THOUGHTS ABOUT TRADITION FOR
THIS MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND
Cherished traditions persist even under the corrosive influence of politics — and God knows, our politics can be extremely corrosive.
I recently attended two events that illustrated cultural durability. First was an award and induction ceremony for the Hillsdale County Veterans Hall of Fame.
About 200 people — mostly vets and their families — were on hand to honor military comrades at this gathering held in a Michigan high school auditorium. Vets from World War II, through Korea and Vietnam, to our current Mideast involvements were recognized. And indeed, the event itself had a certain timeless quality.
It opened with the “posting of the colors” by a five-man color guard, followed by singing the national anthem (led by a high school girl who gave it a sort of Reba McEntire country twang), and then reciting the Pledge of Allegiance (led by members of the local elementary school student council).
New inductees were congratulated or eulogized. Numerous awards were presented. Words of appreciation were offered — prompted by the requisite pretty girl serving as interlocutor and holding out a microphone to the award recipients.
(This pretty girl is something of an area celebrity, morning news anchor on a local television station. And trust me, she is pretty — a California native who once held the title, Miss City of San Diego, but who’s now in Michigan following the Gypsy trail of those trying to make their way up in TV news. I doubt she’ll be in Michigan long. She’s Fox News pretty.)
A number of brief speeches were offered, including one from the director of Michigan’s Veterans Affairs Agency who conveyed the good wishes of Gov. Rick Snyder.
Highlight of the evening, to me, was a talk by Dan Bisher, a former Hillsdale College colleague who had invited me to attend. Dan is one of the driving spirits behind the Hall of Fame, a Vietnam combat Marine veteran and regional historian who has gained some note for his documenting of Michigan’s frontier period. Dan’s talk focused on the Hall of Fame’s mission, observing that its corps of honorees represents service to our nation back to its very beginnings.
That point was underscored by a special award given to the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. These are women who can trace their family roots to soldiers who fought under George Washington.
The entire evening was a fulsome display of civic ritual and military tradition, right up to its close: “retiring of the colors” by the five-man guard. And it was infused by that particular sense of belonging — based on shared experience — that veterans exude when they get together. Not having served in the military, I don’t have a part in that esprit. But I’ve encountered it before, and it too is extremely durable.
The other event I attended recently was the graduation of my wife’s niece, Beth Zelonis, from pharmacy school at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Surprisingly, given the ideologically charged atmosphere that pervades most campuses these days, the proceedings included some amazingly traditional flourishes.
The academic procession was accompanied by a pipe band. I’m not sure what Scottish bagpipers have to do with a Catholic school started by a French religious order (the Spiritan Congregation). But Highland music has found it place in American tradition, as is evident at any funeral for a police officer or firefighter.
The grads, faculty and guests then participated in a “Tribute to America,” including “The Star Spangled Banner” (interpreted more classically this time). And if overt expressions of patriotism weren’t shocking enough, an invocation was offered — that is to say, an actual prayer by an actual priest.
Conventional graduation rhetoric, commencement address, and awarding of diplomas ensued. And so thoroughly was tradition embraced that graduates recited not only the “Pharmacist’s Oath,” but the “Oath and Prayer of Maimonides,” a 12th-Century Jewish sage and experimenter with healing herbs and balms.
The only novel touch was a “musical interlude” in which a member of the graduating class offered a guitar-accompanied performance of Lennon and McCartney’s “Across the Universe,” which features the refrain, “Nothing’s gonna change my world.”
I didn’t quite see the relevance. The degrees which those more than 200 young people were receiving would surely bring change to their worlds. But the kid wasn’t a bad singer-guitarist; apparently he had been dubbed “the musical pharmacist” by his classmates.
A benediction (that is to say, another prayer), then singing of Duquesne’s Alma Mater, and a pipe band-led recessional brought the festivities to a close. At which point everyone turned to the predictable selfies and family group shots.
Once again I was struck by the durability of culture.
How many thousands of graduates have experienced such a rite of passage over the decades? How many such nods to tradition?
Duquesne is a Catholic school, of course, but don’t assume this institutional character insulates it from change — or from politics.
Just last March, a lecture by Gen. Michael V. Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency and the CIA, was interrupted by demonstrators complaining, “Assassination is a war crime!” “Torture is a war crime!” “You are a war criminal, and you should be in jail!” “Arrest Michael Hayden! He murdered people!” and other such robust Progressive sentiments.
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Gen. Hayden, a 1971 Duquesne alum, received these greetings with good humor. “Welcome home,” he said, drawing laughter.
Whatever the extent of lefty influence at Duquesne, the graduation ceremony I attended seemed untouched by such hubbub. This event could have been happening in the 1950s, except for the ethnic diversity that was very apparent and wouldn’t have been so back then (and that Lennon-McCartney thing too, of course).
What I was watching — as what I saw at that veterans event in Michigan — were things that expressed the essence of our American spirit. In both settings people were involved in symbolic acts that give form and meaning to our shared cultural memory. These acts persist and continue to touch us, regardless of politics.
Memorial Day is this weekend. It’s another time of remembrance that’s embedded deep in our civic traditions. Take time to think of our veterans, those men and women who have given so much to our nation. Their acts of the past have helped to bring us the blessings we enjoy today (current ideological claptrap aside).
But also say a prayer for our young graduates embarking on their life work — whether developing and dispensing pharmaceuticals, or making other contributions in whatever fields of endeavor.
May the Lord grant them productive careers that encourage true progress in our society: progress that can vindicate the sacrifices of the past and help to secure the future.
God bless America.
Congratulations to Dr. Beth Anne Zelonis!
My wife’s niece, Beth, received the degree, Doctor of Pharmacy, from Duquesne University’s Mylan Graduate School of Pharmaceutical Sciences. She is shown here after the graduation ceremony with her sister, Sara.