Willamette University College of Law celebrates 125th commencement

Don’t assume that personal setbacks are disasters; they may serve as opportunities that will open new doors, said Ninth Circuit judge Milan D. Smith Jr. at the law school’s commencement on Sunday.

Smith, who serves on the bench for the U.S. Court of Appeals, also told the 131 graduates to “remember what people say and follow your gut.”

“It’s a tough market out there, but it may be a springboard,” he said. “Swim as fast as you can.”

The ceremony marked the final one that Symeon C. Symeonides will preside over as dean. He will step down June 1 to teach and write. Willamette University President M. Lee Pelton, who hired Symeonides, is leaving for a similar position at another college.

The Willamette University Board of Trustees bestowed the title “Dean Emeritus” on Symeonides. The board noted Symeonides was instrumental in increasing the number of law school applicants by 136 percent, attracting the largest percentage of applications from historically-underrepresented students in the school’s history; increasing scholarship support and achieving the law’s school’s highest bar passage rate in thirty years.

Symeonides, the second longest-serving dean in the College of Law’s 128-year history, raised $19 million in gifts for operations and endowment and oversaw a significant expansion of the faculty, marked not only by a major increase in scholarly productivity but also by gains in faculty diversity.

“I would like to believe that this title has been earned, but if so, it has been earned not by me but rather through the collective toil and efforts of many people, primarily our faculty, staff and students, the generosity of our alumni and friends, and the guidance and support of President Pelton and the Board of Trustees,” Symeonides said. “It has simply been my good fortune to be at the wheel during the time that good things happened at the College of Law.”

Symeonides recognized five members of the Class 1961 who received commemorative medals: Mark A. Bliven, Harl H. Haas, J. Ronald Hershberger, J. Gary McClain and Paul B. Osterlund.

Symeonides also thanked Pelton for his “strong and unwavering support” for the law school.

The valedictorian was Rebecca Eschler Russell. She received the newly established valedictorian prize Aristeion Symeon Symeonides, which is accompanied by a monetary award. Salutatorians were Amy Geerhart and Austin Tyler Highberger.

“For all of you, this is a day of tremendous accomplishment, even though – I am sure – this is simply the first of many accomplishments to follow,” Symeonides said. “We know that you have sacrificed a lot for this day. Today, we honor not only your efforts and sacrifices, but also their results.”