In their black robes and mortarboard hats, interspersed with the golden scrolls and golden tassels of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society, the 1,200 members of Erie Community College's Class of 2003 entered Kleinhans Music Hall Wednesday evening in a procession that lasted 10 minutes.
"I now declare the 55th commencement to be in session," college president William J. Mariani declared after they found their seats. "Are you ready?"
The graduates answered with a resounding "Yeah!"
After the National Anthem, in which student Joseph Thurston drew cheers for his sustained high note on the word "wave," and selections by the crimson-robed ECC City Choir, Mariani introduced noted guests.
There was Amherst Council Member Richard A. Wojtowicz, Buffalo City Council President James W. Pitts, University Council Member Betty Jean Grant and County Legislators David Dale and Elise Cusack.
Cusack, who heads the Enrichment Committee, which works with ECC, delivered opening remarks in place of County Executive Joel A. Giambra, whose name was in the program.
Mariani then introduced three outstanding students and presented them with certificates and medallions.
The SUNY Chancellor Award for Students went to Michelle Kadell, a mother of three and student government officer, who maintained a 3.88 average in the medical assistant program at ECC-North, and DeMar McClain, an Operation Desert Storm veteran who has won numerous awards and maintained a 3.6 average in the social science program at ECC-City.
Thomas R. Allen Jr., who had a perfect 4.0 average while studying to be a radiation therapist and who plans to study next year at the University of North Carolina, was given the President's Medal and received a standing ovation after Mariani noted that he had made a full recovery from multiple brain tumors.
Student government president David Wagner passed along the wisdom of one of his office associates: "Don't concern yourself with what others think -- just do the damn thing."
Wagner also introduced the featured speaker, Margaret Sullivan, editor and vice president of The Buffalo News, who highlighted her advice -- "Never stop learning" -- by turning it into a repeated audience response from the graduates.
Taking a show of hands from the graduates as to how many recently used a cell phone (almost all of them), the Internet (nearly as many), read a newspaper (a wide majority) and used the library (less than half), Sullivan also encouraged them to get library cards.
"The cell phone and the Internet are wonderful," she said, "but they're no replacement, in my opinion, for the power of the printed word."