The story of four daughters, three couples,
two parents and one very big wedding
By Thomas Kunkel
CHAPTER 10: COMMENCING
May is the season of flowers, mothers, revolutions and—especially around here this year—graduations.
For our crew the commencing, well, commenced at George Washington University, where Nick graduated from the law school a few Saturdays ago. Deb and I weren’t able to be there, as we would have liked—but since the ceremony turned out to be four hours long, perhaps it was just as well. Katie said I would have died. She knows from hard experience that at any confined event, even with my own kids (or my own future in-laws) involved, I start checking my watch about 75 minutes in.
Nonetheless everyone said it was a lovely day, and more to the point we’re all tremendously proud of Nick, who graduated with honors despite taking on the kind of extracurricular burdens (e.g., contributing law journal articles, tackling outside research assignments) that top students tend to do.
Making the day even more memorable for him, Nick’s grandmother wrote a letter reminding him that more than six decades earlier his late grandfather also graduated from GW, and saying how proud he would have been to see Nick crossing the stage. Then she presented Nick with his grandfather’s GW class ring. Not a dry eye in the joint, Katie said.
Deb and I couldn’t attend because that same weekend we were hosting St. Norbert’s commencement activities back in De Pere.
Our graduation speaker was acclaimed journalist, author and political observer Gwen Ifill, host of Washington Week in Review and one of the anchors of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Gwen and I are friends from my journalism deanship at the University of Maryland, where she was kind enough to serve on our Board of Visitors. She’s a warm and generous person, and because she likes any good reason to escape Washington she does her fair share of commencement speeches.
And because she’s such a good sport, she complained not a whit about the packed schedule we lined up for her.
Not long after she arrived in Green Bay on a late Saturday afternoon, I picked her up at the campus’ Kress Inn so that she could join us for a casual dinner and conversation at our home with about a dozen St. Norbert students. She held them rapt with the story of how she had moved into journalism after her own graduation from Simmons College in Boston, and progressed through a series of increasingly high-profile newspaper beats into broadcast work. She inquired about the career plans of each student at the table, alternately questioning and advising. She brought the same relaxed engagement to their discussion as she does to Washington Week or the last vice presidential debate. Which is to say she is thoroughly charming.
Then we headed for a reception at the home of our Trustee Ed Thompson, who has a beautiful place on the Fox River big enough to accommodate half of Green Bay—and that’s just about how many people were there, it seemed. Gwen held court in the living room for over an hour as guest after guest, fan after fan came up for an introduction, a quick conversation and a photo.
The party’s other two guests of honor were Ed’s friends Bart and Cherry Starr. Bart is the Hall of Fame quarterback who led the Lombardi-era Packers to five NFL championships, including the first two Super Bowls (and the reason Green Bay came to be known as Titletown). Bart and Cherry, married 56 years, now live in Alabama, but for decades they’ve been heavily involved in various charitable causes in Wisconsin, including helping found the remarkable Rawhide Ranch for wayward boys. They come back to the state often, and St. Norbert College was conferring honorary doctorates on them for their many contributions to the public welfare.
In fact, Bart and Cherry are big fans of Gwen, who in turn knew all about the championship Packers. (I had wondered whether she would and was appropriately chastised for my having doubted it; Gwen knows everything, it turns out.) So they all hit it off like old friends. There were pictures all around, and Gwen would take away a signed Packers mini-helmet as a memento of her Green Bay odyssey.
After a rather cool and damp week, commencement day dawned sunny and mild. The campus looked especially beautiful, as it usually does in mid-May given the season and the hard work of our dedicated grounds crew. Green never came in so many shades, and the sky was that crisp blue of spring, before summer’s humidity arrives to soften it.
Over Sunday brunch I was quite spoiled, with Gwen and Deb to my right and the Starrs to my left. The Starrs talked about their tenure in Green Bay, and how after several desultory years early in Bart’s career their lives changed forever when Coach Lombardi hit town. There was more than a little irony in what I was hearing, I realized. When I came to St. Norbert to interview as a presidential candidate, it was just ahead of the 2008 Super Bowl, and in an open forum with the faculty and staff I’d quoted Bart’s recollection of his introduction to Lombardi, back in 1959. The coach, freshly arrived from his native New York, had called together 15 or so Packer veterans—veterans of losing, mostly—and pointedly told them how he was going to break that habit. His goal for them, Lombardi said, was to chase perfection…knowing they wouldn’t achieve it, but hoping in the pursuit they would reach excellence. Now here was Bart Starr, recounting that same story, as passionately as if it had just happened to him yesterday. It was terribly moving.
