By John Toole
DURHAM — Nothing but blue skies smiling at 2,800 University of New Hampshire graduates during commencement yesterday on the plaza outside the Whittemore Center.
At least 10,000 people, most of them friends and relatives of the graduates, packed the grounds and occupied hillside perches surrounding the venue. Beach balls danced to "Pomp and Circumstance," as graduates clad in caps and gowns stopped traffic crossing Main Street.
Bubbles filled the air, while white and blue balloons floated into the cloudless sky. Relatives and friends flanked the entrance pathway snapping photos from their cell phones and shouting words of congratulations to the graduates.
Big man on campus was the UNH Wildcat, as graduates and their families took turns posing for photos in front of the statue. A cap with tassle regularly adorned the cat's head.
Freshman Sarah Figgins, selling bouquets nearby for a community service benefit, said there were lines by the statue from 7 o'clock until start of graduation three hours later.
"People are really excited. They've been putting their caps on the cat," Figgins said.
Nicholas Pothier of Derry admitted to the excitement.
"I'm a little scared, a little nervous. It's been a fast four years," Pothier said.
The music major was looking forward to participating in a summer opera program in Philadelphia.
"I love UNH. I'm not ready for the real world," Adrienne Allicon, a psychology major from Derry, said. Her friend Samantha Hickey of Derry is planning to pursue a master's degree at Rivier College.
"This went by really fast, but it was worth it. I enjoyed every minute," Hickey said.
"It's really exciting to be able to do this," Corey Foden, a psychology major from Plaistow, said. Foden is looking for a job in the Boston area.
"This is a new chapter in my life," Foden said.
"I'm excited. Walking down the street from our apartment this morning I said, 'This is real,'" Kim Beidleman of Londonderry, who hopes to become an English teacher, said.
"I love the faculty here. There are a lot of amazing professors," Beidleman said.
Thoughts turned to sacrifices of parents for many students.
"Hugely supportive," was how Kenneth Daher of North Andover characterized his parents, Maureen and Kenneth Sr., both in attendance.
"They honed in on what I was passionate about," Daher said.
He was getting his master's degree in natural resources studies and said he was looking forward to applying the skill set developed at UNH.
Julie Walsh of Andover also had family watching her graduate.
"Of course," her parents were supportive, she said. "They wrote the checks."
But supportive in so many other ways, too. "They were very supportive. I love them," Walsh said.
The graduates all said there were things they would miss about UNH, mostly their friends and professors, but also the community of Durham and special times.
"I will miss my roommates, the cheap drinks and the dining hall," Walsh said.
Final words of congratulations and well wishes came from a series of speakers.
"You did it, Wildcats, you did it," professor Nancy Kinner told them.
"The world needs your gifts, talents and open hearts," Rev. Larry Brickner-Wood, university chaplain, told the students.
President Mark Huddleston had students salute their parents.
"You have made many sacrifices to make this day possible," Huddleston told the parents.
To the students he said, "In your faces we can see the promise of the future."
There was some advice from Edward Dupont, University System trustees chairman.
"Take this gift of learning and give it to others," Dupont said.
Commencement speaker was Ronald Noble, UNH Class of 1979, chief of the worldwide crime fighting INTERPOL organization. Noble's daily life, pursuing criminals and stopping terrorists, defines excitement but his was a message for graduates about what really matters in life.
"Your family's love and support will be the one constant in your life," Noble told the graduates.
Anything is possible if you want it and work hard for it, Noble said.
"Go get 'em, Wildcats," he said.
It was a day these graduates will remember always.
Said Walsh, "I'm glad we did it. I'm proud of us."