DURHAM — Like any graduation, the University of New Hampshire commencement ceremony yesterday was filled with laughter, spirit and hope for the future.
Thousands of people gathered in the hot sun outside the Whittemore Center Arena to honor the approximately 2,500 graduates for their hard work and dedication.
But the 143rd commencement also proved to be a tribute to the selfless, heroic acts of others in wake of the Boston Marathon bombings last month and other incidents when UNH students made a difference in the lives of others.
“We all can find inspiration and role models in the people sitting next to us,” said commencement speaker Lt. Gen. Mary Legere, a 1982 UNH graduate and the U.S. Army’s deputy chief of staff of intelligence.
Legere was talking about graduating senior Cameron Lyle of Plaistow and others from the university who stepped up in a time of need. They included UNH director of athletic training Jon Dana and students Brandon Hall and Ashlei Brock, marathon volunteers who helped bombing victims.
Lyle, a member of the UNH men’s track team, recently received national attention when he sacrificed the rest of his college athletic career to donate bone marrow to help save the life of a leukemia patient he didn’t know.
The former Timberlane Regional High School student — a one-in-5-million marrow donor match — also received accolades from UNH president Mark Huddleston during the nearly three-hour ceremony.
Huddleston told of how after Lyle’s surgery, the modest shot put star, who could bench press hundreds of pounds, wouldn’t be able to lift anything heavier than a bag of groceries for weeks.
“The moving part of the story for me is not that Cameron decided to be that donor and to save that life,” Huddleston said. “The moving part is that he genuinely doesn’t understand why anyone would be surprised by his decision.”
Huddleston also praised the marathon volunteers, seven students who helped another who had a heart attack, and several other students who helped burn victims when a pipe carrying hot water burst in a dormitory.
“But the character that propelled those heroic acts is not rare at the University of New Hampshire,” he said. “We have many others who constitutionally run toward the explosion. We have other bone marrow donors and first responders.”
Huddleston and Legere told the graduates that what they accomplish in life is up to them.
“You are here now to do great work and make a difference,” Legere said.
Legere, 52, is a New Hampshire native who oversees 58,000 soldiers and civilians in the Army’s military intelligence corps. She has commanded at every level of the Army.
But instead of talking about her prestigious 31-year military career, Legere’s lighthearted speech focused mainly on her own graduation from UNH.
“I got really depressed when I realized none of you were born when I graduated from college,” she said. “I sincerely hope you are proud of what you accomplished.
The proud graduates included many students from Southern New Hampshire — ecstatic that graduation day had finally arrived.
“It’s exciting, but I worked pretty hard for it,’ said Laura Dennison, 21, of Windham.
Dennison, an English major, said she’s still considering potential careers. So is theater major Dan Pelletier, 22, who went to Pinkerton Academy in Derry.
“It still hasn’t sunk in yet,” he said of graduating. “I’m not sure where to go from here. What do you do with a BA in theater?”
But other students already have jobs lined up.
Jeff Garside, 22, of Londonderry begins his job Monday as a financial representative for Fidelity Investments in Merrimack.
“It’s fast track here,” he said.
His fiancee, Shannon Peddle, 21, of Londonderry, has a new job there as well.
Both were glad to be graduating but said the four years flew by quickly.
“It’s been crazy,” Peddle said. “It went by faster than I expected.”
“It’s a sigh of relief,” Garside said.
Ashley Scheidegger, 21, of Newton has a job as a counselor at Hampstead Hospital. Her boyfriend and fellow Sanborn Regional High School alumni Darrin Broadhurst, 22, is applying for jobs.
Broadhurst, who majored in Russian and international affairs, hopes to land a job with the federal government. He’s glad to be graduating.
“It’s a relief, but I will miss it,” he said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty for me, but there’s opportunity.”