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Griz Nation Holds First Fall CommencementMore Than 150 Graduates Participate in Event
By Cary Shimek
For the first time in its 125 year history, the University of Montana offered a Fall Commencement Ceremony for graduates who complete their degrees midyear. Nearly 800 students finished their degrees after fall semester, and 157 of those participated in the new event at a packed Dennison Theatre.
The featured speaker was Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, who holds three degrees from UM: geology (1981), law (1987) and a Master of Public Administration (2018).
Fox congratulated the new graduates for not taking 34 years to finish their degrees, which is how long it took him to earn his last one. And the final push wasn’t easy.
It happened like this: When meeting President Seth Bodnar for the first time, Fox admitted he had nearly completed his MPA decades ago and that it “was one of my great regrets to have started something and not finished it.”
Bodnar encouraged the working attorney general to finish up by taking courses online. Fox was connected with Sara Rinfret, the MPA program director, and was excited to get started. Then a month later, he was diagnosed with colon cancer.
He called Rinfret to let her know he couldn’t enroll and that his goal had receded again.
“She basically told me that I could do this, that I should stay on course and that she and my university would support me along the way,” Fox says. “And thank you Dr. Rinfret for your encouragement and solid support. And I know what our faculty does, they do it from the heart. They have done it for all three of my degrees.”
He completed much of the research for his thesis after cancer surgery, but then came chemotherapy, and horribly sickness put him in the hospital for a week. He had done lot of reading and writing for his degree while hooked up to IVs and between chemo sessions, but again he was ready to quit. He called Rinfret again.
“Two things were very clear after our conversation,” Fox says. “First, Dr. Rinfret genuinely cared about me. And second, quitting was not an option.
“You know, Albert Einstein once said, ‘In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.’ But sometimes it takes an encourager to help see that opportunity. So this summer after 34 years, I finished my MPA, defended my thesis and received my diploma. And the most encouraging news is that the doctors now tell me there is no sign of cancer.”
Encouragement was a major theme of Fox’s speech. He says he tries to engage in acts of encouragement each day, and he invited the graduates and their families to make it their mission to make others feel better about themselves, inspire others, persevere and recognize good work, dedication and accomplishments.
Fox is a Republican, and he was joined on stage by Jon Tester, a Democrat and Montana’s senior U.S. senator. Tester presented his top 10 life lessons learned as a farmer. When he reached No. 1, he held up his left hand with its missing fingers and deadpanned, “Never mess around with power equipment.”
Both politicians mentioned how well they have worked together, and Bodnar praised them for that: “It makes me feel incredibly grateful that we have leaders who exemplify through their actions the importance in engaging in an exchange of ideas – not necessarily always agreeing – but always treating each other with respect and dignity and working for the betterment for all Montanans.
“And I want to thank both of these individuals for being here today and for your example to all of us.”