Never mind COVID-19, they marched for graduation anyway
The wrought iron Van Wickle Gates at Brown University, a landmark on Providence's College Hill, open only three times a year, twice inward, at the start of each semester, to welcome new students, and outward once, for a commencement procession, to send fresh graduates out into the world.
The gates, gift of Augustus Stout Van Wickle, Class of 1876, open into the oldest part of the historic campus, the green in front of the impressive 1770 University Hall, which housed French and Colonial troops under the command of Gen. George Washington, before the 14-week march of 1781 that led to the Siege of Yorktown and the Battle of the Chesapeake.
I'm sure there are Brown historians who can say how many times the Van Wickle gates may have failed to open for a graduating class. But I'm sure the fact that they remained shut Sunday, as the university graduation went virtual because of a worldwide pandemic, is one for the books.
It will certainly long be remembered by my in-laws, a family with a robust tradition of their own of sending graduates through the Van Wickle gates.
And since my husband's nephew, John Dimas Costa, couldn't proceed through them Sunday, he and a few fellow members of the Class of 2020 made an alternative stroll down College Street, for some social-distancing gatherings of their noise-making family members, a shadow of the usually long procession of waving graduates, faculty and alumni who pass by cheering crowds.
Both of John's grandfathers, for whom he was named, John Hurley and Dimas Costa, were veterans who attended Brown on the G.I. Bill created at the end of World War II.
John is one of five children, and four of them have now graduated from Brown. The others all proceeded though the Van Wickle gates, as did two uncles, an aunt and a cousin.
Brown has been good to the Costa family with financial aid, but John's parents, Thomas and Margaret Costa of Rumford, R.I., celebrated their own Brown milestone during the pandemic, making their last tuition installment payment in April, the end of a 17-year slog of financial commitments to their children's education.
In April, of course, John was back studying in his childhood bedroom and missing, like college seniors across the world, the chance to finish out his college years in real classrooms, on a campus with his classmates around.
You could sense the bittersweet mood all over College Hill Sunday, where the weather of Memorial Day weekend was as perfect as a Hollywood version of graduation day.
Small groups of friends, many wearing their caps and gowns, gathered, most masked, on blankets across freshly mowed greens and gardens of the campus in full spring bloom, watching the virtual ceremony conferring them degrees unroll online on laptops.
They have all been invited to return next spring and join the Class of 2021 for commencement.
Some, like John Costa and his friends, gathered Sunday for pictures in front of the Van Wickle Gates.
A policeman, sent to make sure crowds did not get out of hand, thanked graduates and their families for taking turns in front of the gates, for spreading out.
The pictures, of course, were meant to remember those graduates' life milestones of finishing a college education.
They will also mark the strange day in Brown University history when the Van Wickle Gates remained shut on graduation day, locked down by the pandemic we will all remember for a long time.
This is the opinion of David Collins
All of our stories about the coronavirus are being provided free of charge as a service to the public. You can find all of our stories here.