Other commencement speakers included Ryan Smolarsky ’23, recipient of the James Soper Merrill Prize, awarded to the member of the graduating class “who, in character and influence, has typified the highest ideals of the College,” as selected by the faculty, and class speaker Juliet Davidson ’23, who was selected by her peers. The Class of 2023 valedictorian was Brendan Magill, a mathematics major from Montpelier, Vt.; the salutatorian was Anika Tullos, a geosciences major from Lakeville, Mass.
Howard was awarded an honorary degree, along with Hamilton alumnus Evan Smith ’87, co-founder of The Texas Tribune, where he served as CEO from 2009 to 2022. Smith, who addressed the Class of ’23 on May 20 at the Baccalaureate ceremony, is a senior adviser at Emerson Collective, which advises local news nonprofits throughout the country and advocates for strengthening democracy by informing communities. He had previously spent nearly 18 years at Texas Monthly as the magazine’s president and editor-in-chief.
In her remarks, Howard shared anecdotes from her time before and after active duty, all tied to this life lesson: the call to the common good is for all of us. She told members of the Class of ’23, “As your namesake [Alexander Hamilton] would say, the first duty is justice.”
Howard has committed her career to fighting for the common good. As a child when she announced that she planned to attend a service academy, the young Howard couldn’t understand why, at the time, that dream wasn’t a possibility. But her mother encouraged her. “When you’re old enough and if you still want to go, I encourage you to apply, and then if you’re rejected from a service academy because you’re a woman, we’ll sue the government,” she said. However, her mother cautioned her that such action might take many years to resolve, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t worth pursuing. “You have to do what’s right, but you need to do what’s right not for yourself, but for the common good,” she said.
“Whatever you do in life, those small acts of goodness get us to common ground, and they get us to success as a nation. You are the future justice of society.”
In 1976, the law changed, and the next year, Howard applied to the Naval Academy to begin a 35-year career as a naval officer. During that time, she became the first female four-star admiral and the first woman to be appointed vice chief of naval operations (the second highest rank in the Navy). She is also the first African American woman to reach the three- and four-star ranks in any branch of the U.S. Armed Forces and the first to command a Navy ship.
Howard retired from the Navy in 2017 to devote more time to her family. Then in 2020, the murder of George Floyd led to what she described as an epiphany for the U.S. and the world. When the call came to join the Congressional committee charged with evaluating Department of Defense assets named to commemorate those who served the Confederacy, she stepped up to the challenge and served as chair. Her vice chair was retired U.S. Army brigadier general Ty Seidule, visiting professor of history at Hamilton and executive director of the College’s widely acclaimed Common Ground program.
“President Truman said that if we wish to inspire the peoples of the world whose freedom is in jeopardy, if we wish to restore hope to those who have already lost their liberties, if we wish to fulfill the promise that is ours, we must correct the remaining imperfections in our democracy. We know the way, we just need the will,” Howard said.
Howard concluded her remarks with a story told to her by Wesley Brown, the first African American graduate of the Naval Academy. As the only Black cadet in 1945, Brown’s experience was often isolating, including the fact that he lived alone. One day he returned to his room to find it torn apart just as a white officer arrived for inspection. Brown fully expected to receive demerits, which could ultimately lead to dismissal. The officer looked around the room, then at Brown, and said, “Midshipman Brown, I suspect that this room did not look like this this morning.” “No sir.” “Carry on, Midshipman Brown.” When the officer left the room, Brown cried. But that officer gave him the hope that he could make it to graduation.
“Whatever you do in life, those small acts of goodness get us to common ground, and they get us to success as a nation. You are the future justice of society. You are the Class of Hamilton 2023,” Howard said.
Smolarsky, recipient of the James Soper Merrill Prize, is a physics major/pre-med student who minored in math and music. A member of the football team and volunteer EMT from Mount Sinai, N.Y., he spoke about how he was given the opportunity to pursue a variety of interests at Hamilton.
“Through the open curriculum, I took classes in various disciplines while pursuing my passion in medicine; I tried to give back to the communities that built me up and supported me; I played the sport that I fell in love with as a child; I had the opportunity to share my music with others … all while making friends that I certainly will cherish for the rest of my life along the way,” he said.
In order to prepare for his speech, Smolarsky said he watched a video of last year’s Soper Merrill winner, Joel Adade ’22. “Sure, it got me ready with what to expect, but when I listened to everything Joel had accomplished, I couldn’t help but sit there and be absolutely stunned that the faculty had distinguished us similarly,” he said. “To me, all I had done was do three main things that were ingrained in me while being raised by my parents — work hard every day, do what you love, and work hard at what you love — even if you’re left exhausted at the end of the day from trying to fit it all in. That was normal for me, and it’s normal for every Hamilton student sitting here today — why was I deserving of an award for that?”
“Being here at Hamilton together has given us all the opportunity to explore our passions and interests in a multitude of ways — and has given us the chance to work hard at it.”
After some reflection, Smolarsky said he realized that his accomplishments go beyond the hours of work. True success lies in pursuing what you love. “Being here at Hamilton together has given us all the opportunity to explore our passions and interests in a multitude of ways — and has given us the chance to work hard at it.”
He urged members of the Class of ’23 to continue following their passions, “because doing so will allow you to look back on your time and feel a great sense of fulfillment. I want all of us to be able to achieve this, and I’m sure it’s achievable through three things and three things alone: work hard every day, do what you love, and work hard at what you love.”
Juliet Davidson, a theatre major and music minor from New York City, was selected by her peers to serve as the 2023 class speaker. In sharing parting words with her classmates, she said that even those she didn’t know well, she considers friends, simply by having shared so many experiences. “We know the beeping of a Hill Card upon entering a building, we know the thrill of joining a waitlist during class registration, we know the hesitancy to wave to someone on Martin’s Way from an awkward distance, and we know the housing selection process,” she quipped.
But it is the legacy that the Class of ’23 leaves behind that Davidson told her classmates to remember.
“There’s this one quote from Winnie the Pooh in which A.A. Milne writes, ‘How lucky am I to have something so special that makes saying goodbye so hard?’ I don’t love that quote, if I’m being frank,” she said. “I do appreciate the sentiment of this nice bear-person, but if I were to tweak it, I’d say, ‘How lucky am I to have something so special that I don’t have to say goodbye to?’
“We’re going, but we’re not gone,” Davidson continued. “Commons will still exist. Our rooms will still exist. And more importantly, our impact will still exist. Our community persists, even if we aren’t here. The work our class has done to revitalize spaces on campus, to welcome others into our home … will not be forgotten. So, although we are moving out, we don’t have to move on. We can linger in the sense of community we had even when we were alone in our rooms. We knew it was there, and all we had to do was walk down the hall, go to Diner, and run into 15 people on the way.”