Basketball legend, poet and educator Thomas Meschery ’61 told students at the 149th Saint Mary’s College of California undergraduate commencement ceremonies – the largest in the College’s history – to cherish their SMC experience and embrace their creativity as they enter “the next quarter” of their lives.
A total of 684 students received their degrees on a warm, sunny day on Saturday, May 19, at the SMC stadium.
Meschery, a member of the Gaels’ team that made it to the NCAA Tournament “Elite 8” in 1958, went on to play for the Warriors and Seattle Supersonics from 1961-’71, earning the nickname “The Mad Russian” for his assertive playing style and “Renaissance Man” for his other unusual passion – poetry.
After retiring from the NBA, he followed a lifelong love of literature, which he traces to his ancestor, Leo Tolstoy, into a second career as a poet and educator. He received the U.S. Presidential Scholars Teacher Recognition Award four times and has published two volumes of poetry, “Over the Rim” and “Nothing You Lose Can Be Replaced.” A new poetry collection, “Some Men,” will be published in the fall.
Meschery movingly described how the Christian Brothers had sheltered and consoled him and his Russian émigré family while they were being held in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, several years before they moved to the United States. Later, as a 6’6” high school power forward being courted by colleges with nationally ranked basketball teams, it was his memory of the Brothers’ kindness that led him to enroll at Saint Mary’s.
“I like to believe that playing basketball for Saint Mary’s College - in some small way - repaid those three brothers in 1941 for their kindness to our family,” he said with emotion.
He likened the arc of life to the quarters of a basketball game. The graduating students are wrapping up the first quarter, he said, and entering the second and third, where “so much happens - careers, relationships, marriages, children” -- while he is entering the fourth quarter. Looking back on his life, the 73-year-old Meschery said: “Of my many transformations, athlete, teacher, and poet have meant the most to me. Sport has sustained my life, teaching has inspired my life, and poetry has nurtured my life.”
He encouraged the graduating seniors to “roll up their sleeves” and extolled the virtue of continual practice, quoting one of his favorite Zen sayings:
“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
But he also advised them to “be in the moment,” saying that in his life, “logic has been useful, but not as much as intuition.” Drawing inspiration from fellow poet Adrienne Rich, he reminded them that “to live more fully is to live creatively.”
Also speaking at the commencement was valedictorian Lacey Alves, who recounted how spending spring break of her junior year at a hospital as her mother battled ovarian cancer changed her perspective on life. “The experience truly opened my eyes to how blessed I am to attend Saint Mary’s,” she said.
Brother Ronald Gallagher, FSC, the college president, congratulated the seniors and read messages from Gaels who shared their experiences at Saint Mary’s, including one from a student who participated in the 50th anniversary recreation of the famous phone booth stuffing prank that made the cover of Life magazine in 1939.
“I felt connected to the original stuffers who made history,” he read, drawing laughs from the audience. “The pure Gael pride between generations of Gaels was incredible.”
That same spirit was evident later in the day, as the College’s newest alumni gathered with friends, family members and former alumni at the uniquely Saint Mary’s “plot parties” held under tents festooned with banners reading “Congratulations, Grad.”
As rock songs and mariachi music blared from speakers, some students danced while others said tearful good-byes and a few slipped off to the Chapel for one last silent prayer.
Best friends Elisa Rodriguez and Jennifer DeSantos took in the festive atmosphere, along with fellow grad Elizabeth Roland. They said they are fortunate because they won’t have to say goodbye: they’re both starting work right away as sales representatives with the same insurance company in Southern California.
Marshal Caro and Steven Canete, who have been friends and roommates since they met in their first year at Saint Mary’s, received a big hug from their freshman Seminar teacher, Professor Caralinda Lee, and thanked her for her help. Caro was celebrating his unexpected good fortune, as an English major, in landing a job as a buyer analyst for Oracle.
Looking around at the festive party, which stretched across nearly every lawn on the campus, he said: “It’s a great celebration of what we’ve lived through these last four years.”
By Teresa Castle
Office of College Communications