Posted: 3 hours ago
Posted: 3 hours ago
I came to Drew University in 1975 to take advantage of its joint program with Duke University. After five years I would receive a Bachelor’s from Drew and Master’s from Duke that saved time and money.
I returned to Drew in May, 1979 to receive my undergraduate degree after my first year at Duke. Gathered in the dining hall the night before the ceremony, President Paul Hardin informed the graduates that the Reverend Jesse Jackson was too ill to make the keynote address.
Though initially disappointed, the President’s Plan B was a thrill: Alan Alda, who played Army surgeon Captain Hawkeye Pierce on the then hit TV show M*A*S*H, would take over. Since Alda and I happened to share a birthday, I figured his presence made the day just a little more interesting.
Little did I know.
The next day I was late to the pre-ceremony rendezvous with my parents and aunt in the Baldwin Gym, but searched the crowd to find them three rows back on the right. They were hard to miss – my car dealer Dad was uncharacteristically standing on the bleachers wildly waving a program.
We all embraced like the other families around us until my father dropped a bomb. Pointing with excitement at my name in the program and the accompanying asterisks, he exclaimed: “I had no idea your grades were so good!”
There it was in the program legend: “**” magna cum laude.
I liked Drew a lot, but for me GPA was more about Good Party Attendance. I immediately knew there was a mistake, but my father’s joy was too much to correct at that moment – his oldest son and namesake was graduating college, with honors.
Before I could say anything, my birth brother saved me as Alda entered the gym to tremendous cheering. In a split second I became the other actor in attendance, simply shrugging my shoulders and played dumb about being so smart.
I took my cue to take my seat figuring to correct the small typographical misunderstanding later. How could it get worse?
I found my spot among my class, greeting old friends and row-mates, including Donald who was seated next to me.
The truth is Donald and I didn’t really know each other at Drew. He majored in biology and lived off campus for four years. I studied botany and lived on campus for only three years. He became a doctor – like Alda, except for real. I didn’t. Yet there we sat to settle in for a wonderful ceremony and interesting journey.
Alda spoke with good humor and conscience of timeless moral ecology, substance, values, commitment to each other and purpose. Rev. Jackson never sounded better. Alda became our classmate when he received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, fitting nicely with his medical M*A*S*H degree.
The alphabetical procession of graduates onto the stage followed, with each graduate’s name read as they received their diploma and a hardy presidential handshake. As my row got up to head on stage, I could see everyone carrying a name card. I grabbed mine from under my seat and noticed not only my printed name but new Latin label.
Of course, I had not earned any recognition, but as I walked to the stage I saw the one family that was joyfully expecting it.
In a matter of steps I sweated the moral dilemma: accept the fate of a fake claim to correct later, or, or, what? Stop the show to tell the President I was falsely accused?
I chickened out. But as Donald turned to climb the stage steps right ahead of me, I happened to glimpse his name card. There under his printed name was handwritten what he earned and I hadn’t: ** magna cum laude. I wasn’t just a typo, I was a case of mistaken identity.
Thankfully when his name was read to the crowd, including the one we shared, Donald got the recognition he deserved. When my name was read, I got his too.
As we returned to the seats with our new diplomas, I peeked at mine to see the mistake right there in raised letters. After the ceremony my Dad examined the diploma like it was a car he might take on trade.
I never did bring myself to break his spell of pride. I never did see if Donald’s diploma had what he deserved. But the next week I quietly sent mine back to Drew for a do-over.
In the 31 years before he passed away, my father never mentioned the diploma. Maybe he knew the real truth, or didn’t want to know. My only hope is that if Heaven is defined as the truth, maybe there’s one small exception, **.