Welcome from President of the Board of Trustees
Mr. Brian Simmons P’12,’14
Brian Simmons: Good morning, Deerfield. I’m Brian Simmons, President of the Board of Trustees. It’s my honor to welcome you today as we celebrate the inspiring, intrepid, resilient, and remarkable class of 2021. There are many traditions in the days leading up to commencement.
Baccalaureate, the faculty and seniors’ dinner, last night’s wonderful party with parents, senior cry, and probably a few others that are not on the official program. Perhaps, fireworks have started a new tradition. We will have to see.
There’s also the iconic procession along Albany Road. My kids made that walk many years ago, and it doesn’t matter how many commencements you’ve seen yhat procession gets to you every time. It’s just a profound Deerfield moment, a literal trek in the journey from Deerfield student to Deerfield alum.
Today’s walk down Albany Road was particularly special. It was a poignant reminder that this is Deerfield’s first oncampus commencement since 2019.
As much as today recognizes the triumphs of the class of 2021, it also provides a powerful symbol of Deerfield’s strength as we navigated challenges created by a global health crisis, a crisis I’m pretty sure none of us had on our radar screens the last time we gathered here for commencement.
There’s a quote by comic strip artist, Allen Saunders, made famous by John Lennon. I promise I won’t try to sing it. “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” That has never seemed truer to me than now, and we sure have had a lot of life over the past 15 months.
Last year, as COVID’s grip on the world began to tighten, I received an early morning phone call from Dr. Austin. He told me he was cutting short his family’s spring break trip and returning by himself to campus. When he called me from his office the next day, he said he thought he was the only person on campus. Even now, I can picture him sitting in his office alone wondering what to do.
Well, he didn’t wonder for long, and that’s the moment our COVID response planning began. The goals were straightforward. Bring teachers and students back to campus safely and deliver a worldclass academic and student life experience despite obvious risks and limitations.
I think we’ve achieved those goals. I’ll go even further. I think we’ve set the bar high for managing through crisis successfully, for balancing risks and making informed decisions in the best interests of our students and employees.
I’ll stack our record up against anyone’s, and every member of this community has played a role in our success. Dr. Austin and his leadership team have been simply outstanding, guiding the way with a seemingly limitless limitless commitment of time and energy.
Can you believe that this is only Dr. Austin’s second year at Deerfield? I’ve told him that these two years are like dog years, and now, he has the equivalent of 14 years’ experience as head of school.
Dr. Austin, along with every single faculty and staff member, all other employees, and everyone’s spouses, partners, and families Monica, that means you deserve our profound thanks for their tireless, inspired commitment to Deerfield and for their teamwork and understanding, for their great ideas, flexibility, unending good cheer and unyielding belief that, if they dug in and did the hard work together, then they would be successful.
Well, it turns out they were right, but you can’t even imagine the challenges the myriad of complex interrelated decisions and the need to push back against forces that sometimes seemed to demand that we just give up. Deerfield does not give up.
Brian: I think each of us is still sorting out the lessons of the past year, finding meaning and direction. I know I am. Among these lessons is the value of teamwork and having faith in each other. Another is the importance of having clear goals and sticking to them.
Despite numerous twists and turns, we never lost sight of our goals. We forged ahead and stuck to our plan, adapting as necessary. We set a course based on the best information we had and steered by our convictions.
We stayed in our lane. The Deerfield car did not go into the ditch. There’s honor and integrity in this approach even if you don’t get everything exactly right. It’s also entirely possible that you’ll wind up where you had never imagined going. I think that’s a big part of what we have achieved.
Here in America, the pandemic is largely behind us. However, all that we have learned and the enhanced strength of this community will stay with us forever, so will the outdoor ice rink, the volleyball courts, the food trucks, and an improved academic schedule and renewed commitment to thinking big and achieving outsized goals. Not bad lessons to take away from a challenging year.
The past year has brought into sharp focus those things that matter most, families and friends, as well as the communities and places that shape our lives. Many excellent organizations and the countless people who’ve worked to sustain them have suffered this year through no fault of their own.
Deerfield has been one of the lucky few that grew stronger as the year went on. Everyone in this community made sacrifices to reopen and get us to where we are today. We have proven that we can work together and accomplish great things. Never forget that, and never let anyone tell you it’s not possible.
