Alumnus shares commencement spotlight with niece on May 11

by University Communications,

When Merrill Lynch offered him a job as a stockbroker in Anchorage, Alaska, Al Whitaker ’80 was elated.

Sure, he would miss the commencement ceremony with his friends. But one day, he knew he’d return. He’d dress in a cap and gown, walk confidently across the stage and accept his diploma — giving his mother the photo opportunity she justly deserved.

Thirty-three years later, that day has arrived.

On May 11, Whitaker is walking with the class of 2014, sharing the moment with his niece, Mackenzie Lamson, a studio art major.

Below are excerpts of Whitaker’s letter to the registrar — explaining why he wants to walk and why Willamette made such a lasting impression in his life.

Transferring to Willamette

Willamette University is a huge part of why I am where I am today. Geoff Petrie recruited me out of high school to come wrestle for Willamette. Instead, I chose to follow my friends to the University of Oregon. The U of O is a fine institution, but it was awfully easy for a student like me to have a really good time partying my way through college without making any appreciable progress towards graduation.

It was during my second, sophomore year that I realized I might benefit by being in an environment with a little more accountability and a more rigorous academic process. I recalled my visits with Coach Petrie and thought Willamette University might be a better match for me.

The admissions department at Willamette took the time to really look at my test scores and my somewhat questionable transcript and see a student who could prosper at Willamette. The deal was, I was given a specific class list for the fall and told that if I received a B-average or better that first semester, I could stay. Willamette University took a chance on me, and for that I will forever be grateful.

Professors Who Care

One Saturday I was playing rugby, and I looked over at the sidelines and saw my statistics professor watching the match. I hadn’t been to his class for quite a while and planned on dropping the course and trying again later.

When the match ended, I was surprised to learn that the professor was there to see me. He knew I played rugby and this was a place to catch me. Before I could say anything, he told me I was not dropping his class, I had a very good handle on the concepts and needed to get back into his classroom.

He informed me we had an appointment that Monday at 10 a.m. in his office to catch me up (he had checked my schedule). And that was that. I did as I was told and passed statistics. I don’t think there are many schools where a professor would go to those lengths to bring a recalcitrant student back in line. But it was just what I needed.

Grabbing the Moment

One experience I never had was commencement. For years I’ve been talking about going back and walking across that stage. For all the grief I’ve put her through, my mother deserves that photo.

I have nothing but respect for the institution. This is why I want to take this final trip across the stage at commencement. Mackenzie is very important to me, and sharing part of her graduation day will be special for both of us.

Whitaker is now a financial wholesaler in McMinnville, Ore. Joining him at the commencement ceremony are numerous friends and family members, including his wife and his teenage son and daughter.