‘Hamilton’ Writer, Pro Football HOFer, Nat’l Teacher of the Year Headline Commencement 2017 at NU

May 15, 2017  |  by Michael Freedman

Back in the fall of 2013, the Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., shook hands with hundreds of doe-eyed freshmen, the first class of students that he welcomed to campus as the newly minted president of Niagara University.

Last week, Father Maher shook hands with them again, this time to congratulate them on the culmination of their undergraduate careers at NU.

In all, Father Maher presided over four commencement exercises this year from May 10-13, during which approximately 1,100 men and women joined the alumni ranks of the Catholic and Vincentian institution.

The festivities began Wednesday, May 10, as the 64th class of the Niagara County Law Enforcement Academy graduated 14 students during a ceremony held in the Castellani Art Museum. FBI Special Agent Jonathan Lacey, the event’s keynote speaker, told the graduates that they filled him with a sense of optimism.

“Today is a day for optimism because you are well prepared for whatever challenges lie ahead,” he said. “Hold on to that knowledge, but with humility. It is a day for optimism, because what you have chosen to do – help others – is intrinsically good. Do it with compassion and courage. I know you will.”

On May 11, Niagara University awarded advanced degrees to 348 students, including 11 who received doctorates in leadership and policy. Attendees heard remarks from Jahana Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year. Despite growing up surrounded by poverty, drugs and violence, Hayes has earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and transformed the lives of thousands of students through her work as a teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Conn. After Hayes shared her incredible story of turning hardship into hope, she was presented with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters.

“Education saved my life and I will use it to save the lives of as many students as I can. Every obstacle that I faced was preparation for this assignment,” Hayes said. “I thank God because he took me on a circuitous route to get here as a way to show me exactly what my students need. I am their voice.”

Two days later, 710 undergraduate students received their degrees during a pair of ceremonies held in the Gallagher Center.

Bill Polian, Pro Football Hall of Famer and celebrated ESPN personality, delivered the morning commencement address to Niagara’s College of Business Administration, College of Education and College of Hospitality and Tourism Management. Polian constructed NFL teams that appeared in six Super Bowls, winning one. The six-time NFL Executive of the Year and architect of the most successful teams in Buffalo Bills history was granted an honorary Doctor of Commercial Science for his business acumen and philanthropy. Polian and his wife, Eileen, are devoted supporters of Catholic education, especially at St. Francis High School in Buffalo.

Quoting longtime Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy, Polian said, “’Expect adversity, expect more to conquer it.’

“Adversity will come,” Polian added. “It will come in your family. It will come in your professional life. It will come in your personal life. There are times when you’ll feel your heart is breaking and you can’t go on. But you must. You must conquer.”

Also honored during the event was Michael Tobin, an international correspondent for FOX News, who was presented with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. Tobin, throughout his award-winning career, has put himself in harm’s way to report on breaking news, including the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon, and the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. He also dedicates his time to assist veterans through his work with organizations that include Project Hope and the Wounded Warriors Foundation.

“My goal here today is to be a voice that will return to your head on the bad days, when you didn’t imagine it would be this hard,” Tobin explained. “John Lennon sang, ‘Nobody told me there would be days like these.’ Well I’m telling you right now (there will be). But I’m also telling you it means you’re doing it right. You’re reaching high enough to challenge the limits of your ability and your endurance. Passion makes tenacity a natural reaction.”

That afternoon, Niagara’s College of Arts and Sciences  heard from Ron Chernow, the Pulitzer-winning author of the Alexander Hamilton biography that was adapted into the Tony and Grammy Award-winning musical. One of the pre-eminent biographers of his generation, Chernow has won numerous awards for the depth and quality of his writing, including the George Washington Book Prize for his biography of Hamilton, the Pulitzer Prize for his profile of George Washington, and the National Humanities Medal, which President Barack Obama presented to him in 2015. Chernow received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters.

Chernow told the graduates that life will present them with many surprises, many of which will take them down different paths than they anticipated. The secret, he said, is to always be alert to those hints of fate that may lead them in a new direction and completely reshape their lives.

During the same ceremony, Niagara University presented its Caritas Medal to the Very Rev. Michael Carroll, C.M., ’73, who is concluding a nine-year term as provincial superior of the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission. Since joining the Vincentian community in 1970, Father Carroll has served in numerous leadership roles, including director of students and president of St. Joseph’s Preparatory Seminary in Princeton, N.J., and executive vice president for mission and branch campuses at St. John’s University. He presently serves as vice chair of the board of trustees at St. John’s University and Niagara University.

On Tuesday, May 23, Niagara University shifted its commencement ceremonies north of the border to award degrees to 125 graduates during its 10th commencement in Ontario, at the Toronto Centre for the Arts in North York.

Fittingly, Tom Donovan, who served as director of Niagara’s campus in Ontario from 2006-2016, delivered the commencement address and was awarded the university’s Ozanam Medal. During his remarks, Donovan referenced The Wizard of Oz, telling the graduates, “Throughout your career, you’ll encounter many students who, like the characters, are searching for answers and searching for self-realization – looking to become ‘the best they can be.’ You’ll encounter parents who all have aspirations for their children, and they all will look to you to be the person who opens their minds, their hearts and gives them the courage to pursue their goals.”

Donovan is credited with developing the conceptual framework for Niagara’s bachelor of professional studies program in education, which earned ministerial consent from the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, and accreditation from the Ontario College of Teachers. Thanks in large part to his collaborative stewardship, the BPS program has experienced remarkable growth over the past decade, with more than 1,500 successful educators among its alumni.

The Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., president of Niagara University, conferred the degrees of bachelor of professional studies in education and master of educational leadership on the graduates.

Dr. Robert T. Dixon, author of Catholic Education and Politics in Ontario, which is now required reading for Catholic school board managers across the province, was presented with the Founder’s Award. A longtime teacher and administrator in boards of education throughout Ontario, he served as an adjunct professor at Niagara University from 1974-1991. Dr. Dixon was honored with the Brant Haldimand Norfolk Catholic District School Board’s first Outstanding Contribution to Catholic Education Award in 2016.

To learn more about Niagara University, please visit www.niagara.edu.