Some members of the class of 1968 made a return visit to Commencement; for others, it was their first time.
Mal Watlington ’68 (’69 MPA) of Durham got a high school diploma and then two degrees from UNC, yet he had never worn a graduation gown until Carolina’s Commencement in May. He did not go to the ceremonies for either of his college degrees, and although he did attend his high school graduation, it was a military school, and graduates did not wear mortarboards and robes.
So on Mother’s Day this year, he zipped up a Carolina blue robe and walked onto the field in Kenan Stadium, along with scores of his classmates from 1968, and waved to the cheering crowd of this year’s graduates, their families and friends.
“I’ve got a bachelor’s and a master’s and never been in a procession in my life,” Watlington said. “This is new.”
For Julia Knott Prasse ’68 of Lynchburg, Va., and her husband, Phil Prasse ’68, there had been no question 50 years ago about whether they would participate in Commencement.
“We both walked at our graduation,” she said. “If I hadn’t, my parents would have killed me.”
The GAA organizes the annual Commencement procession for class members celebrating the 50th anniversary of their graduation. Whether they are first-timers or repeats, they all have a story to share about why they came.
Laura Raper Barrier ’68 of Greensboro intended to wear her daughter’s graduation gown on Sunday. But the Ram’s Club magazine had published an article the week before about the graduation gowns changing their shades of Carolina blue over the years, and her daughter, Kathleen Stroupe Lyon, had graduated in 1994.
“I took her gown and compared it to the cover of the magazine,” Barrier said. “I didn’t realize the color had changed so much. I told Katie, ‘I’m not wearing your gown. I’ll wear what they give me. I don’t want to stand out.’ ”
Fifty years ago, the specter of getting drafted to fight in Vietnam weighed heavily on many of the men in the class of 1968 and dampened their enthusiasm for the frivolity of Commencement. As Dr. Coke Gunter ’68 of Hickory posed for the photographer next to his granddaughter, Katie Ball ’18, in identical robes, he said he was among many who passed up the ceremony then.
“We were concerned about the war and what we were going to do with our future,” Gunter said. “Much to the disappointment of my parents, I did not walk at Commencement. It was one of those decisions you make as a youth that you think you’re doing it for all the right reasons, but you’re not prepared, for all the wrong reasons. Now I’m aware of that.
“Today I have the joy of walking with my granddaughter. This is a way of making amends to my parents.”
Hooper Hall ’68 of Fayetteville comes to Chapel Hill often, but he hadn’t been back for a reunion until his 50th. He arrived without plans of meeting up with any particular college friends, so he was pleased to run into some he hadn’t seen in decades. As an added bonus, “I also saw some folks I graduated from high school with,” he said.
Hudson Burton ’68 of Louisburg hadn’t planned on going to his 50th reunion, and certainly not donning a robe again. He had gone to his own graduation in 1968, though he remembers little about it.
His friend George Fowler ’68 of Henderson had missed their graduation because of a few missing credits that required him to go to summer school. This time, Fowler wanted to walk with his class for real.
“He talked me into coming with him,” Burton said. “I’m really glad I did.”
Fowler brought his wife, son, daughter and grandchildren with him to celebrate. Reflecting on lessons he learned at Carolina a half century ago, he said, “Perseverance, mainly. Don’t give up.”
Hjalmar Waag Hannesson ’68 (’70 MA) of Reykjavik, Iceland, wanted to study political science. But he couldn’t do it in his hometown. “In the 1960s, there was no teaching of political science in Iceland,” he said.
He looked for universities where English was spoken. His father, Hannes Jonsson, had received a master’s degree from UNC in 1949, so Hannesson added Carolina to his list of prospects. He and his brand-new bride, Anna Birgisdottir Hannesson, loved the campus and the low tuition, and UNC’s political science department was ranked seventh in the nation at the time. “All those things mattered when we decided to come here,” he said.
Because he jumped into a master’s program without a break, he didn’t take time to attend his own Commencement. After he completed his education, he taught for six years before joining the Foreign Service in Iceland and becoming a diplomat. For the next 41 years, he served as an ambassador in many places — China, the U.S., the United Nations, Germany, Canada. He came back to Carolina for his 25th reunion, because he was stationed in Washington, D.C., at the time. After retiring at 70, he now has time to travel on his own schedule.
The day before Commencement, he and Anna sought out Victory Village, where they had lived in married-student housing. “That was our first home,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s all gone now.
“Anytime we come here, we feel the joy we had then.”
The strong relationship that John Watts ’68 of Hickory and his history professor and mentor, Michael McVaugh, built has lasted half a century. When John and his wife, Celeste Black Watts ’67, were in town for reunion events, they went to lunch with McVaugh, snagging an outdoor table at Merritt’s Grill and reminiscing over BLTs.