But not as moving as when Cherry later remembered the last time they saw Lombardi. This was in 1970, two years after he’d left Green Bay for the Washington Redskins. The phone in the Starrs’ East De Pere home rang one afternoon, Cherry said, and she was surprised to find it was Coach Lombardi calling. He asked how she was, then whether Bart was there. No, but he’ll be back shortly, Cherry said, please come over.
By the time Lombardi arrived Bart had returned, and they showed the coach around their home. Lombardi pronounced it beautiful. Then Cherry said earnestly, “We owe it all to you, Coach. If you hadn’t come to Green Bay, Bart never would have had the success he did, and we would never have been able to live like this. Bart and I talk about it all the time—how we owe it all to you, and we will always be so grateful to you.”
She saw that tears were welling in Lombardi’s eyes. Wordlessly, he gently cradled her neck and gave her a kiss on the cheek. He turned to Bart and hugged him as well. Then he put on his coat and let himself out, still incapable of saying anything.
The next week he died in Washington, of cancer that few knew about until he passed. Cherry said they realized he had come to De Pere to say his goodbyes.
Fueled by such wonderful stories, the day passed in a blur. That afternoon, as we processed into our basketball arena, we were stunned that the place was almost literally packed to the rafters—filled to capacity in the three sides of bleachers, and the floor jammed as well. The combination of a near-record 490 graduates, the glorious day and the draw of Gwen Ifill meant our venerable Schuldes gym was straining to handle an overflow crowd.
Even for commencement, which is always happy, it seemed an unusually joyful day. For one thing, the ceremony moved along at a good clip—no four hours for St. Norbert! For another, the students were all beaming as they crossed the stage to receive their diplomas, especially in about a dozen cases when sons or daughters of St. Norbert faculty or employees joined me onstage to help deliver the diploma (a lovely custom here). It also helped that the student speaker, Patrick Sutherland, was spot-on in his remarks.
And so, too, was the featured speaker, Gwen. As I was seated immediately behind her, I got to watch the graduates spread immediately before her, and they were hanging on every word. Like you want every commencement speaker to be but so few are, she was funny and witty and wise, all at once—and not too long. “No one ever complained about a commencement speech that was too short,” she noted at one point. Thanks again, Gwen.
Several days later, then, Deb and I flew to Maryland for our last bit of commencement business—to see Helen graduate with an art degree from the University of Maryland.
Shortly before we left Wisconsin she had called giddily to say she’d just turned in the final final exam of her UM career. Was ever a student more ready to be liberated from college? For months now she’d been counting down the days. As I’m typing, in fact, she’s standing in the kitchen doing a kind of dance somewhere between a shimmy and a jig. Why so happy, I ask? “Because I’m graduating today!” she says. So, no graduate school? I ask. “Not unless I have to!” she replies, still shimmying. We’ll see.
Helen did extremely well in college, but she never really enjoyed schoolwork the way some of the other girls have. And with the overlay of the wedding, with Mike being so far away and with her own building anticipation, this past semester was a near-eternity for her. But as it always does, eventually, the big day arrived.
Helen skipped the huge university-wide commencement; at Maryland, which has more than 5,000 graduates a year, individual students are recognized in departmental or school-specific graduation ceremonies. On an unusually hot day for May, we were glad to be in the air-conditioned confines of the campus’ student union for the Art Department commencement.
There were maybe 60 students getting their bachelor’s degrees in art, along with a handful of master’s students. The intimate size was nice, in that the faculty emcee, Professor James Thorpe, could say a few words about each of the graduates without anyone feeling the press of time. When it came time to recognize Helen, Professor Thorpe choked up a bit. He talked a bit about her talent, as well as the fact that she had a Navy helicopter pilot in training sending his love her way; and then, caught up in that, he told the audience that in October Helen was getting married to the young ensign in a triple wedding ceremony with two of her sisters! The audience gasped in astonishment, and Jim allowed as how “this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard of!”
The extra attention made Helen blush and well up a bit as she crossed the stage, and she gave her prof a big hug. But mostly, I think, it was unalloyed joy at being finished with school.
Afterward we visited at the departmental reception and took some family photographs with Helen in her robe—better proof that a child has actually graduated than any diploma!—then said our goodbyes, as we raced off to BWI to catch a flight back to Green Bay.
