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Graduating seniors


The sweep of black robes, the joyous flinging of flat-top caps - Celonia B. Walden and Leola M. Dorsey see the old tradition replayed year after year from seats at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

When they stepped down from Howard Community College's board of trustees in the 1980s, their duty to attend commencement ended. But they kept coming back.

Tomorrow, when the two appear at graduation as always, they will cross the stage themselves in black gowns and tasseled caps to pick up the first honorary degrees awarded by HCC.

"I can't figure out why," said Walden with a laugh. "For attendance?"

HCC administrators admit to being impressed that the Howard County residents show up every spring, but officials said it's just one example of the women's commitment to education.

Together, they helped set the college's course for half of its 30-year history, overseeing construction, spiraling enrollment and an evolving curriculum.

Walden, a Columbia resident who served on the board from 1977 to 1988, started HCC's educational foundation so students could vie for scholarships. Dorsey, a lifelong resident of Guilford who was a trustee from 1973 to 1987, was an outspoken advocate of the community college, urging everyone to sign up for classes.

They watched the commencement move from Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, in the days when no place on the tiny campus would do, to the college gym to Merriweather. Dorsey hasn't missed a single one.

"That astonished me," said HCC President Mary Ellen Duncan.

Graduation ceremonies all tend to look the same - Dorsey can't think of too many differences in HCC's over the years - which might explain why they're not viewed as prime entertainment. Even some graduating students skip the experience.

It might seem inexplicable that two people with no obligations to watch the familiar pomp and circumstance would return each spring.

But Walden and Dorsey know the value of graduation.

Both African-Americans, they were born before Brown vs. Board of Education, when a black child could not assume that he or she would march past a cheering audience in cap and gown. Walden attended segregated schools in Washington. Dorsey's mother sent her out of town for junior high and high school because Howard County had nothing for African-American children past seventh grade until 1935.

Walden is energized, not bored, by her yearly trek to the pavilion.

"It takes me back to the years when I was involved in education," said Walden, a teacher for 30 years. "And I'm just so proud to see the students walking across the stage, getting their diplomas."

The two women usually arrive together each May - Walden drives - and they sit in seats saved for them, right in the middle so they can see all the students.

"They are so much a part of the history of this college," Duncan said, "and it seemed appropriate in the 30th year to honor them."

The two will receive honorary associate of arts degrees.

Walden, 78, has graduated often: She earned a master's degree in education from Howard University.

But Dorsey, 83, moved into a job and civil-rights activism after a few years as a student at Lakeland Senior High School in College Park. Tomorrow, she said, will be a moment to savor.

Because tomorrow will be the first time she graduates, after three decades of applauding others for their achievements.

"How about that," she said, chuckling.

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