Bonnie G. Wittner ’69 remarks:
President Hanno, Wheaton Trustees and faculty, the Class of 1969, the Class of 2019, and all the other guests here today, I am thrilled, honored and humbled to be a recipient of this extraordinary award.
Fifty-four years ago, when I came onto this beautiful campus on a day such as this, I never would have imagined that I would be here today accepting this prestigious award. My good friends—and you know who you are—who are here today also could not have imagined that I would become a judge and the recipient of this wonderful honor.
In 1969, when I graduated from Wheaton, our country was in turmoil. The Vietnam War was raging, while the Civil Rights movement was bringing new opportunities to many of the previously disenfranchised. The country was highly polarized, much as it is today. As I approached graduation, I wanted to be part of the solution to the challenges facing our nation, but I honestly didn’t know how I would do that. A close friend, who is here (she knows who she is), and I decided to take the LSATs and apply to law school. My professors encouraged me and I did go to law school directly after graduation. The required courses of my first year of law school, however, really didn’t inspire me. I missed the breadth of liberal arts study and the small, nurturing Wheaton community. However, I persevered and found that as I began taking courses I liked, such as constitutional law and federal courts, and interning as a volunteer at the Legal Aid bureau and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, I realized that pursuing a legal career was the right path for me. Wheaton prepared me for the rigors of law school and a legal and judicial career. At Wheaton, I learned to think critically and write concisely and persuasively.
I was asked to give you some pearls of wisdom as you embark upon your lives after graduation. It would be presumptuous to give you a road map. However, I can make a few remarks about how my career unfolded. I was open to all possibilities and took advantage of every opportunity that presented itself to me without judgment. After practicing law for 10 years, one of my mentors suggested that I apply to become a criminal court judge in the city of New York. She persuaded me that it was a perfect time, as the then-Mayor Koch was looking to diversify the courts. As a 35-year-old woman with my background, I might just be in the right place at the right time. I did apply, was appointed, and it launched my 34-year tenure on the bench. I would encourage you to learn from those who have preceded you and never to be afraid to ask for advice. I feel indebted to my mentors, who supported and encouraged me and gave me sound advice and counsel.
Whatever path you choose—business, graduate school, work, public service or community involvement—give it a 100 percent effort. Doing your best possible job would be its own reward because you never can tell what doors will then open for you.
I have just told you how well Wheaton prepared me for my law school and future career. However, there are a few essential life skills that Wheaton did not teach me. I will now let you guess which ones I have still not yet mastered: Drive a car, roast a chicken, type a term paper, sew on a button and wear sunscreen.
In conclusion, as Mark Twain said, “Twenty years from today you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.” So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, dream, discover.
Congratulations to the Class of 2019! I wish you well in your future endeavors. And, again, I thank you for this wonderful and prestigious award.
• More 2019 Commencement coverage here.