When John and Celeste were students, Merritt’s was a gas station, Celeste recalled. “It was the place where you could cash a $5 check,” she said. “Mr. Merritt would cash a check for anybody. He trusted all the kids.”
When John took a “strategic withdrawal” from college because his grades had dropped, he and McVaugh kept in touch, through his military service in Vietnam and the teaching and coaching job he took when he returned. McVaugh persuaded him to return to school and “helped me get through all the mess to get my degree,” John said. “He gave me good guidance to finish. He is a terrific guy, and I really appreciate him.”
Gayle Young ’68 of Durham was only 17 when she came to UNC as a freshman in the medical technology program. Women had “closed study” as freshmen. “You had to be in your dorm room by 7 p.m.,” she said. “It sounds archaic now, but we were just out of high school, and I don’t think anyone disagreed with the policy. Now they would.”
She didn’t go to her graduation 50 years ago. “I haven’t talked to a single person this weekend who did,” she said. “But today we’re making amends. We’re finally graduating.”
As a nursing student 50 years ago, Susan Barber Culp ’68 of High Point went to not one, but two graduations. “We had the one in Kenan Stadium and a separate one at the nursing school,” she said.
Nursing alumni still have some separate events at reunions weekend. This year, the nursing alumnae met the new dean of the nursing school and enjoyed looking at photos from the 1960s of the nursing students in their crisp white dresses.
Culp’s four years on campus returned an additional benefit. “I met my husband here,” she said, “and he is still with me.”
Matt Hilliard saw the “Class of 1968” reunion reminder magnet on his mother’s refrigerator and asked whether she planned to go. Johnnye Carr Hilliard ’68 of Wilmington said she didn’t think so, even after her son offered to go as her date.
But Matt recognized the rare opportunity for his mom, “so I kept dripping on her,” he said. “After 50 years, a lot of people aren’t still around, and you have to take advantage of opportunities.”
He secretly signed her up for the Saturday night dinner dance with The Embers and the Sunday Commencement procession. Then he sent her an email: Don’t plan anything for Mother’s Day weekend.
A couple weeks before the events, he told her what he had done.
“It was definitely a surprise,” Johnnye said. “A wonderful one. I did not walk at my graduation, and I thought it would be a wonderful Carolina experience.”
Scott Patterson ’68 of Easton, Md., and Bob Winton ’68 of Durham were the last ones on the elevator heading for the tunnel that would lead them out onto the field at Kenan Stadium. They had Carolina blue-and-white pompoms tucked in the back of their baseball caps, falling softly like ponytails.
Patterson’s wife and children weren’t able to attend in person but were going to watch the online livestream. The pompom, Patterson said, “was the only way they were going to be able to figure out which of these old guys is dad.”
Neither Patterson nor Winton had gone to their own graduation, which caused some ribbing from Patterson’s children. “They’ve been sending me congratulatory emails all weekend, saying, ‘Congratulations, Graduate!’ ”
Winton’s three sons are, inexplicably, Duke fans. “So I sent them a lovely picture of myself in front of this Carolina mural,” he said.
For Judy Hornaday Bunch ’68 of Baton Rouge, La., the excitement began building as the alumni lined up in the tunnel that led to the field. “Waiting in the tunnel was crazy,” she said. “I knew it was going to be fun.”
She saw the class of 2018 filing in and heard the music switch from Pomp and Circumstanceto Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s version of the 1960s hit song Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.Then it was her turn to walk out onto the field.
“People were high-fiving us and clapping and waving,” she said. “They all look so young and cute. I waved. I didn’t dance. Well, I think toward the end I was dancing.”
Martha Sandlin Hays ’68 had a late night dancing with The Embers at the class reunion dinner, then got up at dawn and left her Raleigh home before 7 a.m. to come to Commencement.
“The robes are much better now,” she said. “In 1968, we wore heavy black robes. They were awful.”
The late night, the early morning, the heat, the fun of talking and laughing with people she hadn’t seen in years dictated how Hays would spend the rest of her day.
“I’m going home and taking a nap,” she said.
As he took in his first college Commencement, Mal Watlington reflected on the whole weekend of reunion events and conversations with classmates. These people who had come of age in such a politically and culturally tumultuous time asked pointed questions of one another and brought up various elephants in the room.
“One of the things that has been a hallmark of this reunion is that whether we come from left or right or in the middle, we can have a civil conversation,” he said. “We’re able to do that because we know each other as human beings. We need to bring that back to the larger community. We need to be able to have these conversations, and not demonize the other person.
“Our class spans the political spectrum from one end to the other. The fact that we can live together for four days and experience this event, that says a lot about the possibilities for our country. I have hope.”
— Nancy E. Oates