You couldn’t miss George Whitmire in the sea of red mortarboards Saturday, the only one of 5,171 new Wolfpack graduates pushing a stroller.
He took a seat in PNC Arena, laid his baby son on his shoulder and explained the bumpy road that led him through N.C. State University, where he just finished up at age 52.
In December 2008, he lost his job as a city supervisor in Hendersonville, laid off in the height of the recession. So he came to Raleigh and enrolled in engineering school, more than twice the age of his classmates. None of the speakers Saturday needed to warn Whitmire about the real world outside.
“We did it,” he said, 9-month-old Connor on his shoulder. “I should have gone to school 30 years ago. Life has a way of ... well, life.”
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It took nearly an hour for all the graduates to march into the arena, 3,669 of them undergraduates. True to tradition, the veterinary school students wore plastic farm animals on their caps and waved inflated pink sleeves designed for the more delicate moments of their work.
“You know,” joked Chancellor Randy Woodson, “my background is agriculture. I know what those sleeves are for.”
Cellphone cameras flashed, and hundreds of texts buzzed through the arena as parents waved down from the highest seats, yelling to the red specks on the floor.
“You have every reason to leave here with confidence, pride, a bounce in your step and a little bit of swagger,” said Benjamin Jenkins, chair of N.C. State’s board of trustees. “Be bold. Take chances.”
As their faces appeared on the Jumbotron, students listened to the commencement address from France Cordova, director of the National Science Foundation. Before she became an astrophysicist, she studied English literature as an undergraduate. But, she confided to students, she always wanted to be a detective. Like Albert Einstein, she said, she lacks a specific talent beyond passionate curiosity.
“I don’t expect that tomorrow you will change the world from your garage,” she said. “Sometimes changing the world starts with a question, wondering why things are and how they got that way.”
As he bounced Connor on his shoulder, Whitmire confided that he’d likely stay in Raleigh rather than venture back to the mountains. He sees big opportunity here for a man with a new degree, some grit and familiarity with the bumps down the road.
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