a reminder of a kinder, gentler time in the north country.

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“…I wandered alone in a strange land/ And the night seemed so dark and dear/When the sound of a voice seemed to call me/And brought to my mind a memory dear/ It told of the joy and the gladness/That comes from the one above/Oh Lord, hear our prayers, take away all our cares/And fill our hearts with love…” (In A Monastery Garden, A.W. Ketelbey, 1915)

When the Ogdensburg Free Academy Class of 1942 received their diplomas on the night of June 24, these at once ominous and hopeful words of an imaginary monk, sung by the OFA mixed chorus, marked the beginning of their journey into a chaotic, uncertain and war-torn next step in their adult lives. With Pearl Harbor but a few months in the past and Germany’s advance through Europe and Africa escalating, the male graduates, diploma in hand, knew what their immediate future held—military service. Dad was among those who received an academic diploma (diplomas were awarded in the following categories: academic, commercial, homemaking, vocational, and English). Knowing he would be drafted, he deferred college and actually spent additional months as an OFA student, taking courses in the wood shop, until he left for the service in November of 1943.

The music and messages that accompanied my own graduation in 1964 were no less a mixture of both foreboding and hope. Through the lyrics of “Climb Every Mountain,” from the Sound of Music to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the musical Carousel, we were encouraged to “Climb every mountain/Search high and low/Follow every byway/Every path you know” while, at the same time, being reminded to keep our chins up high, when we walked through a storm. Even our valedictory address, delivered by Jim Graves, had mournful and spiritual overtones. Quoting from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life,” we were reminded that life was “Not enjoyment, and not sorrow/Is our destined end or way;/But to act, that each to-morrow/Find us farther than to-day.” The speech’s most memorable line was that “departing, (we) leave behind us/Footprints on the sands of time.”

The commencement season—what most of us regarded as an end, ignoring the true meeting of the word as a “beginning,” is mostly about celebration. The preparations leading up to the processional accompanied by Pomp and Circumstance with graduates attired in robes reminiscent of ancient times when monks wore this attire for warmth are filled with honors nights, awards banquets, last-minute negotiations to finish a course, college plans and an occasional reality check—what am I going to do with my life? In honesty, those reality checks at this age are few. For the graduates of Dad’s class and even my own, the draft loomed large. Today, military service is voluntary and often chosen by both men and women when there is still indecision about life’s goals, interest in particular training programs or the promise of possible support for higher education later in life.

Today’s high school and college graduates face very daunting challenges. The Class of 2014, like that of 2013, has, according to all reports, low wage opportunities, bleak employment opportunities and little hope of employers offering health insurance, let alone a pension. The cost of higher education has forced many to take out large student loans, while all reports indicate that for the next 10 to 15 years graduates of recent classes will likely continue to earn less than those that graduated in 2000. An April 10, 2013, article entitled “Young Graduates Still Face Dim Job Prospects,” confirms that among young high school graduates, “unemployment and underemployment rates are astonishingly high” (over 32 percent—almost double what it was in just 2007).

Soooo—all of you class presidents, valedictorians, salutatorians and graduation guest speakers—what are you going to say to your families, friends and classmates when you take the podium? Fear not. In this day of social media there are any number of sites that you will give you a list of the top 100 graduation-ceremony appropriate songs, the most popular graduation party songs, and instructions on how to make a meaningful commencement address, hundreds of “graduation” quotations and any number of what are considered the best graduation speeches ever given. A columnist, Clifford Ennico, took the practical and direct approach: “ …by all means reach for the stars and follow your dreams…just whatever you do, don’t run out of money.” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s address to the graduation class of the University of Southern California in 2009: “Trust yourself, break some rules, don’t be afraid to fail, ignore the naysayers, work like hell and give something back.”

If I could deliver that address, I’d take the direct approach: “You’ve been raised in a much-protected environment; most of you have been praised, protected, and loved. Your diploma is the first ticket that you’ve put into your portfolio. Every credential and experience adds more tickets—but all those tickets just allow you to stand in another line. There are no guarantees of job security, love, happiness and longevity.You do need a little luck— but you can prepare to be lucky.”

Perhaps among the most quoted is Steve Jobs’s 2005 address to Stanford graduates when he knew he would soon die of pancreatic cancer. His words—“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose…There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Somehow I believe that those words would have been just as appropriate for the OFA Class of 1942 as they prepared to hear Hitler declare “total war” in January 0f 1943 and to our class as we prepared to step into what has been called one of the most pivotal decades in American history. Would we have listened? Will this June’s graduates?

Author’s notes:

■Graduation tradition: the Pomp and Circumstance March often used at graduations comes from a line in Act III, Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s Othello—pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!”

■A baccalaureate service—Baccalaureate services were often conducted the Sunday before graduation and were usually Christianity-based interdenominational services. Founded on the medieval European tradition, it was a service “of worship in celebration and thanksgiving for lives dedicated to learning and wisdom.” Each graduate was accompanied by a sponsor. I served as my cousin’s sponsor in 1962 when she graduated from Morristown High School. All of the female sponsors wore white cocktail dresses. Because of Supreme Court decisions regarding separation of church and state, these services have declined. I am going to guess that the music chosen to be sung at graduation ceremonies in public schools today also avoids references to any religion.

■Heading the list of good graduation ceremony songs—“Each of Us is a Flower” by Charlotte Diamond; one of the suggested graduation party songs—“Schools Out.”

■College diplomas with the highest average salary for graduates—Carnegie Mellon University, School of Computer Science, average salary: $84,400.

■Unemployment rate for workers under the age of 25 in New York state —18 percent, up from just 10.4 in 2000.

■Percentage of 2011-2012 college graduates living at home—44 percent.

■U.S. high school graduate rate—75 percent; graduation rate in South Korea—93 percent.

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