Law Graduation Focuses on Victories - Past, Present and Future

May 14, 2007

We rejoice in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.
Romans 5:3-5

The Apostle Paul's powerful words to the Romans echoed through Jones Concert Hall during Baylor Law School's spring commencement.

From Professor Gerald Powell's keynote address about a World War II survivor to recognition of outstanding law student Allison Dickson, who battles daily with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, to encouragement for fellow graduate Maggie Weaver, who underwent chemotherapy for cancer while in the midst of her studies, to appreciation of Dickson's parents, who literally have been with her through Law School, the ceremony reminded graduates and their friends and family of the obstacles, as well as the victories, that lie in their future.

"Graduates, you stand at the brink of opportunities and challenges," Powell said in his speech. "There are injustices to fight. Wrongs to right. A Constitution to defend. You will face adversaries as formidable as the Yamato, and sometimes, to protect your client, it will be necessary to go back into harm's way - to make that second charge. Don't say I can't, because can't never could. That is how the challenges of a law practice are. When the hill is high it makes you a climber. When the road is long it makes you a runner. When the victory is lost, it makes you a winner."

To illustrate his point, Powell told the story of Baylor alumnus and Waco resident Bob Chastain, who served on board the destroyer USS Johnston during World War II. The Johnston, part of the American light carrier group, miraculously held off a large contingent of Japanese warships at the battle off Samar, the Philippines, but was sunk in the process. Chastain spent three days in the water, without a life jacket, praying for rescue.

Chastain's memories are cited in The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, one of Powell's favorite books. Chastain wrote: "I, along with all the other crew members, thought we would not survive against these odds and to this day it is very difficult to understand how anyone could make it...I was not too optimistic about our chances of being rescued on this third day. But I knew that I would never give up even though it appeared hopeless."

He was rescued and was decorated for his bravery. Powell tracked him down after reading The Last Stand, and the two have become friends. But Chastain was surprised when Powell introduced him during the speech. Law graduates and guests greeted the war hero with a sustained standing ovation.

From this stirring and moving account of Chastain's courage, Powell segued into recognition of outstanding student Dickson, who was diagnosed with Werdnig-Hoffman disease, a type of spinal muscle atrophy, at age 15 months. Her parents were told she had less than a year to live, and by the time she was in fourth grade, she had gone through three spinal surgeries and survived life-threatening pneumonia that required a stay in the ICU for five weeks and on life-support for three.

"By any realistic measure this young girl faced the same hopeless odds that Bobby Chastain did in 1944," Powell said. "It was not likely she would even survive much less succeed in life. But she didn't much seem daunted by what was before her."

Indeed, Dickson went on to graduate magna cum laude from Southwestern University; was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa; was an active member of Tri-Delta sorority; served on the Student Bar Association as Mid-Law Secretary, Parliamentarian, and Third-Year Vice President; worked as a Law School Ambassador; organized two blood drives; and won the Student Bar Association Leadership Award.

In a speech Dickson had written and read by Associate Dean Leah Jackson, Dickson spoke of almost quitting law school during orientation after attending an intense "mock" class in which a professor intimidated a fellow student.

"I went home that day and cried. I remember telling my Mom, 'I just don't know if I'm tough enough for this,'" she wrote.

But she did go back, and wrote about the strength she found to succeed. She wrote, "To be where we are today, it doesn't just take toughness. It takes intelligence. Confidence and humility. A sense of humor. Determination. Family and friends who remind you, when you need reminding most, what really matters...each other. It takes a staff who is always there to offer a smile and a word of encouragement. It takes professors who challenge you not just to become a better lawyer but to become a better person, too.

"Etched into the front window of the law school is a quote from Micah 6:8. It says, 'And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?' When you put all of these ingredients together, what you have is a person who can go forward and do just that."

Dickson's remarkable parents, Joe and Johnnie Dickson of Temple, Texas, also were paid tribute in their daughter's speech and later were honored by the Law School with an inscribed Baylor Bear statue. Additionally, Johnnie received an honorary practice court diploma, which was inscribed, in part, "Whereas Mrs. Johnnie Dickson attended the first and second quarters of Practice Court faithfully, day in and day out until completion; WHEREAS she provided valuable assistance to the instructor with regard to important lessons of life; WHEREAS she provided constant support, assistance and encouragement to all students and especially to Allison Dickson; WHEREAS those who survive Practice Court are entitled to bragging rights thereto; THEREFORE, IT IS HEREBY DECREED that Baylor University School of Law confers upon Mrs. Johnnie Dickson this Honorary Practice Court Diploma."

"They have been there with support and encouragement through it all," Dickson wrote in her speech. "Every day they live God's ultimate lesson of unconditional love and self-sacrifice."

Baylor Law Dean Brad Toben said that while all law graduation exercises are noteworthy, a different atmosphere could be felt in the spring 2007 commencement.

"All our commencements are special because they mark a turn point in life for each of our graduates who have completed a very rigorous program," he said. "At this commencement, we took note of the singular courage and tenacity of two of our graduates, Allison and Maggie, who have been inspirations to each of us to always look beyond adversity to accomplish our goals. Johnnie and Joe, Allison's parents, also have moved us as they have lived out the definition of supreme parental love and devotion. Our commencements are always intimate and meaningful, but this one took on a meaning all its own."
During commencement, diplomas were presented to graduates by Baylor President John M. Lilley and Toben, who also serves as The M.C. and Mattie Caston Professor of Law, with Leah Jackson assisting. Hooding the graduates were David M. Guinn, The Lyndon L. Olson and William A. Olson Professor of Local Government and Constitutional Law and Master Teacher, and Jim Wren, assistant professor of law. Bradley Pierce, who received his law degree during commencement, delivered the invocation.

A reception for graduates and their guests, hosted by the Baylor Law Alumni Association, was held immediately after commencement at the Sheila and Walter Umphrey Law Center.