"Have you noticed the range of footwear?" asked Dana Hamel, watching from the bleachers as the Class of 2007 took their seats on a soggy football field for commencement ceremonies on May 19. "It's quite amazing."

And it was. Sneakers and stilettos, L.L.Bean boots and sandals, flip-flops and loafers and even some snow boots paraded past the thousands of family members and friends in the bleachers. Many graduating women wore rubber boots decorated with hot pink stripes, black and white polka dots, red flowers or other funky designs, embodying both practicality and celebration.

Hamel and his wife, Karol--like everyone else who was allowed into the stadium before 8:45 a.m.--had plastic bracelets on their wrists, one small part of the event's elaborate security plan. The reason for all the security, former Presidents George H.W. Bush and William J. Clinton, emerged just below where the Hamels were standing at about 10:15 a.m., escorted by their host, UNH Interim President J. Bonnie Newman. They proceeded to walk slowly around the oval track. Both men smiled and shook hands with the crowd, including the exuberant graduates who had preceded them onto the field, and who, despite repeated urgings for security reasons, refused to stay seated as the presidents passed.

"It's quite a coup Bonnie pulled off to get these speakers," noted Hamel, a longtime friend of UNH who has had two centers at the university named after him. Newman had an in: she'd worked for George H.W. Bush when he was the 41st president. Bush and Clinton have been working together to raise money for Hurricane Katrina and tsunami relief, and they appear together primarily for events related to those causes. Newman's coup was made even sweeter by a rumor--unsubstantiated, but not denied--that it would be their last joint public speaking appearance.

Among the estimated 22,000 people attending UNH's 137th commencement were some who just wanted to see the pair of former presidents. Meredith Anker's son graduated from UNH in 1995, but she drove to Durham from Schenectady, N.Y., anyway, towing along a friend. "I've heard Bill Clinton is the most charismatic person in the world, and I wanted to see him in person," said Anker, who was seated in the bleachers by 6:30 a.m., wishing she had remembered her binoculars, although in a couple of hours, the giant screen to the right of the platform would provide a continuous up-close and personal view of graduates and speakers.

"I can't even remember who spoke at my own commencement, but I'll remember this day," said Dave Townson, associate professor of animal and nutritional sciences, as he prepared to march onto the field with the other faculty members.

Kerry Powers '05 of Newmarket, N.H., earning a master's degree in education, probably would have passed on commencement except for the speakers. Her classmate, Katherine Crosby of Dover, also might have chosen not to walk, but she had heard Clinton was going to play the saxophone. (He didn't.)

But it was the graduation, not the speakers, that clearly was the main event for the majority of relatives sitting in the stands. Many had umbrellas at the ready--rain was forecast but managed to hold off--and covered themselves with blankets. Some opted for the warmth of Lundholm Gymnasium or the Whittemore Center, where simulcasts were shown on big screens.

"If Mickey Mouse were speaking, I'd be here. If it were snowing, I'd be here," said Lisa Rogers of Londonderry, N.H., who was the first person to settle into a bleacher seat at 6 a.m., almost four hours before the ceremony began. "This is just a huge event in my son's life." She hoped to take cell-phone photos of that son, Padraic McKenzie '07, to send instantly to his brother and sister, both in the military many states away.

By 7 a.m., a steady stream of people poured into the stadium. They had been warned by the university to arrive up to three hours early in anticipation of larger-than-usual crowds, larger-than-usual traffic headaches and security-clearance delays.

"Bracelets! Let's see them! Snap them on for us!" UNH hall director Gloria Nolan called out cheerfully as she checked arrivals at the field's side entrance. Anyone wearing a graduation robe was greeted with a hearty "Congratulations!"

The bleachers quickly filled with the festive colors of spring, despite the slate-gray sky. Bright red and yellow slickers dotted the stands like tulips and marigolds; thin plastic ponchos, handed out by UNH commencement staffers, matched the delicate yellow-green of early spring trees.

Neither the parking nor the security clearances were as problematic as many early arrivers thought they would be, and the 182 police and other security personnel--including SWAT teams, explosive-sniffing dogs, air monitors and Amtrak police--kept a low, but efficient, profile. "I thought I'd get to set off my new hip alarm," noted parent Nancy Gerry of Wakefield, Mass., who had expected the same kind of security found at airports.

"Welcome to the beautiful spring day!" was Nancy Kinner's tongue-in-cheek opening salutation. The chief faculty marshal and professor of civil and environmental engineering noted that it had rained the day classes began for the Class of 2007 four years earlier, a clear predictor of commencement weather.

Next was a soulful rendition of the national anthem by English department lecturer Reginald Wilburn. His performance was so stirring it rated mention by Clinton, whose introductory acknowledgements segued nicely to his main theme, the power of recognizing each other and working together for the greater good.

It was a theme put forth by both presidents, once political rivals, who together have raised more than $1 billion in relief for natural disaster victims.

Clinton noted the power of the African concept of ubuntu, or "I am because you are." It means, he said, "We do not exist alone; therefore for us to ignore one another's problems is a travesty."

He also noted the practice among people in the central African highlands who, when greeted, respond, simply, "I see you." "All problems can be solved if we just see each other," he said. "There is nothing beyond the reach of our common endeavor. All we have to do is remember it is our common endeavor."

Bush also urged graduates to make a difference, noting the "selfish pleasure" that he takes in working with Clinton, "transcending politics" to help others. "You don't have to be a president to be a leader and to touch the lives of your fellow countrymen," he said. "All you have to do is care and roll up your sleeves and claim some of society's problems as your own."

Both Bush and Clinton kept their remarks brief and peppered with humor. Bush, for instance, advised, "Don't expect the advice from your parents to stop after you leave college or even if you become president of the United States." He got a call from his mother when he was vice president, he explained, reprimanding him for talking to House Speaker Tip O'Neil while President Reagan was giving a State of the Union address.

The closest either came to making a political comment was when Clinton, addressing UNH President Newman, called her "Madame President" and added, "That has a nice ring to it." He waited for the laugh, and then added, "I've decided women should run everything so George and I can spend more time playing golf."

Honorary degrees were then awarded to the two presidents; John Lawrence LaMattina '75G, a chemist and former president of Pfizer Global Research and Development; and James Thomson '66, president and CEO of Rand Corp., a nonprofit global policy think tank. Granite State Awards were presented to George Bald, commissioner of New Hampshire's Department of Resources and Economic Development; and Dr. James Squires, president of New Hampshire's Endowment for Health. The final honorary degree was given to a surprised Bonnie Newman in recognition of her leadership as interim president.

While a UNH jazz quartet played, graduates received their diplomas (well, the covers anyway) from the deans of their respective schools and flipped their mortarboard tassels from right to left. The Class of 2007 was officially welcomed into the UNH Alumni Association. And then Nancy Kinner sent them on their way, serenading, a cappella, "Happy trails to you . . . until we meet again." ~

C.W. Wolff is a freelance writer who lives in Kittery, Maine.

Return to UNH Magazine Spring '07 features