Salve Regina's 61st Commencement: Jill Biden Inspiring, William Vareika Honored

Dr. Biden's speech, with Senators Jack Reed, Sheldon

Whitehouse, and Newport Mayor Steve Waluk listening

"It's a very ancient saying
But a true and honest thought,
That if you become a teacher.
By your pupils you'll be taught."

Oscar Hammerstein II, The King and I


The Second Lady of the United States Jill Biden lives this credo, as she related  to the graduates, families and friends of Salve Regina University in Newport, RI., as the 61st commencement speaker.

Salve Regina President Jane Gerety, RSM, conferred 678 degrees on Sunday, May 15, when the university celebrates its 61st commencement on the Oceanside lawn of McAuley Hall. The academic procession included Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Senator Jack Reed, and Congressman David Cicilline.

Dr. Jill Biden

Jill Biden, a 30-year educator and longtime community advocate, presented the commencement address and was awarded an honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters. Also receiving an honorary degree was William Michael Vareika, longtime Newport art gallery owner, preservationist and philanthropist.

Sister Jane conferred 678 degrees on Sunday, including 441 baccalaureate degrees, 212 master’s degrees, 18 certificates of advanced graduate studies and seven doctorates.

Dr. Jill Biden and her family are close personal friends of Salve Regina University Trustee Nuala Pell and her family, who introduced the second lady of the U.S. Nuala is the wife of the late Senator  Claiborne Pell, who served 36 years in the U.S. Senate. Sen. Pell’s legacy is honored at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, which was established at Salve Regina University by an Act of Congress in September 1996.

Families spilled out onto the lawn

The wife of Vice President Joe Biden, Jill Biden

has focused her efforts on highlighting the importance of community colleges, raising awareness about the sacrifices made by military families and bringing attention to women’s health issues – including breast cancer. Mrs. Pell conferred an honorary Doctorate on Mrs. Biden, who continues to teach English full-time at a community college not far from the White House in northern Virginia.


Families of the graduates spilled outside the massive tent, listening attentively to a welcome by Chancellor M. Therese Antone, and Mr. diStefano. Mayor Steve Waluk spoke a welcome, and congratulations from the City of Newport.

The Salve Regina Band warming up

President Obama
has asked Mrs. Biden to help promote community colleges around the country and she works consistently on this outreach on behalf of the Administration. In October 2010, she hosted the first ever White House Summit on Community Colleges.

As a military mom, she understands first-hand how difficult it can be to have a loved one deployed overseas. She travels regularly to military bases in both the United States and abroad to speak with soldiers and their families, and to raise awareness for the special sacrifices that these Americans make.

Mrs. Biden and First Lady Michelle Obama last week launched “Joining Forces,” a comprehensive national initiative to mobilize all sectors of society to give our service members and their families the opportunities and support they have earned. Biden has issued a national challenge to all Americans to take action and find ways to support and engage our military families in their own communities. Biden asks folks she meets to visit the web site and share their stories about how they’re supporting those who serve us every day.

William Michael Vareika

Biden has also been active with a nonprofit organization called "Delaware Boots on the Ground," which is dedicated to helping families during times of military deployment by organizing community events to raise awareness and support.

Prior to moving to Washington, D.C., Biden taught English at a community college in Delaware, at a public high school and at a psychiatric hospital for adolescents.

In 1993, after four of her friends were diagnosed with breast cancer, Biden started the Biden Breast Health Initiative in Delaware, which in the past 17 years has educated more than 10,000 high school girls about the importance of early detection of breast cancer. For the past two years, she and her husband have served as the Honorary Co-Chairs for the Global Race for the Cure in Washington, D.C.

Making sure the flowers were perfect

She also founded Book Buddies in 2007. This is a program encouraging reading among children from low-income families. She has also been involved with a number of Jewish affiliated organizations in aspects of education and writing.

In her speech, she received loud cheers from the crowd when she called out a few of Salve’s most inspiring graduates: Courtney Richards, cadet company commander and one of three ROTC graduates; Kelsey Fitzgibbons, Evan Gallo and Megan Welsh, who raised $21,000 to rebuild a primary school in Haiti; and Dan Royce, a basketball player who worked multiple jobs to pay for his education and still found time to volunteer for the Special Olympics.

“And I am proud to say that Dan is a future teacher,” Biden added, although
“I have no doubt each of you has the power to inspire a future generation of business leaders, artists, statesmen and scientists. You can change lives doing many things. You have that potential, each and every one of you, doing whatever it is you do best.”

Mrs. Biden's assistant Evan Schlom checked security

Honorary Degree recipient William Vareika owns one of the largest art galleries in New England, William Vareika Fine Arts, Ltd on Newport's Bellevue Avenue. His gallery includes the renowned Newport Gallery of American Art and Newport Gallery of World Art., specializing in the purchase and sale of important 18th, 19th and 20th century works of art.

For more than 20 years, Vareika has used his gallery to raise public awareness about a variety of charitable causes and to donate over $1 million to support these non-profit organizations. Honored as a “Partner in Philanthropy” by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Vareika has donated dozens of artworks to museums and other charitable organizations.

He was instrumental in acquiring 13 of John La Farge’s stained-glass windows (circa 1890) that were restored and installed in Salve Regina’s recently constructed Our Lady of Mercy Chapel. He has also frequently donated artwork for Salve Regina’s corporate golf tournaments and given financial support for the award-winning restoration of Ochre Court, which serves as the university’s main administration building.


The graduates filing in, to "Pomp & Circumstance"

In addition, he established the William Vareika Fine Arts Ltd Award for Arts and Public Policy, which is presented annually to a graduating senior who demonstrates an appreciation or talent for art as well as a social conscience.

Other local organizations to benefit from Vareika’s charitable giving over the years include Save the Bay, Newport Art Museum, the Aquidneck Land Trust and the Potter League for Animals, among others.


As the elated graduates were handed their degrees after the moving ceremony, families rushed to congratulate them among tears and smiles.

The processional

The footwear choices were interesting

A professor looks serious

Special honors recipients


The trustees' robes reminded of "Two Gentlemen of Verona"


Michael Semenza waiting to proceed


Senators Jack Reed & Sheldon Whitehouse


The stage filled


Watching the degree candidates' progress


Sheldon Whitehouse speaking


Sister Jane reads the invocation



Mayor Waluk welcomes guests and families


Awarding the honorary degree to William Vareika



Sister Therese Antone, Dean de la Motte, Michael Semenza

and Dr. DiStefano  listen intently


Inspiring the audience, heralding education


Sister Jane Gerety and Sister Therese Antone


The first graduate shouts for joy


Buying roses for a graduating daughter


The Our Lady of Mercy Chapel on the campus


A detail of the restored John LaFarge windows


No room in the graduation tent!


The capacious tent overlooking the ocean












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