At the same time, pride in what we have accomplished needs to be tempered with respect, understanding, and a helping hand for those whose experiences have not been as robust as ours. That’s another good lesson to take away from a challenging year.
Deerfield is uniquely fortunate to have had decades of farsighted leadership and a diverse community of alums, parents, students, faculty, and staff who have devoted themselves to our mission. It’s just not random that we had the resources to implement the COVID response plan that Dr. Austin and his team developed.
Our ability to respond resulted from our culture, values, and the commitment of so many people in so many ways over the long history of this incredible school. Members of the class of 2021, you are moments away from becoming alumni.
I’m confident that your relationship to Deerfield will only deepen over time. This will always be your school. It will become your responsibility, and I predict your great way to get involved in ways that align with your interest and abilities so that others will have the tremendous experiences and opportunities that you’ve been given.
Deerfield has indeed finished up strong. As a class, you’ve led the way, but you started the year out strong, too. It’s worth remembering back to fall when you began your senior year. First, I want to say that all the effort to reopen Deerfield would have been wasted had you decided not to come back, so thank you for coming back.
I’m serious. Your decision to return was an important leap of faith, a show of support for all those who’d worked so hard to create a safe, secure, fun environment, one that looked as much as possible like the Deerfield’s you’d left only half a year earlier for what you assumed would be a typical spring break.
Now, when you leave this time, you’ll have to pack up your rooms yourselves. Someone had to take that first step. As you returned to campus, you showed your fellow students the way. You arrived to find a whole bunch of new restrictions and rules, rules that governed where to eat, who you could spend time with, where you walk.
If you wanted to walk, you were taken out for a lap around campus. Sure, your faculty residents were caring and careful as they escorted you on prescribed routes, but I have no doubt you wanted more freedom.
You were patient, for the most part. You understood the stakes. You knew that if you led the way, others would follow, and Deerfield would succeed. The objective was clear. Stay together as a community here on campus so you could live your Deerfield lives as fully as possible.
You showed exceptional grace, maturity, and leadership. You stuck to the plan. You stayed on course. With each term, there was a sense of gain, a feeling that we were getting closer to something resembling normal.
There was the green and white challenge, [indecipherable 9:42] elastic competition. One day, there was an ice rink where there had never been one before. There was a volleyball court. Then if you could believe your eyes, there were new people on campus, parents. They hadn’t been here since dropoff.
Fall is where you started off strong, but throughout the year, you did something else that mattered incredibly. You made sure that all of your fellow students understood how things were before COVID.
Almost half the students at Deerfield have never known a year without COVID. That’s also true for many faculty members and one head of school. Your leadership in keeping our culture and traditions alive may well be your most important contribution this year.
Seniors, today, you conclude your time as Deerfield students. You may be tempted to think you were shortchanged this year that these Deerfield days were not days of glory. I believe otherwise, they were. I think you’ve been given an invaluable gift. Early in your lives, you’ve been able to experience the challenges and rewards of struggling through something bigger than all of us.
Take the lessons you’ve learned with you as you head to college and beyond. In life, the foundations of success are oftentimes lumpy. The experiences that matter most are not always obvious.
As you continue your journey with fortitude and strength, lean on the experiences of the past year for resolve, for inspiration, and for a concrete reminder of what committed communities can accomplish if they work together in pursuit of worthy goals.
I speak for everyone on the board when I say we share your parents’ and teachers’ pride in your accomplishments. We are all so excited for what lies ahead. Congratulations, 2021.
Brian: Before we hear from Dr. Austin, I want to take just a minute and welcome our guest speaker, Dr. William Kaelin. He’ll get a proper introduction shortly, but Dr. Kaelin and I were parents together many years. I’d not seen him for several years until 2018, when the head of school search committee held a reception in Boston.
There in the audience was Bill. I think he was the only person there who was not an alum or current parent. Here’s this incredibly busy, accomplished physician and researcher taking time to attend an evening event for a school his kids had left years before.
That says so much about the strength of the Deerfield community. Whether he knows it or not, Dr. Kaelin’s commitment to Deerfield has served as a beacon for me, so thank you, Bill. We’ll now hear from Dr. Austin.
Keynote Address from Dr. William G. Kaelin, Jr.