“It’s about learning how to fail,” award-winning children’s author Jerry Spinelli told graduates during Sunday’s 184th commencement at Gettysburg College.

A butterfly must struggle out of its chrysalis or it will never gain the strength to fly, said Spinelli, a 1963 graduate of the college.

Kids who never slip off the “stepping-stones of defeat” will “enter the real world as helpless as an over-assisted butterfly,” he said.

“Never waste your failures,” Spinelli said, but instead accept “the priceless rewards of being Number Two.”

“Perfection is a dirty word. Scrap it,” he said, because “life is messy and disagreeable,” but “the more I lose, the better I get.”

“Done right, losing is an achievement,” Spinelli said, recounting how writing and selling his first book took six years. He said he sometimes asks schoolkids what they would do after years of fruitless struggle, and a few offered up the right answer: keep going and write another book.

As one looks back on life, Spinelli said, one sees that the journey and the people encountered along the way are the real prize, not whatever “glittering grail” one happens to be pursuing at any given moment.

“We all fail,” Spinelli said, but the trick when one inevitably meets “Mr. No” is not to “fall apart,” but to throw an arm around his shoulders and invite him out for a drink.

Spinelli’s books include the Newbery Medal-winning children’s novels Maniac Magee and Wringer. “His 2000 work, Stargirl, will soon be offered as a film on Disney’s new streaming service,” according to the commencement program.

Spinelli’s work focuses on “social justice, independence of thought, and ultimately, self-acceptance. Those themes reflect the spirit of Gettysburg College’s liberal arts roots,” according to the program.

Spinelli was presented with the Gettysburg College Medal. He received an honorary doctorate from the college in 2005.

The graduates are “beautiful and unique as butterflies,” said College Chaplain Kristin Largen, who prayed they would be “strengthened and emboldened for the rich, full life that awaits them.”

Riggs retiring

“I feel I’m graduating with you,” college President Janet Morgan Riggs told the Class of 2019.

Riggs is retiring at the end of next month after 11 years as president and more than 40 years of association with Gettysburg College. She graduated from the college in 1977, gained a master’s and doctorate in social psychology at Princeton University, and returned to Gettysburg to serve as a psychology professor and to hold administrative positions including provost.

“It’s the people I will miss the most,” Riggs said.

She received an honorary doctorate in social science.

Riggs led the college as international students and students of color rose from 11 percent of enrollment to 23 percent, Provost Christopher Zappe said in introducing her. His voice cracked with emotion, and Riggs received a standing ovation.

During her career, Riggs received honors including the Student Senate Faculty Appreciation Award and led “the most ambitious fundraising effort in the college’s 187-year history,” garnering more than $160 million from more than 25,000 donors, according to the program.

‘Rainbow’ host lauded

Receiving honorary degrees were actor LeVar Burton and local philanthropist Jane Rice.

Students cheered when Burton was introduced as the host of “Reading Rainbow,” a television show focusing on children’s literacy that ran for 23 seasons. He also played Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge in the television series “Star Trek: The Next Generation” as well as Kunta Kinte in the ground-breaking television mini-series “Roots.”

In presenting Burton as a candidate for the doctor of humane letters degree, Zappe called him “a Renaissance man” because of his work as an actor, educator, producer, director, filmmaker, and provider of online literacy resources for children.

Rice received the honorary degree of doctor of public service.

She and her husband Michael represent the third generation of family ownership of Hanover-based Utz Quality Foods, according to the program. She was a marketing executive in the company and raised funds for causes including the college’s Majestic Theater and the Eichelberger Arts Center in Hanover, according to the program, which also noted the launching of the Rice Family Foundation in 2017.

Rice’s own cancer diagnosis “led her to form the Hanover Area Breast Cancer Support Group and Sweet Charities Patient Fund, and to establish with her family Olivia’s House to help community childrenthrough the process of grief and loss, according to the program.

Hancock honored

The college’s Award for Distinguished Teaching went to history and Africana studies Prof. Scott Hancock.

The award recognizes “inspired and inspiring teaching” and is “the highest honor the faculty can bestow on a colleague,” Zappe said.

Joshua Wagner delivered the senior address, calling on his classmates not to “lose the sense of purpose” they felt as students and to “make compassionate and fact-based decisions.”

The chemistry and math major from Bedford, Pa., praised “the most diverse class in the history of the college,” saying its experience was a “microcosm” of national debates such as how to balance free speech with being a welcoming community.

The valedictorian was Jason Heath of Hummelstown who majored in mathematics and psychology, which were also Riggs’ undergraduate majors. The salutatorian was Leah Gulyas of Ulster, Pa., who majored in biology and French.

The class totals 611, including 47 mid-year graduates recognized at a ceremony in December, according to college Director of Communications Carina Sitkus.

Representatives of the Senior Class Gift campaign said 67 percent of the class donated a total of $7,611 to fund scholarships and athletic and academic programs.

Special graduates

Among the graduates was Susan Holz, who completed her studies over several years while working as administrative assistant in the college’s economics department. Holz, of Gettysburg, earned a bachelor of arts degree with honors in art studio.

Seven members of the class were not present as they prepared for a women’s lacrosse match, Riggs said. A special commencement ceremony for them occurred Thursday. The college hosted the regional round of the NCAA Division III championship Saturday and Sunday.

Leading the formal procession of graduates to the commencement site on the north side of Pennsylvania Hall were 5-year-old Henry Isherwood and campus public safety officer Travis Griffie. The two rode bicycles.

Henry led the parade last year too, said his mother, Samantha Isherwood, who formerly served as the college’s commencement coordinator. Henry’s father is Samuel Isherwood, a Civil War Era studies professor at the college.

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