The Winthrop Coliseum was packed Saturday, jammed, standing room only in an arena that seats 6,100, with people standing around the concourse, to watch 645 young people leap into the world armed with undergraduate degrees from the day’s graduation.
The parents who had spent countless nights going over budgets at kitchen tables, sacrificing to get these students through, clapped and cheered and they too deserved cheers and got them.
It was the 24th graduation, and last, for outgoing school President Anthony DiGiorgio. There was a surprise video tribute at the end of the ceremony that left the tough leader who turned Winthrop from a small college in 1989 into a university with a national reputation, in tears.
DiGiorgio, though, told the crowd in his last-ever address that the students are the real stars. The students received those flowers, the cards, the hugs.
He did not mention it, but it is the students who get the mountain of financial aid debt.
Every one of those 645 students showed greatness and resolve to get to Saturday. Each one cried, and studied, and hung in through duress, to graduate.
No professor or even president did the work. The students do it.
There were students who work jobs at Food Lion to pay the tuition. Students who flipped burgers, waited tables, cashiered at Wal-Mart, mopped floors at nursing homes.
Saturday they were giants. All that work had paid off.
The students make Winthrop, and Rock Hill, and York County, matter around the world. Those graduates head off into business and medicine and law and teaching and sciences, making Rock Hill international. Winthrop is what makes this city have legs that reach all corners of the globe.
There were graduates from Fort Mill and France. Colombia the country and Columbia the city. India and Indiana. Rock Hill and Saudi Arabia.
In the second to last row of graduates was a young guy, 26, from rural York County past York, Smyrna, population 52, who could not stop smiling. He had a Dick Tracy jaw and a strong, sure gait when he walked onto that stage to get his diploma. A guy gets tough when he spends parts of four years after high school in the Marines, in Iraq, in the infantry.
“Sniper battalion,” Robert Shaver said. “Ramadi.”
Ramadi was one of the most brutal, awful, dangerous places in the history of the Iraqi war. Hundreds died there. West of Baghdad Ramadi was the center of the Al Qaeda insurgents in 2006.
“I lost two I knew,” Shaver said.
What Shaver had to do in that war, to get to college, is past description. The children bombers, the enemy with machine guns, the deaths. It is the opposite of caps and gowns and diplomas in America on the first Saturday in May.
When Shaver came home from war, he followed in the footsteps of a sister at Winthrop. His girlfriend, who would become his wife, went to Winthrop. He went, on the GI Bill.
Shaver studied exercise science. He was older than most students, and often working at the same he went to school.
When DiGiorgio told the graduates to move their tassel on the mortarboard from one side to the other, meaning it was official, Shaver raised his arms in triumph.
“A long way from Iraq,” Shaver said. “College.”
After the ceremony, the graduates received their actual diploma in a row of tables underneath the great stands of the arena, in the weight room. Shaver was handed his, and waiting there was Janet Wojik, a professor of exercise science . Wojik hugged her student.
“We couldn’t be more proud of Robert,” Wojik said. “He’s a veteran of war, he’s married, a new father. He’s shown such great character.”
Shaver then walked out of the tunnel of the arena where sports stars are cheered. He was the star, this time.
Waiting were his proud parents, Barbara and Ernie. Ernie is a blue-collar guy and his kids graduating college is huge.
There stood Rob Shaver’s wife, Lauren, and his 7-month-old daughter, Olivia. Olivia was dressed in a Winthrop Eagles baby outfit. There were in-laws, other family, and they clapped and called out, “Here comes our hero!”
Because Robert Shaver is some kind of hero.
“We talked about these young men going off to war, when he left and others went to college, and I was nervous for him but he came back and has made us all so proud,” said Barbara Shaver.
Now Rob Shaver is a college graduate, too.
Robert Shaver has all of one day to celebrate. On Wednesday he interviewed for a sales job with the GNC health company. Shaver was offered the job. He accepted.
He starts Monday at 8 a.m.
This college graduate and Marine veteran of Iraq will be there by 7:30.