You have gone the distance — at a distance

President Kent Fuchs draws on the life of alumnus Stephan Mickle and the words of Tom Petty in his commencement speech for 2021 and 2020 master’s and bachelor’s graduates.

Graduates in the Class of 2021 …

It’s a great feeling to celebrate with you here … physically! … in person! … in Exactech Arena.

Every Gator graduate earns their coveted diploma after completing the academic demands of their University of Florida degree. But, Class of 2021, you have done something more. You have gone the distance — at a distance. You have triumphed over a historic challenge. You are the first class to have in-person graduation ceremonies amid this pandemic. I am so happy to see you in all three dimensions. Congratulations!

I’m going to tell you a story of a UF student who came before you. He too faced an incredible challenge, and like you, he triumphed. In fact, he became one of our most remarkable and most historic graduates.

This young man arrived at UF as a sophomore transfer. In classes and on campus, he, too, kept at a distance from everyone, and everyone kept at a distance from him. He was isolated, alone, and felt very badly that he was missing out on college life. 

But unlike this year, when everyone was kept six feet apart, it was only this UF sophomore who was kept at a distance. No one would come near him or even speak to him. This student’s name was Stephan Mickle, and he had transferred from another college as one of the first Black students to enter UF in 1962. 

Fortunately, his family was here in Gainesville, allowing him to live at home and stay fueled up with love and support.

In a UF oral history, he remembered that going home to his family each night allowed him to … and I quote … “revive my spirit … get some words of consolation … and go back out there and deal with that very hostile and frightening environment.”

He relied on his faith and his family for strength. Thank goodness for his parents, Andrew and Katherine.

Thank goodness, graduates, for your family during this pandemic. Your parents, family members and friends who listened to you and who loved you.

Stephan Mickle’s mother, Katherine Mickle, typed out a poem on her mechanical typewriter that her son taped on the wall of his bedroom. The poem was “Invictus” by William Earnest Henley. In his oral history, Stephan Mickle remembered that he read that poem every night before he went to bed and every morning before he walked here to campus.

I want to share the last two lines, which you may know:

 I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

Stephan Mickle said, and again I quote, “I just kept telling myself, ‘I can do it. I am the captain of my own fate.’”

Graduates, you, like Stephan Mickle, are the master of your fate. You are the captain of your soul.

The words of Invictus that Stephan read every morning and evening may have a modern anthem in the song “I Won’t Back Down” penned by someone else who also grew up right here in Gainesville, Tom Petty:

“Well, I won't back down

No, I won't back down

You can stand me up at the gates of hell

But I won't back down

No, I'll stand my ground

Won't be turned around

And I'll keep this world from draggin' me down

Gonna stand my ground

And I won't back down …”

Graduates, the fortitude you’ve had to build to not back down, and to be the captains of your fate, will serve you the rest of your life.

However, I hope you will also walk away from this historic pandemic with something else to hold onto. I hope you will remember that you did not face this struggle alone—and that you need not face future hardships alone.  

Stephan Mickle had his faith and he had his family. Like his mother typing up that poem for her son, your family and friends helped you get through this historic year. They listened to you. They reassured you. They may have even binge-watched Tiger King with you!

Whatever hardships lie ahead, you do not have to face them alone. Not only will you have family and friends there for you, but your university will also be cheering for you. Conversely, when you see others having hardships, I hope you will reach out and be there for them, so they don’t have to get through their hardships alone.

Like Stephan Mickle, all of you have been swept up in a moment of history much larger than yourselves that was hostile to your dreams. Like him, you each found your way through it to complete your degrees and to reach this day.

But, as will be the case with you, Stephan’s graduation was the beginning of a spectacular new chapter of his life. He became the first Black undergraduate to earn a UF degree in 1965. He went on to enroll in UF’s College of Law, where he became the second Black student to earn a Gator law degree, in 1970.

In law school, his experience was different. He formed a study group. He made good friends. He was elected as vice president for his senior class!

He went on to serve as the first Black Alachua County judge, circuit judge and then federal judge. When he died of cancer a few months ago at age 76, our university community joined with many others in celebrating his life at his memorial service in the Phillips Center.

What I love about Judge Mickle’s life is that he never gave up on himself — and he never gave up on UF.

Throughout his life he strengthened his connections with our university, and throughout his life he worked to make UF better and stronger. He taught students for many years in our College of Law. He was a founding member and the first president of the UF Association of Black Alumni, served on the UF Alumni Association Board of Directors and became UF’s first Black alumnus to receive the high honor of a Distinguished Alumnus Award.

By not backing down and by being, in his words, “the captain of my fate,” and aided by his faith and his family, he not only overcame, but he also made everyone and everything around him better and stronger.

Because of the color of his skin, he was an outcast. Because of the content of his character, he became an icon.

Graduates, you are entering a post-pandemic era of breathtaking change, with breathtaking opportunities to become the icons of your own generation.

Yours is a time when the balance of power is shifting from viruses to humans as we learn how to reprogram molecules to develop vaccines in a year.

Yours is a time when outer space will no longer be out of reach for you, and when we are learning to take flight on other planets. Only a few days ago we flew a helicopter on Mars.

Yours is a time when we are learning to address inequities in our communities and nation with a greater focus and fervor than in any recent decade.

I’ve heard 2021 described as the beginning of the 21st century. I think that may be true. Carbonless electricity. Meatless meat. Driverless cars. Stateless cryptocurrency. Whatever your degree or interest, graduates, I’m jealous of you. I’m jealous of all you will do to make this century so much more.

Having just endured a pandemic, we all understand that the arc of progress is jagged, sometimes interrupted by terrible events or human failings. But with your valuable UF degrees -- and your experience relying on yourself and others during COVID – I know you will soar with the highs and stay strong in the lows.

Graduates, you have gone the distance -- at a distance. I can’t wait to see where you go and what you do next.

Wherever and whatever that is, remember what Judge Mickle told himself every day: You are captains of your fate.

Remember what Tom Petty told all of us: You’ll stand your ground.

But also remember that you need others, that others need you, and that you are now part of the Gator Nation that will always support you and cheer you on.

I leave you with an old Irish blessing that expresses my personal affection for each one of you.

May the sun shine gently on your face.

May the rain fall soft upon your fields.

May the wind be at your back.

May the road rise to meet you.

And may the Lord hold you in the hollow of his hand.

Until we meet again.

Congratulations! You are forever more a member of the University of Florida community. It is great to be a Florida Gator!

UF News May 11, 2021