Chancellor to graduates: ‘Lift others up’

Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos took the Class of 2016 back in time 90 years to the “hard, short life” of his paternal grandfather to make his uplifting point during this year’s Commencementceremony on Alumni Lawn.

“[rquote]My grandfather was illiterate. He could neither read nor write the language of his adopted country[/rquote],” Zeppos said May 13 to some 2,900 Vanderbilt University graduates and their families and friends in attendance. “For me – a lawyer, a professor, a chancellor who lives in the world of inspired ideas (and) great words, I can walk across this campus and there’s a community of fluency in dozens of languages – it never occurred to me that my grandfather was illiterate.

“He was deemed ‘ignorant,’” said Zeppos, who got the information from the 1926 petition for citizenship of John Zeppos unearthed by his brother.

The petition, which John Zeppos signed with an “X,” was witnessed by two men, Arthur Schiefelbein and George Lang – a merchant and a molder, who signed on his behalf and affirmed “he was a person of good moral character … and was in every way qualified … to be a citizen of the United States.” Zeppos reasoned that he would not likely now be chancellor of Vanderbilt University if Schiefelbein and Lang had not vouched for his grandfather back in 1926.

“I finally came to the realization that I am here because I am educated,” he said. “And I don’t mean simply ‘here’ today as your chancellor and as a professor at Vanderbilt. I mean ‘here’ today unburdened from worry about the basic necessities of life, able to educate my children, to have good health care, to drink clean water, unafraid to vote, free to experience a broader, more diverse world.”

John Zeppos, who immigrated to the United States from Greece and worked in a mill, died from pulmonary failure only 10 years after gaining U.S. citizenship.

“I felt that I owed (Schiefelbein and Lang) a thank you from me and my family, for this was a debt of gratitude unacknowledged for almost a century,” Zeppos said.

And what lesson was the Class of 2016 to take from the story?

“[lquote]Do whatever you can to lift others up[/lquote],” Zeppos said. “Who knows, someday you may do nothing more than affix your name to a document in support of someone who needs your help. And while it may take eight decades, someone, some day, may just become a college president out of this act of kindness and generosity.”

Zeppos delivered his farewell message to seniors shortly before conferring undergraduate degrees with assistance from Provost Susan R. Wente. Those getting graduate and professional school degrees received them in other ceremonies elsewhere on campus. About 1,730 graduates received undergraduate degrees and about 2,100 got graduate degrees.

“I know your life will unfold with good and bad, highs and lows, successes and failures,” Zeppos said. “Of one thing I am sure: through not just the good, the highs and the successes, but the bad, the lows and the failures, it is education and your time at Vanderbilt that will be your source of strength, your source of comfort.”

chancellor at podium
Chancellor Zeppos addresses the Class of 2016 (Vanderbilt University)