A commencement marks an important moment in time, a point of inflection: today we mark the end of your studies at Duke, and the beginning of your lives as Duke alumni. 

Today’s commencement ceremony also marks another significant point of inflection. This year, as we celebrate our university’s centennial, we are also celebrating the one-hundredth class to graduate from Duke. Maybe you’ve noticed that many of our graduates are wearing blue robes as a special symbol of this milestone.  

This wonderful alignment of two profound turning points—our Centennial, and your graduation today—is both a moment of inflection and cause for reflection.

It’s an opportunity to reflect on all that we, together, have learned and achieved since Trinity College was transformed into Duke University. And it’s an opportunity to look ahead to the great promise of this university’s second century, to your great promise as a generation called to lead the way in an uncertain world.

Looking forward and looking back, I feel a sense of profound confidence that you are up for this challenge. Indeed, you’ve already seen and persevered through some unanticipated twists and turns in the road. Many of you saw your senior years of high school disrupted by the onset of the global pandemic and missed out on your graduation then, and all of you had to navigate several years of significant academic and social disruption. 

The undergraduate Class of ‘24 arrived at Duke before COVID vaccines became available, at a time when masking and social distancing were our best tools for protecting each other, even though they were antithetical to community building and the typical college experience. So, remarkably, this the first time you’ve all been together—in person—for a traditional, formal academic exercise. 

As you may recall, in August 2020 our new student convocation that opens the academic year took place virtually. So, you watched on YouTube—at least, I hope you did—as we welcomed you to this academic community. 

Despite the challenges, you have thrived. In the classroom and beyond you have taken advantage of all that Duke has to offer, expanding your understanding of what it means to be educated and engaged citizens of the world. During your time at Duke, you’ve built new connections and developed new traditions. 

And you absolutely have played more spikeball than any class before or since.

Looking forward, we have no idea what the world will bring. As the politically turbulent and violent events of this year have illustrated, we live in unpredictable times. 

But on this point our Centennial may be instructive, and encouraging.

A hundred years ago, the graduating class of 1924 similarly had no idea what lay before them. They didn’t know that, just six months later, James B. Duke would sign his Indenture of Trust that turned their alma mater, Trinity College, into our Duke University. That stroke of Mr. Duke’s pen not only transformed our institution, it also secured the Class of 1924’s legacy as the last students to graduate from Trinity. 

And in a fascinating turn of history, the Class of 24 also gave us our alma mater, Dear Old Duke. But again, they had no idea at the time.  

Indulge me a minute with the story.

Trinity in 1924 celebrated the completion of studies with a traditional lowering of the class flag. You see, LDOC has come a long way, from flag lowering to Swae Lee on the Quad.

Well, during their flag-lowering ceremony, the Class of 1924 sang a student-composed “Hymn to Trinity” that had been catching on around campus that spring. 

It began:

Trinity, thy name we sing. To thee our voices raise (they raise)

To thee our anthems ring, in everlasting praise.

As an aside: the May 14, 1924, issue of The Trinity Chronicle that published this hymn, also reported an interesting vignette of student life on campus:

“One student bet another that he couldn’t put a billiard ball into his mouth. Result. It had to be punched out with a cue stick.” 

Like I said, Duke students, you’ve come a long way in a hundred years.

Following the unforeseen creation of Duke University, an adaptation of the “Hymn to Trinity” was officially adopted in 1925 as our alma mater, but of course the word “Trinity” had to be replaced. And as “Duke” is just one syllable, and “Duke University” is six, they went with …? That’s right: “Dear Old Duke.” 

…at a time, let’s remember, when Dear Old Duke was not even a one-year-old. 

Although our traditions have evolved with time and we no longer raise and lower class flags to mark the beginning and end of the academic year, we do sing Dear Old Duke together at formal events and gatherings including athletic competitions. And we’ll sing it together today, at the end of this ceremony. 

Whether performed by the pep band, a choir, or as it rings from the Carillon every Friday evening, our alma mater symbolizes the enduring connections to Duke that unite us as a community, whether we are together or apart.  

And I hope it will always remind you, now that you know its origin story, that, while we can’t foresee the future — while we have no idea what our next day, year, decade, or century will bring — like Trinity College then, we can look forward to grander times ahead.

I hope that throughout your lives, however far fate may bear you, you will forever feel at home within this very special Duke community. 

Whatever the future brings — and I hope not swallowing a billiard ball on a bet — perhaps, when you hear the familiar melody of Dear Old Duke, you’ll pause to reflect on what this university, and its people, have meant in your life.

Congratulations, Class of 2024.