With Helen’s commencement over, everyone’s summer plans began to kick in. Nick and Katie actually flew back to Green Bay with Deb and me in order to participate in a pre-wedding couples encounter at the Norbertine Abbey, and shortly they will move into a small apartment in downtown Silver Spring, only a few minutes’ walk from the Metro. The move will cut in half, or more, Katie’s work commute to downtown Washington. Nick is about to take a preparatory course ahead of the Maryland bar exam, which awaits him at the end of July. Then in August he’ll begin a yearlong stint clerking for a justice in Maryland’s Court of Appeals, its highest court.
Claire’s teaching winds up in two weeks, and Sam continues busy with his work at the research lab. Gracie is starting an internship at the Smithsonian Institution with an entomologist, and in the meantime she also landed a nice, 20-hour gig (having to do with insect cataloguing, I believe) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture offices just outside College Park. And way down in Florida, Mike is just weeks away from the end of his training; it won’t be long before all of us find out where he and Helen will be stationed.
But we do know where Helen will be spending the summer—in De Pere, Wisconsin. Her Maryland career done, she is packing up and coming our way very soon.
I don’t know what I will do with that much wedding-planning power united under one roof.
I should also mention that as of a few weeks ago, we sold the house in Burtonsville, Maryland that we bought in 1997. After hanging onto it these past two years, through that s’more-soft real estate market, we felt things had rebounded enough to move forward. After Deb’s earlier trip to oversee the house’s buffing up, we planted the For Sale sign in the front yard…and crossed our fingers. From the start we saw a surprising amount of traffic, and in about three weeks we had a deal. Whew! Maybe we’ll be able to pay for this mega-wedding after all!
But that also means this current short stay is my last one at the house, and I’m a little blue about that. Deb will return in a few weeks to oversee a final clear-out. Various pieces of furniture and keepsakes will go to the girls, and the rest will go toward a yard sale and to Goodwill. And that will be that.
In our long, peripatetic marriage Deb and I have lived in a dozen different homes, most of which we’ve owned. The Burtonsville house, which we moved into in the summer of 1997, was the one we’d occupied longest, more than twice the tenure of any other place. It became as comfortable to us as worn jeans.
I loved its large, three-season porch that overlooked a spacious backyard full of mature trees. That included a tall maple whose trunk, at about ten feet up from the ground, broke into five sturdy branches like a crown—a perfect place for a Dad-built tree house, now a little worse for the wear (as are we all) but still standing watch out there. I loved the quiet neighborhood, not a bad drive into downtown Washington or Baltimore but far enough out to leave the city craziness behind. The warm family room had one wall done entirely in rustic brick, punctuated by a large fireplace and hearth. The main floor had an in-law suite, where Deb’s mother, Norma, lived with us for six years. The master bedroom suite was large and comfortable, and the bath featured a spa-like tub where I spent many happy hours soaking, reading and thinking Big Thoughts. The large basement was mostly finished, a great place for teens to crash. In fact, for most of the time we lived there, usually teens were crashing down there. It was a kind of safe haven for them, which always made Deb and me feel good.
There are memories of the J school’s staff Christmas parties, and every year getting a huge Christmas tree for the front foyer because its two-story height seemed to want one. There are memories of all those proms and Christmas dances, of eager young men coming through the front door…and some of them destined to be fiancés, as it turned out.
Maybe my favorite spot was the porch swing out back. I used to love swinging while listening to the radio, sometimes far into the evening as the lights of the neighborhood gradually came on. It was a great relaxer and got me through more than a few tense patches at work.
On my final day at the house, I spent a few final hours in that swing. It was a beautiful morning, sunny and warm. And for my amusement there was a little drama playing out right in front of me, free of charge. A couple of blue jays were ferociously defending their hatchlings against a sortie party of crows. Their respective strategies were fascinating to watch. The crows sort of nonchalantly strolled the grounds, as if they had nothing more on their minds than simply enjoying a fine spring day, while the much smaller blue jays frenetically zipped back and forth, tree to tree, buzzing the crows and making sure they didn’t get too comfortable in the neighborhood. After he’d had enough of this hectoring, the lead crow took flight and absconded across the yard to the north; the momma blue jay flew right beside him, like a fighter jet escorting a 747 out of restricted airspace.
I guess it’s pretty universal, the impulse to protect one’s nest. Now here we are, breaking up what was ours for more than a decade. Make no mistake; it’s been a joyful trip, being here to witness Helen taking this monumental step in her life. But sitting on the porch swing, knowing it’s for the last time, it feels pretty melancholy, too.
NEXT: The view from the other side.
Thomas Kunkel is president of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.