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Saturday's West Point graduation will be a break from tradition

Cadets of the Class of 2019 toss their covers in the air at the end of the 221st graduation and commissioning ceremony at the United States Military Academy at West Point on Saturday, May 25, 2019.

JOHN MEORE, THE JOURNAL NEWS/TNS

By PETER D. KRAMER | Observer-Dispatch | Published: June 10, 2020

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WEST POINT, N.Y. (Tribune News Service) — Their hats will still fly, but at the end of Saturday's socially distant graduation at the United States Military Academy, at which President Donald J. Trump is scheduled to speak, the cadets will have to retrieve them.

Unlike in years past, there won't be scores of eager kids ready to swoop in for keepsakes.

That's just one of several ways the Class of 2020's graduation will be different, owing to the coronavirus pandemic.

With the president expected, security has been heightened and media access has been scaled back. Family will have to settle for watching a livestream of the ceremony. There's no ceremony in the stadium. Cadets will sit far apart. They won't shake hands. Even the tradition of honoring the last in the class will undergo a change.

But they'll be back together on campus — all 1,100 or so, on the Parade Field early Saturday — a sort of reuniting of the Class of 2020, if not a class reunion.

Cadets left the academy March 6 when the pandemic hit and instruction shifted to remote learning. Only the graduating seniors have returned to barracks in recent days to prepare for Saturday's event, which is closed to all guests.

A livestream event

No moms and dads, no grandparents, no friends and faculty, no cap-seeking kids.

"With current social distancing requirements, even a small contingent of guests would quickly exceed our seating capacity and was inconsistent with current public health guidance," said Cheryl Boujnida, the academy's chief of media relations.

Instead, the ceremony will be livestreamed at 9:30 a.m. on the West Point Channel on YouTube, yet another virtual graduation in a season that has seen concessions made in the name of public health.

West Point revels in tradition, including in the way it honors its graduates — members of "The Long Gray Line" stretch back to first graduates Simon Levy and Joseph Swift in 1802.

Traditions evolve

But those traditions have shifted through the years, said Sherman Fleek, the academy's command historian. In the academy's first years, cadets graduated as soon as they completed their coursework, Fleek said.

During the Civil War, World War I and World War II, there were multiple graduations in the same year, to speed newly-minted second lieutenants to the battlefield.

And the idea of a graduation speaker didn't arrive at West Point until Civil War general William T. Sherman addressed the graduates on June 15, 1869, the same year Ulysses S. Grant became president.

A 'unique year'

Fleek said cadets are reaching out to him, wondering if they'll be making history for graduating on the Parade Field, or graduating during a pandemic.

"I've had several contact me asking those unique things, 'Have we ever graduated anyone on on The Plain or The Parade Field before?' Yes, we have."

At a place like West Point, history is long and Fleek takes the historian's view.

"Whenever you say 'the most,' 'the first,' 'the only,' 'the best,' 'the last,' you have to be so careful. There's always going to be some so-and-so to prove you wrong," he said.

This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News.

©2020 Observer-Dispatch, Utica, N.Y.
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