LATROBE, Pa. - Debate might be raging in Washington over whether the Iraq war should end. But Capitol Hill has nothing on tiny St. Vincent College, where President Bush gave the commencement address yesterday amid protests and controversy.
The normally tranquil campus in the lush hills of Western Pennsylvania has been riveted by a lively discussion over whether the choice of Bush as graduation speaker was appropriate in light of the school's peaceful Benedictine traditions and the president's policy in Iraq.
Bush was welcomed warmly, with cheers and applause filling the school gymnasium. School officials said there had never been as large a participation rate in a graduation ceremony. And the president didn't discuss the war in his remarks.
"Thanks for inviting me. I am honored," Bush said, his normal greeting taking on extra meaning.
But the passions over the four-year-old Iraq war that the president's visit ignited were never absent, reflecting the debate now taking place in the nation's capital and around the country.
Ronny Menzie chose to join a protest on the road to the college rather than stand with graduates.
"I didn't finish my thesis, because I didn't want my graduation with him," said Menzie, 35, a philosophy major. "I think it's a blight, an embarrassment on a Catholic college."
The invitation to Bush came from a former top adviser, H. James Towey, who ran the White House's Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives until he became the school's president nine months ago.
Supporters said it was an honor for the rural school of 1,800 and an unforgettable experience for graduates.
Towey has said he knew the invitation would draw protests but defended it as a memorable experience for students.
For his part, Bush focused on the importance of service. He encouraged graduates to consider careers in teaching or the military, and to make volunteering a regular part of their lives regardless.
"Today I ask you to make service more than a line on your resume," he told the 300 graduates, surrounded by about 1,600 family, friends and teachers. "Find a need that's not being met. Do your part to fill it and make a difference to our country."