Saturday, May 28, 2011

Death Be Not Proud and Deerfield Academy Graduations

Last night, I finished reading the classic book, Death Be Not Proud, by John Gunther, which was published in 1949. Gunther, himself a Deerfield Academy graduate, in this deeply touching memoir, recounts his son's struggles with a brain tumor and his ultimate death at the age of 17.

One of the highlights of Johnny's 15 month struggles with a tumor known as a glioma, which he endured through multiple brain surgeries, X-ray treatments, mustard gas infusions, and a diet with no protein and fats (remember this was the late 1940s), and made the most of each and every day, was that he was able to march in his Deerfield Academy graduation. Although he had been away from school for 14 months, as top doctors somehow kept him alive, along with his unrelenting spirit and joy in living plus the love and care of his parents, he had completed enough of his coursework, independently and through the help of tutors, to graduate.

Tomorrow is graduation day at Deerfield Academy (DA), which I am very much looking forward to since my daughter is a student there and she has quite a few friends among the seniors who will be graduating.

Below, I quote from Death Be Not Proud (page 167) about Johnny's Deerfield graduation:

Slowly, very slowly, Johnny stepped out of the mass of his fellows and trod by us carefully keeping in the exact center of the long aisle, looking neither to the left nor the right, but straight ahead, fixedly, with the white bandage flashing in the light through the high windows, his chin up, carefully, not faltering, steady, but slowly, so very slowly. The applause began and then rose and the applause became a storm, as every single person in that old church became whipped up, tight and tense, to see if he would make it. The applause became a thunder, it rose and soared and banged, when Johnny finally reached the pulpit. Mr. Flynt carefully tried to put the diploma in his right hand, as planned. Firmly Johnny took it from right hand to left, as was proper, and while the whole audience rocked now with release from tension, and was still wildly, thunderously applauding, he passed around his place among his friends.

Johnny lived his life to the fullest and his love of life and learning (especially of chemistry, math, and physics -- he had written a letter to Einstein, who had written back) affected all those around him.

Last year, I posted some photos from the graduation, complete with a bagpiper, which was stunning, and which you can view here.

My husband read the book while a student and now, amazingly, not only is our daughter at DA, but she went to the Bement School with the great-granddaughter of the Mr. Flynt noted above and although we never met Mr. Frank Boyden, the headmaster of DA for over 50 years, who helped Johnny Gunther, my neighbor in Amherst and colleague, Professor Emeritus Jack Conlon, knew him well.