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President Tom Kepple Urges Graduates to be Leaders

(Posted May 20, 2013)

Thomas R. Kepple, president of Juniata College until his retirement on May 31, delivers the 2013 Commencement address.

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Thomas R. Kepple, president emeritus of Juniata College who retires at the end of the month after leading the college for 15 years, assured the assembled 2013 graduating class at Juniata College's 135th commencement ceremony, Saturday, May 18, that "being a Juniata alum is a lifelong advantage.

The graduating class of 309 students was awarded bachelor of arts (113) or bachelor of science degrees (196) at the ceremony today overseen for the final time by Kepple. The senior graduating class statistics include that 92 percent graduated in four years or less, 40 percent of seniors studied abroad, and 80 percent completed an internship, research experience or student teaching, and 30 percent completed an individualized study program. Juniata also will graduate six students who earned master's degrees in accounting.

In addition, President Kepple was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters degree. Kepple was introduced for his honorary degree by Henry Gibbel, former chair of the Juniata board of trustees. James Troha, who will officially take over the presidency of Juniata June 1, also attended the ceremony.

Kepple estimated he had heard about 40 commencement speeches over his long career and promised the assembled class he would just give them just two pieces of advice -- and he would do it quickly. "One is something I learned about leadership as a college freshman, and the second is about this class and its future."

Kepple, who started his presidential career at Juniata in 1998, recalled his orientation session as a Westminster College freshman and detailed how he opted to play in a freshman-faculty volleyball match. "Things were going well until my elbow hit something solid. It was a nose, and it was bleeding -- badly. The most unfortunate thing about the nose is that it was attached to a faculty member."

"You have had great learning experiences inside and outside the classrooms. You will soon find out that yours and your family's investment in a Juniata education will pay major dividends in your competition with others."

The president recalled that he played the entire match afraid that he'd be kicked out of school before ever attending a single class. "As (the faculty member) approached me after the game, I was worried about what he would say, or perhaps do," Kepple recalled. "He surprised me by apologizing for blaming me for the nose incident. There was no compelling reason for the professor to stay to play the game -- he certainly could have called it a night and went home to nurse a bleeding nose. But he was a leader, he stayed in the game."

Kepple went on describe what he learned about leadership in that fateful volleyball match. "I have (been bloodied), and you will get bloodied in the future at times when you least expect it," he said. "To have a fulfilling life you got to get back in the game. The people around you will respect you for it.

"You are far better prepared for the world ahead than you think," he added. "For the last four years you have been competing and cooperating with each other in the classroom. The faculty and your fellow students have made you work hard (something that does not happen at every college and university), you have had great learning experiences inside and outside the classrooms. You will soon find out that yours and your family's investment in a Juniata education will pay major dividends in your competition with others."

Kepple pointed out he has met 100 years worth of Juniata graduates, starting with 1913 graduate and former Juniata trustee, the late John Baker, who would go on to hold leadership positions at Harvard University and become president of Ohio University, and ending with the class of 2013. He recalled that Baker never expected to become a college president and told the graduates to welcome the unexpected. "Because of what you learned here you have a lifelong advantage in taking on every challenge and opportunity," he said. "There are many graduating around the world this month who took a different route -- a cheap education with little substance and little effort. In the end the world is a complicated place and you can't successfully take it on with a simple education."

Kepple ended his speech by quoting Ernest Boyer, former head of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, who said "The tragedy of life is to die with convictions undeclared, commitments undefined and service unfilled." Kepple added, "Based on my observations of 100 years of Juniata alumni few of them have experienced this tragedy, because they left Juniata ready to do great things. Go out and do well."

The 2013 Senior Class Gift collected more than $34,000 (70 percent of the class contributed to the gift), for a coffee bar to be located in Beeghly Library. In addition the gift will fund an endowment to Theatre 5 in the Clifton 5 movie theatre in downtown Huntingdon.

Kepple came to Juniata in 1998 from Sewanee: The University of the South. He is the founding chair of the Tuition Plan Consortium, a national non-profit organization organized to develop and market the Private College 529 Plan a prepaid tuition plan for private colleges and universities. On May 10, he was named president of the American Academic Leadership Institute, a nonprofit agency specializing in leadership programs for higher education.

He served as the vice chair of former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell's higher education transition team. Kepple is the founding chair of the new Landmark NCAA Division III athletic conference. Other memberships include: New York Times/Chronicle of Higher Education President's Cabinet; NCAA Division III Presidents Advisory Committee; Brethren Colleges Abroad; Princeton Review (Advisory Board); and he chaired the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania. He was awarded the Westminster College Outstanding Alumni Citation in October 2000 and in 2011 was awarded the honorary degree, doctor of humane letters, from Elizabethtown College.

Prior to his presidency, Kepple was vice president for business and community relations at Sewanee: University of the South. He also worked for 13 years at Rhodes College, where he was provost and dean of administrative services. A native of Murrysville, Pa., he earned a bachelor's degree in business and economics from Westminster College, in New Wilmington, Pa. in 1970. He went on to earn a master's degree in business administration and a doctorate in education, both from Syracuse University.

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.