NORTHFIELD — Graduates of tradition-rich Norwich University did their school’s 200-year-old “I will try” motto one better on Saturday.
They didn’t just try, they triumphed.
On a day when they heard from their proud president, a best-selling author, and a “dead man” talking, the latest batch of graduates from the nation’s oldest private military college won what for most was a four-year battle and were promptly declared ready for war.
Judging by their jubilant faces as they strode across the stage in Jacob Shapiro Field House – most in dress blue uniforms, but many in traditional caps and gowns – Saturday’s victory was oh so sweet.
Any doubt about that was erased when a mix of military caps and mortar boards came raining down like confetti after the last of three celebratory volleys from the cannon just outside.
Typically there are only two – one to honor parents, family and friends who helped the graduates along the way and another to honor the graduates themselves.
With Norwich celebrating its bicentennial this year, President Richard Schneider happily broke with tradition and green-lighted a third in memory of Capt. Alden Partridge.
Partridge founded Norwich in the town after which it is named in 1819 and died years before the 1866 fire that prompted its move to Northfield. He was mentioned several times by Schneider and author Alex Kershaw during a ceremony that saw him put in a surprise appearance courtesy of actor, filmmaker and Waterbury dairy farmer George Woodard.
Sporting dress blue uniform and a countrified accent Woodard marveled at the evolution of the military college Partridge started 200 years ago and applauded its continuing quest to “become a more perfect university.”
Perfect will always be a reach, but Schneider who opened the ceremony in festive fashion, told graduates a Norwich diploma was something to be proud of.
“Norwich University is and has always been committed to preparing young people who can lead, follow, innovate, persevere and succeed with empathy, integrity and grit,” he said. “We can get stuff done.”
Schneider told 444 graduates – 159 civilian students and 285 members of the school’s storied Corps of Cadets – they had all been “tried” and “tested” Norwich-style and were ready from whatever comes next.
“You are prepared to lead and you are prepared to leave,” he said, describing the Class of 2019 as the latest success story in a “200-year legacy of transforming lives.”
Schneider credited Partridge for founding an institution with an impressive track record for educating leaders.
That special essence of Norwich that shapes us all, making the difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary individual, is the secret sauce and your life ahead will be forever enriched because of it,” he said, before turning the podium over to Kershaw.
Kershaw, whose best-know works include New York Times best-sellers “The Bedford Boys,” “The Longest Winter” and “Avenue of Spies,” recently wrote “Citizens & Soldiers: The First 200 Years of Norwich University.
Kershaw told graduates there is something special about Norwich and they were all evidence of that.
“You here … are the latest in a long line of citizens and soldiers, extraordinary soldiers, extraordinary fighters and dedicated public servants.”
Kershaw a World War II historian and British native, recounted the heroism of 1944 Norwich graduate Private Richard Austin, who ““jumped into the darkness above Normandy, one of the legendary Screaming Eagles,” to help liberate Europe. He also lauded Norwich’s many firsts, including the first eight women who became members of the Corps of Cadets in 1974.
Despite all the changes, Kershaw marveled at the durability of Norwich’s mission.
“The purpose of this place is exactly the same as it was 200 years ago when the first cadets marched in their first parade,” he said. “Norwich will always try to produce the most effective, the most patriotic and the most ethical of citizens and soldiers.”
Kershaw said Norwich had been a successful “launching pad” past classes and the “rigorous … disciplined and moral education” it provides would serve graduates well in the future. However, he said, they must do more than try.
“Day by day what you choose, what you think, what you do is who you become … Who you will be,” he said. “Your integrity is your destiny. It is the light that will guide your way.”
Only two students spoke during the ceremony – both shortly before Schneider borrowed a line from 1856 Norwich graduate Admiral George Dewey and instructed the cadets manning the cannon to “fire when ready.”
Carissa DeKalb was one of them.
Addressing civilian students, DeKalb instructed them to move their tassels from left to right and offered some parting advice.
“Be true to yourself, follow your passions and stick with ‘I will try,’” she said. “Norwich Forever!”
Morgan Woods, regimental commander of the Corps of Cadets, instructed the school’s military students to turn their rings in keeping with Norwich tradition.
“I wish you all the best in your future endeavors,” she said. “Stay the course. Norwich forever!”