The crowd Saturday at Winthrop University’s spring undergraduate graduation may have been the largest ever at the coliseum.
Winthrop Coliseum’s 6,100 seats were filled. There were more than 640 graduates in chairs on the floor.
A standing-room-only crowd, two- and three-deep on the day before Mother’s Day, ringed the arena to witness the joy and achievement that so many students and families had sacrificed for.
On the top concourse, without a seat, stood Naty Fullante.
She was born in the Philippines and emigrated to the United States. Her first job was in a military PX.
She and her family – husband Rusty and two daughters who already are college graduates – stood there for the last child. Danton Fullante’s name was called and he walked across the stage and his mother took a video on her phone and nobody was ever prouder. Danton held up his diploma toward the concourse as he walked. He waved to his family. He waved to his mother.
“I am so proud,” Naty Fullante said.
Graduation is a testament to the student, but the families are right in the mix almost every time – especially the mother.
There were speeches Saturday at graduation, and honors given to some professors, that kind of ceremonial thing that is graduation everywhere. Cecilia Dickson Stewart, a Winthrop alum who started as a part-time file clerk at First Union bank decades ago then shattered the glass ceiling through hard work to become one of the most powerful banking women in America, told graduates to surround themselves with good people, be passionate, and love their work.
She also made sure that as a mother, she mentioned a son who graduated from Winthrop a few years ago. Mothers, even powerful executives giving speeches at graduations, are mothers first.
The university president, Jamie Comstock Williamson, nearing the end of her first year as South Carolina’s only female president of a public university, said these words 44 minutes after graduation began: “And now graduates, it is finally your turn.”
There was a big applause. Because graduation is truly about the graduate and the courage to try and the people who helped get that person there.
One of those who walked across the stage for a diploma was named April Lattig. She is 42 years old. She lives in Fort Mill. She got up at 4 a.m. every day for years so she could work the counter at Starbucks, then go to classes at Winthrop. Then she would spend the rest of the day as a mother and wife. She has a husband, David, and two sons, Asher and D.J.
She got her degree the day before Mother’s Day, 23 years after she started college the first time.
“It took a lot of hard work to get here today,” Lattig said. “I tried college at age 19 and I flunked out. But I went back, and I made the Dean’s List every semester.”
When April Lattig’s name was called her family cheered and her son D.J. pumped his arms and waved at his mother.
“My mother is so amazing – she put in so much effort to get here,” D.J. Lattig said. “I am so proud of her.”
His mom gets to return the favor in three weeks when D.J. graduates from Fort Mill High School.
The building was filled with families, mothers, who had worked second jobs, done what was needed, to put kids through college. Outside the coliseum before the ceremony, one graduate stopped to exchange a hug. The graduate was Stacy Melody, and the hugger was her mom, Anita. Stacy’s father died when she was 12. Anita did all she could to get her daughter to that stage Saturday.
“My mother was so supportive – I called her a lot crying,” Stacy Melody said.
Anita Melody said that is what moms do for kids going to college.
“I am so proud of her,” said Anita Melody “She is an honors graduate. Honors.”
A few feet away a car stopped and the graduate, Bryan McGill from Rock Hill, hopped out. A grown man now, he still hugged and kissed the driver of the car.
“My mom,” Bryan said. “This day is for her, too.”
Shirley McGill did what mothers do. She checked Bryan’s tie, his cap and gown. She straightened his mortarboard one last time.
Walking in to try and find a seat, in tiny steps, was Olgaree Webb, 93 years old. Her birthday was Friday. She wore a white hat with flowers. One of her many grandchildren, William Latimer, was to graduate.
“I am so proud,” she said.
Inside, William Latimer said he was proud of his grandmother Olgaree Webb and his entire family. His mother died when he was in high school. Olgaree Webb was widowed as a young woman, yet worked and pushed her family to achieve. Latimer has his grandmother, and others, now to thank and share the achievement of graduation.
“I am the first person in my family to graduate from college,” Latimer said. “The people before me didn’t have this chance. They helped me get here. I thank them all.”