The Western Carolina University community took time out to honor its fall graduating class and a group of WCU alumni who were awarded degrees in August as fall commencement ceremonies were held Saturday (Dec. 18) at Ramsey Regional Activity Center.
The event also included the awarding of an honorary doctorate to a legendary figure from WCU’s rich teaching tradition, the late Josefina Maria Niggli, and a commencement address delivered by Honors College student Lucas Owen Ladnier.
WCU’s fall class includes about 690 students who recently have been completing academic requirements to receive their degrees. A group of graduates who completed degree requirements during summer school and who already have been conferred degrees also participated in the ceremony.
A native of Mexico, Niggli was a bigger-than-life writer and teacher who led the development of WCU’s theatre arts program and inspired legions of students. Before coming to Cullowhee to teach, Niggli wrote plays, short stories, novels and screenplays during the 1930s and 1940s and worked in radio, television and film, scripting programs and writing for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and 20th Century Fox.
Niggli joined the WCU faculty in 1956 as a journalism instructor and director of drama. Reading from the citation for Niggli’s posthumous honorary doctor of arts degree, WCU Chancellor John W. Bardo said Niggli “arrived at the small mountain school making a big impression. Chain-smoking Marlboro cigarettes, constantly clicking her fingertips like castanets, offering stage direction from the seat of a red recliner positioned in the theater aisle, Ms. Niggli was – her former students have recalled – absorbing, fascinating, imperial, dramatic, revolutionary. Her students also found in Ms. Niggli a source of comfort – a warm, kind, generous, welcoming woman.”
“Ms. Niggli established WCU’s theatre program and imbued it with professionalism,” Bardo read from the citation. “Her classes studied classical acting, dramatic structure, period and style. They performed contemporary Broadway hits. They graduated from her program highly trained and ready to work. Her productions in Western Carolina’s Little Theatre attracted such crowds that the audience spilled into the aisles and theatergoers drove from Asheville to attend.”
Niggli retired in 1976 and remained in Cullowhee until her death in 1983. The following year, the university renamed the Little Theatre in her honor. To date, a theatre arts scholarship Niggli funded has awarded more than $126,000 to 128 students.
WCU’s Office of Undergraduate Studies coordinated a campuswide celebration of Niggli’s life during the 2009-10 academic year to mark the 100th anniversary of her birth.
Accepting the honorary doctorate on Niggli’s behalf, Robert Kehrberg, dean of WCU’s College of Fine and Performing Arts, said Niggli “brought the professional workplace to the classroom. Her wit, charm and professional background provided the backdrop to the passion she demanded of her students.”
“Dr. Niggli would have been proud of you and what you have achieved,” Kehrberg said to the graduating students and new alumni. “You are on your pathway with a major milestone today. If I could be so bold, I would imagine she would look out and meet you eye-to-eye and say, ‘Make your choices count and know when you’re making one.'”
Ladnier, a Hickory native who expects to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in history next May, told the graduating students and alumni that all the experiences they have had at WCU will affect them for years to come and they eventually will find out that “even the negative ones can have a profound positive impact.”
“All of you have a story to tell,” Ladnier said. “You have a particular journey that you’ve experienced here, from the moment you walked on campus. Some of you knew what you were going to do even before then; some of you are still wondering. That’s not a problem.
“Savor every moment as you travel through life,” he said. “It’s all important in some way. Every one of you has a purpose – a plan laid out that you will have the opportunity to discover in the coming years. You’ve finished this part of your life. I wish you every blessing and opportunity as you enter the next part.”
Ladnier, the son of Marc and Becky Ladnier of Hickory, plans to enroll in the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C., to study for the Lutheran ministry following his WCU graduation.
In his charge, Bardo told the graduating students and new alumni that they face a world of great economic uncertainty.
“These are clearly difficult times, but WCU has given you the credentials to participate, to take charge and to make a difference,” he said. “Remember, making a living is important, but making a difference is even more important.
“Graduates, we’re all proud of you. Congratulations, and I look forward to following your accomplishments in the years to come.”
A complete list of WCU’s new graduates will be announced following the posting of grades from final examinations.