More than 600 students received their diplomas this afternoon from Genesee Community College in a ceremony that also honored a local philanthropic couple, a man long dedicated to the college and featured a keynote address by a nationally recognized local author.
Bill Kauffman, author of "Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette," "Ain't My America," and "America First!," as well as the screenplay for "Copperhead," encouraged students to pay attention to small kindnesses, to be good neighbors, to be present, and make a difference in the place where they plant their roots.
"Engage with each other," Kauffman said. "Talk face to face in communion with one another. Live a real life, not a virtual life. The vividness, the color of the world outside is so much more spectacular than anything you can see on a high-definition TV screen."
The college is celebrating its 50th year, Kauffman noted, and that too has a message about place and the connectedness of community.
"It was born in the summer of love through a citizens' initiative, a grassroots movement of the people in Genesee County," Kauffman said. "It was organic, a natural outgrowth, not something imposed upon us by some distant authority."
Kauffman ran down the list of names of local people who have been honored with buildings named after them at GCC, such as Anthony Zambito, William Stuart and Barber Conable.
He remembered Zambito as a man of many talents and great knowledge, a scientist, a broker, and a muck farmer. He was also a trustee of the college and fan of Cougars sports. Kauffman said he knew him only briefly, when he and his wife, Lucine, first moved to Elba. He exemplified the small kindnesses, Kauffman said, of a person who tended to leave people feeling better after meeting him.
“He was a kind old man with wise eyes who would always find times to speak to me when I saw him in the post office,” Kauffman said.
Conable, the namesake of the technology building, served in Congress for 20 years, and later was head of the World Bank, but he always came back to Genesee County.
"He effortlessly moved between worlds," Kauffman said. "One day he would fly to Washington and chair a meeting of the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents and the next day he would be back in Genesee County having coffee and donuts with his friends at Genesee Hardware."
Kauffman recalled that Conable once told him that eventually all of his accomplishments in Congress would soon be forgotten, but Kauffman said he did make a difference in the lives of people around him.
"The difference these people made were on a more intimate scale, the human scale -- the only scale that measure a person’s worth," Kauffman said.
He also talked about his friend, author, and newspaperman Henry Clune, who lived to 105 and still performed windsprints in his front yard into his late 90s. He also drank a martini every day promptly at 5 p.m.
But that wasn't what led to a long life, Kauffman said.
"Henry was interested in his neighbors, in his own backyard, in what was going to happen next," Kauffman said. "He participated. He listened. He engaged. He reached out. He found something he loved to do and he did it as well as he could with joy and pride and always with a sense of gratitude. Henry wasn’t jaded. He wasn’t bored. His mind hadn’t been dulled by hundreds of hours of video games."
Clune celebrated Rochester in his writing, the way Kauffman has frequently celebrated Batavia in his, and in the end, Kauffman told the graduates, wherever they wind up, they should find the wonder and mystery of the place they live and love it.
"You're not just graduating today," Kauffman said. "You're graduating from Genesee Community College. The name means something. It's important. The community in Genesee in varying ways and varying degrees shaped you. Now it's your turn to shape it.
"For those living in other counties, in other states, in other countries, it's your turn to shape those places," Kauffman added. "You can enrich your place. You can make it better, kinder, livelier, more inviting, or you can just skate along on the surface, making no difference, leaving no one's life better for having met you. It's your choice."
Honored during the ceremony were Edgar and Mary Louise Hollwedel, who have spent lives dedicated to making life better in Genesee County, especially through education, most recently giving a large gift for a new children's room at the Pavilion Library, as well as being long-term supporters of GCC. They were awarded GCC Foundation's Alpha Medal of Service.
They had their own message about the secret of life: "The harder you work, the luckier you get."
Norbert J. Fuest, an advocate for the college since the 1980s, and credited with encouraging hundreds of people of all ages to start their college careers at GCC, was awarded an honorary degree.
Edgar and Mary Louise Hollwedel