SEATTLE – Seattle Pacific University commencement speaker Marian Wright Edelman on Saturday said she and the nation were moved by the strength shown by the SPU community in the wake of a fatal attack on campus June 5.
“You have taught us how important it is to be about your faith and courage,” said Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund.
Just nine days after the Christian university was rocked and locked down by the attack, the loudest applause at the KeyArena ceremony went to Jon Meis, the graduating student who tackled the gunman while he was reloading, leading authorities to proclaim Meis a hero.
Meis received two standing ovations. The first came when he was thanked by SPU President Daniel J. Martin, who announced a new scholarship for engineering students in Meis’ honor. The second wave of appreciation came when he was called to the stage to receive his diploma.
Meis, who has avoided the spotlight, reiterated his request for privacy through a university spokeswoman. He looked bashful at the moment Martin gave him his diploma and a hug.
The attack and its aftermath made this graduation unlike others in SPU’s 120-year history. Martin began the event for 905 undergraduates by grieving for the loss of student Paul Lee, 19, who was killed in the attack. He expressed gratitude that two students injured in the attack, Thomas Fowler Jr. and Sarah Williams, were released from the hospital and are recovering.
Despite the sobering events – or maybe because of them – graduating students demonstrated infectious joy. They walked to their seats in KeyArena waving, high-fiving, hugging and dancing. They pumped fists and bumped fists. Several students even took selfies on stage with the college president.
“The kids seem especially close. There’s more hugging, prayer, and saying ‘I’m glad you’re here,’ ” said Petra Miner, 26, whose sister Natalie Miner graduated cum laude with a degree in economics and biology.
Her mother, Pauline Valha, got teary as she recalled the text Natalie sent on the afternoon of June 5 saying she was safe and unharmed. “She was supposed to be in that building. She missed it by a half-hour,” Valha said.
Martin introduced Edelman as an “inflexible champion of children.”
Edelman, 75, grew up in the segregated South, graduated from Yale Law School and became the first African-American woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar. In her speech, she urged SPU graduates to be tenacious and politically active, to work for more than money, to avoid drugs, and not to confuse morality with legality.
She singled out Meis for praise, especially for his compassionate statement that when he came face to face with the attacker he saw not a monster, but a “very sad and troubled young man.”