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From the archives: George H.W. Bush calls on graduates of Cheltenham High School’s Class of 1989 to join ‘crusade’

During the first year of his presidency, George H.W. Bush addressed graduates of Cheltenham High School.

The Philadelphia Inquirer published on June 20, 1989
The Philadelphia Inquirer published on June 20, 1989Read morePhiladelphia Inquirer

This story originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on June 20, 1989.

Appealing to the high ideals of self-sacrifice and compassion, President Bush last night urged the Cheltenham High School graduating class to end an era of greed.

In a sweltering auditorium full of proud parents and awestruck high school students, Bush spoke for 15 minutes of the heroism of the Chinese students killed in Tiananmen Square and the unprecedented elections in Poland earlier this month, and he asked the new graduates to take risks in pursuit of noble causes.

To win the fight for justice and equality “will require you, you and you, enlisting in our crusade,” he said, pointing to a few startled students seated on the platforms beside the stage.

Earlier, the arrival of five Marine Corps helicopters on the freshly cut lawns outside the playing fields went largely unnoticed by the crowd in the auditorium, which was concentrating on the procession of graduates in brilliant yellow and blue satin gowns.

The announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States,” at 7:50 p.m. electrified the crowd, which responded with applause and a prolonged standing ovation. Bush appeared from under the school banners at the back of the gymnasium and stepped onto the speakers' platform.

He immediately pulled off his black mortarboard and stood at attention for the drum roll and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” after which he applauded the band. He then turned to James Bell, president of the school board, and raised his fists in a display of school spirit.

A vocal ensemble sang excerpts from the musical Les Miserables, with a phrase, “Will you join in our crusade?” that would later be echoed in Bush 's speech.

The podium blocked the President’s view of the chorus, and he tried several times to peer around it, eventually giving up and just listening.

The electric fans buzzing all along the walls failed to relieve the heat, which was particularly intense on the platform, where television lights added to the discomfort. Throughout the ceremonies, Bush reached into his black robes to find a handkerchief to wipe his forehead.

He was introduced by one of the school’s three valedictorians, Hang Nguyen, who expressed a popular sentiment in saying that although the ceremony was like thousands of others around the country, it was unique because of all the individuals in the class.

Unique, too, she said, because the President had shown up.

“I’m enjoying my first visit here,” Bush said. And he seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself throughout the hour and 10 minutes.

Bush managed a comment to all of the 321 graduating seniors, shook their hands, patted them on the backs, and after one student - Susan Elizabeth McCartney - gave him a bold kiss on the cheek, he took the initiative to kiss at least a dozen other graduates.

Bush projected the same relaxed fatherly attitude in his address, in which he brought the idealism theme to the back yard of this Philadelphia suburban community.

The fight for liberty and human dignity, he said, "will demand the little- noted deeds that make headlines not in the national magazines, but in the local weekly. "

Bush selected Cheltenham High School, a community of mixed ethnicities and economic groups, to deliver his first high school graduation speech as President. The school has a distinguished academic record, with a dropout rate of less than 1 percent. A majority of its students seek higher education.

The President’s emphasis on volunteerism was considered by many of the students as preaching to the converted. Bush named four students who perform volunteer work at a nursing home, a rehabilitation center, a hospital and the American Cancer Society.

To encourage this kind of volunteerism, Bush said that later this week he would announce a new program with the acronym YES, Youth Entering Service. A White House ceremony is scheduled for tomorrow to announce the program, which would require congressional allocation of $25 million a year for four years into a foundation to provide matching grants for community service projects.

Some of the students said that they did not agree with Bush 's political views, but that the moment would nevertheless go down in their personal history as totally unforgettable.

Among the parents, too, were those who do not support Bush 's policies but appreciated how their children’s moments shined more brightly in the reflection of presidential glory. “I find his words encouraging. Whether it turns into reality for Americans who find the American dream (to be) the Impossible Dream is the real question,” said Ervin Jones, whose daughter, Marcia Denise, graduated yesterday. "But it’s historically important for the kids. "

Jones sat in the far left side of the gym about 10 rows back. The seats in the front row - dead center in front of the podium - were taken up by members of the school faculty, school board and state Rep. Jon D. Fox (R., Montgomery), who was a graduate of Cheltenham High School 24 years ago. Larry Cook got a hot seat, too. The high school junior said he had bought a scalped ticket from a friend for $15.

Fox said he couldn’t recall who had spoken at his graduation. Cook said he was hoping that next year, when it is his turn, Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev would show up.