Tuesday evening, May 21, Farmingdale State College (FSC), where I am a member of the library faculty, celebrated it's 100th commencement. Well, technically we have had more than 100 graduations if you count mid-year graduations but it had been 100 years since our first graduation.
All semester long I have been engrossed in a project to find the descendants of the first graduating class. It started out harmless enough. I just wanted to write a few biographies. You know, just 4 or 5 lines on each of the 15 class members. Nothing big. I was just curious about what became of them, who they turned out to be, and if their education had impacted the trajectory of their lives.
In fact, it started out as an academic service learning project. I had a graduate student come to FSC from St. John's University's Division of Library and Information Science; Robert Voyles. He needed a project to do for 15 hours for one of his classes. I showed him a little bit about finding genealogy records and he set about gathering up some documentation for me so that I could draft these short bios: Farmingdale Class of 1919 Biographies Nothing big.
It didn't take long though before I was poking around in public family trees on Ancestry and FamilySearch and reaching out to researchers who had our graduates in their trees. Before I knew it I was stalking non-responders on social media. In short time I was able to communicate with 8 out of 15 of the graduates' families.
It was just one fascinating story after another. We exchanged photos and I gathered details about the campus that we had always been curious about. For example, had Theodore Roosevelt really given the first commencement address here? Um, no. Through the journal of the first valedictorian, Bradford Kenneth Southard '19, we learned that it was Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. who gave the first commencement address.
I also got to write a web article for the college on the daughter of one of the first graduates. The daughter of Albert W. Berg '19, Claire M. Berg, was also a graduate of Farmingdale back when it was just a two-year school. She was a graduate of the floriculture program in 1955. She went on to be a faculty member at UConn where she taught and researched transposons; small segments of DNA that move around in the genome. You can read the article here: Claire M. Berg: Roots at Farmingdale A fascinating woman. I would have never known she started her higher education at Farmingdale if not for conversations I had with her brother, Doug. And I only found him by talking to Jane, Bradford Southard's daughter.
It wasn't long before family members expressed an interest in coming to centennial events on campus.
The great nephew of Kathryn Freeman attended a luncheon to honor his aunt. In March we renamed the Phenomenal Womyn's Award after Kate. It's an award the Student Government gives out every year to faculty, staff, and students who exemplify the significant work women do on campus. It is now the Kathryn Freeman Phenomenal Womyn's Award. His visit was a surprise. He flew in from Maine to be there. I was elated. And when I say flew, he literally flew himself and a colleague in from Maine on his own small craft airplane. He works as a medical air transport pilot.
My Library Director, Karen Gelles, and I hosted a dinner for the families the night before graduation. We called it Descendants' Dinner. Four families, totaling 9 guests, attended that function during which we ate in the Great Room with the College President and folks from Alumni Relations. That Great Room is in the building that was the first dorm on campus and was the residence of few of their ancestors.
Two of those families returned the next night for graduation, where our President, Dr. John Nader, gave a moving address and included them by name.
The day after graduation, Wednesday, May 22, there was a reunion brunch held by Alumni Relations which 2 families (4 guests) attended. During that time I presented once again on my experience of Finding the Class of 1919.
The graduation address might have been my favorite part of this whole experience if not for the conversations I got to have with each of the descendants. I got the opportunity to sit with some of the descendants and research their family trees with them. For others I gathered together documents they had never seen about their family members. That's what I enjoyed the most.
The most rewarding moment though was when Alfonso Tello Jr., son of Alfonse Tello '19, told the College President at Descendants' Dinner that he had never known his father. Al Sr. died when Al Jr. was just 4. Al said to Dr. Nader, "I want you to know, April introduced me to my father."
I don't think this graduation will be one I'll soon forget.