Cherokee beloved man honored at WCU graduation

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Recognition of undergraduate students with perfect GPAs for their college careers, the awarding of an honorary doctorate to a revered Cherokee elder, and an address by one of the University of North Carolina system’s top teachers were among the highlights from a trio of spring commencement ceremonies held at Western Carolina University.

Commencement for graduate students was held the evening of Friday, May 5. The following day included a morning ceremony for undergraduate students from the colleges of Arts and Sciences, Education and Allied Professions, and Fine and Performing Arts, and an afternoon commencement for undergraduates from the colleges of Business, Health and Human Sciences, and Engineering and Technology. WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher presided over the three events.

A total of about 1,400 graduating students participated in the ceremonies. They are part of a spring class expected to exceed 1,500 graduates, which would be WCU’s sixth-straight record spring class. 

The Saturday morning commencement included the awarding of an honorary doctorate of humane letters to Jeremiah “Jerry” Wolfe, an elder of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and U.S. Navy veteran of World War II.

Wolfe taught young men and women at the Oconaluftee Job Corps in Cherokee for more than 20 years, and since 1997 has worked in outreach and education at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, where he has shared his extensive knowledge of tribal history and culture with thousands of visitors. Over the years, he also has presented programs on those topics across the state and Southeast and has been interviewed and featured in many publications and video productions.

While presenting the honorary doctorate to Wolfe, Belcher read from the degree citation and called Wolfe a “cherished living repository” of his tribe’s wisdom and said his efforts have enriched the cultural landscape of Western North Carolina, the state and nation.

“Jeremiah ‘Jerry’ Wolfe, you have served with exemplary distinction and dedication throughout your life as a member of your community and as a conservator and icon of Cherokee language and culture,” Belcher read. “You have been a tradition-bearer for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, preserving and teaching the Cherokee language, stickball traditions, knowledge of plants and traditional medicine, myths and legends, and oral history. In 2013, in recognition of your tremendous knowledge and service to your people, the Tribal Council of the Eastern Band bestowed upon you the title of ‘Beloved Man.’ You are the first Cherokee man to be honored with that distinction in more than 200 years.”

After he accepted the honorary degree, Wolfe invited the Ramsey Center audience to join him in singing the hymn “Amazing Grace” as he sang it in the Cherokee language.

“Thank you very much for this wonderful recognition,” he said. “I am honored as a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokees to receive it. I am proud to be included with all of the students that are receiving their degrees here today.”

A complete list of new WCU graduates will be announced following the posting of grades from final examinations.

Smoky Mountain Times

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