A group of students in cap and gown.

Doctor of physical therapy graduates head in to Austin Auditorium for Saturday’s fall commencement.

Wingate University graduates crossed the commencement stage Saturday with thoughts of both success and suffering, as alumnus and trustee Thomas Koontz challenged them to give more to others than they have received.

“You, in time, will see suffering that will stir your heart,” he told the crowd of approximately 200 graduates gathered in Austin Auditorium. “When it happens, don’t turn away from it; turn toward it.”

The former Wingate basketball player, retired vascular surgeon and leader of an outreach project that has given away more than $25 million worth of medical services, Koontz had words of wisdom for those receiving their bachelors’ degrees and the more seasoned graduate students, a third of whom had completed the master of physician assistant studies or the doctor of physical therapy.

A member of Wingate’s Class of 1960, he congratulated students for their individual accomplishments, but urged them to give up their egocentricity and instead become high-impact, team players.

“Since you began this long process to college graduation, you have depended on your individual abilities to study, absorb, and pass the necessary studies to reach the position you are in today,” he said. “However, as you pass through this stage to your individual work portion … the team with which you are employed is more important than your own individual success. The individual who catches on to this concept is the one who will soon be recognized as the leader of the team.”

A Morehead scholar at the University of North Carolina, where he earned his medical degree, Koontz shared what more than three decades in the operating room had taught him about dealing with stress.

Two men and a woman stand in front of a curtain.

Wingate University President Rhett Brown greets Dr. and Mrs. Thomas Koontz prior to fall commencement.

“When things go downhill, involve your team with advice that will benefit your team, not yourself,” he said. “There will be stressful situations, both personally and professionally, that demand rapid and correct decisions. Initially these decisions may seem overpowering, but don’t let the fear of failure immobilize you.”

Koontz urged graduates to open their eyes to what he called a “mountain of increasing urban and rural poverty and crime,” in the United States and to discover what they can do to combat it.

He said selflessness is “crucial for a happy and fulfilling life” and also offered the following words of wisdom:

  • Do no be fearful to take a chance on walking through the door of opportunity.
  • Change is stressful to all, but embrace change and lifelong learning.
  • If you lose, be a gracious loser. It is easy to win, painful to lose, but grace and kindness under losing circumstances will say a lot about your character and maturity.
  • Always show concern and affection for those less gifted than you. Never talk down to a person in a lesser position.
  • Pick out a successful role model you admire and respect; then, emulate how they live their life.

One of those role models, U.S. Congresswoman Alma Adams, was in the commencement audience, having traveled from Washington to show her support for doctor of education graduate Orlice “Lisa” Hodges, whom she has mentored for a number of years.

A woman in a hat greets a woman in cap and gown.

Congresswoman Alma Adams, left, greets doctor of education graduate Orlice “Lisa” Hodges. Adams is Hodges’ mentor.

Wingate University President Rhett Brown recognized Adams for her passionate support for education. Earlier in the commencement ceremony, he presented Koontz with an honorary doctorate of humane letters.

“He is the highest embodiment of the three values that guide our institution — faith, knowledge and service,” Brown said.

Special recognition also went to Lindsey Nicole Herrin, a communication studies major from Albemarle, North Carolina, who earned the H.K. Helms award for achieving the highest scholastic average.

Physical therapy professor G. Stephen Morris, recipient of the 2016 Graduate Faculty Award for Research and Scholarship, gave the invocation; and master of physician assistant studies graduate Zachary Greer offered the benediction.

Saturday marked the university’s second and largest fall graduation. Austin Auditorium was filled to capacity with livestream video offered in McGee Theatre. About 75 percent of those in cap and gown had earned graduate degrees. A third of those crossing the stage studied education.

Dec. 16, 2017