CARBONDALE — Campus was alive Saturday at Southern Illinois University when thousands of families, friends and soon-to-be-graduates filed in for commencement.
Black and maroon mortarboards, some painted, some bejeweled, marched in file into their seats at the arena and again up to the stage to be given official recognition of all they had achieved in their time at the university — some a 4-year degree, some their masters and a few a Ph.D.
“You are now part of the SIU tradition of grit and resilience,” SIUC Chancellor John Dunn told the morning group of graduates. He challenged them to “look up, look forward and give back.”
“Accept that change as part of growth is necessary,” he told them.
Among the distinguished graduates was SIU alum and civil rights fighter Charles Neblett. Neblett, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in both Selma and Washington did not speak long but chose to sing to the class instead.
“When I was young I fought for freedom. When I was young, I fought the Klan,” he sang.
Alumni Association board member Drew Stoker welcomed the graduates to the Saluki family.
“And it is a big family,” he added.
Likely the biggest spectacle of the day was the honorary Ph.D. granted to SIU alum and distinguished funny woman Melissa McCarthy.
McCarthy started at SIU in 1988 in fashion and left after two years to continue her studies in New York. This didn’t last long, though. Within a week she had decided to shift her focus to comedy. This has seemed to work out for her.
Talking to The Southern before her trip to Carbondale, McCarthy, whose husband Ben Falcone is a Carbondale native, remembered her time at SIU.
“Ironically I was in clothing and textiles and all of my friends were in the theater department,” she said.
She also discussed another irony — not meeting her husband while in school at SIU but years later and thousands of miles away in California.
“There’s a pretty big irony that I left SIU and then, what was it ten years later, met Ben in an improv class,” McCarthy said. Add to this that she spent a lot of time next to Falcone’s parents’ house while visiting the now venerable Lost Cross punk house.
As to her change in careers, McCarthy said spending time in fashion has greatly informed her career as an actor.
“I think it’s kind of what started me thinking about what is a character,” she said.
McCarthy admitted she never finished college but was thrilled to finally get her degree from SIU.
McCarthy and Falcone both hail from small towns — McCarthy grew up in Plainfield — and talked about the luxury of them. There might not be as many resources, but both said small towns offer a human connection bigger cities just don’t.
The couple live together with their family in Los Angeles, but certain things they still aren’t used to.
“It’s weird we walk by so many people everyday we don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know that will ever fully seem normal.”
McCarhy said she looks back on her time growing up and coming of age in rural Illinois, both in Plainfield and in Carbondale, as tremendous moments in her development as an adult and a professional. She said she wishes more people could realize how special these types of places are. However, she also understands this kind of perspective can be hard.
“I just think having been there and left it .. you don’t realize what you have until you leave it,” McCarthy said.
As the morning ceremony came to a close Saturday family gathered outside the arena to meet their graduates. Hugs, tears and selfie-taking were all on display.
Alexis Simpson, who graduated with her bachelor’s in psychology and criminal justice, was honest about how she was feeling.
“I just want to go lay down,” she said. However, she was also emotional at making such a big step in her life.
“When I crossed that stage, that’s when I lost it,” she said. She had just finished getting the tears off of her face. She and her two friends all planned to go back to school for advanced degrees before starting their careers.
Marcia Miller stood next to Simpson and she said coming to SIU was a family tradition and something she wanted to continue. But Saturday, despite having just wrapped up one life milestone she was already looking down the road.
“I’m just excited for the next step,” Miller said.