By Thomas A. Parmalee
Scores of people turned out to Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 8, 2023, to celebrate the class of 2023 at the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science’s 167th commencement exercise.
FuneralVision.com had a front-row seat as I was invited to deliver the commencement address for the students and their family and friends.
Barry Lease, president and CEO of PIMS, who I wrote a profile about earlier this year, led the festivities in his academic regalia, leading graduates in a march through the beautiful church before they took their places in the front pews. He broke off to take the stage with faculty and special guests.
The church, by the way, really is beautiful: You can see what I mean in this photo gallery of the event I posted on the FuneralVision.com Facebook page.
Before my address, Lease, who earned a Doctor of Education degree from Walden University, paid tribute to his predecessor, Eugene Ogrodnik, who led the school for many years before retiring in April. He now serves the institution as president emeritus and remains dedicated to its mission and its students.
Later during the ceremony, James O. Pinkerton, chairman of the board for PIMS, read a resolution honoring Ogrodnik, who then delivered some remarks to the crowd. While he noted that he promised himself he was not going to shed a tear, everyone could detect the hint of a crack in his voice. He was humbled, but he took a moment to remind everyone that the day was not about him – it was about the graduates of PIMS.
Nicholas A. Ricci, a faculty member, delivered the funeral service oath, with graduates repeating after him:
I do solemnly swear by that which I hold most sacred;
That I shall be loyal to the funeral service profession,
And just and generous to its members.
That I shall lead my life and practice my art in uprightness and honor;
That into whatsoever house I shall enter,
It shall be for the benefit and comfort of those bereaved;
That I shall not let the constant relationships and familiarity with death give me cause to yield to
Carelessness or to violate any obligation to society or to the dignity of my profession.
That I shall abstain from every voluntary act of misconduct and corruption;
That I shall obey the Civil Laws;
That I shall not divulge professional confidences;
And that I shall be faithful to those who have placed their trust in me.
While I continue to keep this oath unviolated, may it be granted to me to enjoy honor in my life.
And in my profession, and may I be respected by all people for all time.
Before the graduates took the oath, however, I had the chance to deliver the commencement address, which I titled “Recognizing the Crossroads.” In it, I did my best to highlight what I feel is most important in funeral service – honoring the dead and serving the living – and my belief that telling good stories and zeroing in on the connections between the deceased and their loved ones is really what should drive this profession above everything else.
Having had the pleasure of having gotten to know both Ogrodnik and Lease over the years, I did my best to highlight how they exemplify the ideals of PIMS.
I shared one of the first things Lease told me about Ogrodnik – that he is always so willing to help out and provide guidance as needed.
“He’s a PIMS guy,” he said. “And that’s what PIMS guys do.”
I urged all the graduates to be PIMS guys and gals.
If you want to hear more, you can read my entire speech.
While I do hope that my speech gave everyone to think about, no one could possibly top the performance of one of PIMS graduates toward the end of the ceremony: Madeline Christine Rothrock delivered a fantastic performance of “America the Beautiful.”
It was so great that everyone that was supposed to be singing along with her pretty much held their mouth agape, stayed silent, and just watched her crush it.
I was also so impressed with all the awards PIMS and suppliers to the profession bestowed upon graduates: gift certificates for embalming supplies, plaques and outright cash to help them get started in life as they dedicate themselves to the profession. Some folks I knew flew in from thousands of miles away to help celebrate the students and recognize their hard work. I’m going to remember that … and I know those graduates will remember who those people are and the companies they represent.
Later, I had the chance to attend a retirement celebration for Ogrodnik, where I had the great pleasure of connecting with PIMS staff and watching a wonderful video of various leaders in the mortuary education community and death-care profession pay tribute to Ogrodnik.
Come to think of it, the entire after-party really told Ogrodnik’s story a heck of a lot better than many funerals I’ve been to that were supposed to have honored the deceased … but fell short. Ogrodnik still has a lot of life left in him, but I left there thinking that he probably realizes how much his dedication to PIMS is appreciated – and I also was left thinking how much greater life would be if we took a few moments out of our day to say “thank you” to those who’ve helped us along our way or who’ve made a difference in our lives.
With that, it’s fitting that I end this by saying “thank you” to Gene Ogrodnik for his friendship and all the insights he’s shared with me over the years, along with one of my newer friends, Barry Lease, who totally surprised me when he asked me to deliver the commencement address for the PIMS graduates. Doing so was an honor and a privilege.
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