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D.C. baseball legend Ryan Zimmerman to deliver keynote Valedictory address

The World Series champion and Virginia baseball alumnus will speak at Valedictory Exercises May 17

<p>In addition to being the second player in University program history to have his jersey number <a href=""><u>retired</u></a>, Zimmerman has also had his number retired by the Nationals.</p>

In addition to being the second player in University program history to have his jersey number retired, Zimmerman has also had his number retired by the Nationals.

Ryan Zimmerman, decorated University baseball alumnus and Washington Nationals legend, will speak to the Class of 2024 during Valedictory Exercises — an event open to all graduating students that involves speeches from a valedictory speaker, the University President and the Class’s president and vice president, as well as the presentation of class awards — at John Paul Jones Arena at 3:30 p.m. Friday. Other speakers for the weekend include Psychology Prof. Daniel Willingham and Law School Dean Risa Goluboff, who will speak to graduates at commencement events Saturday and Sunday respectively.

Zimmerman’s baseball career has been centered around two cities, Charlottesville and Washington, D.C. After a successful career with the University’s baseball team, he was selected fourth overall in the 2005 MLB Draft by the Washington Nationals — becoming the franchise’s first ever draft pick from the amateur player draft for Major League Baseball organizations — and played with the team until his 2021 retirement. Famously nicknamed “Mr. National” for his many contributions to the Washington, D.C. franchise, Zimmerman is considered one of the most successful alumni in Virginia baseball history. He has also raised over $3 million dollars to support finding a cure for Multiple Sclerosis.

Lela Trainer, Washington, D.C. native and fourth-year College student, said that she is excited to have Zimmerman speak at her graduation ceremony as a representative of excellence for both Virginia athletics and the greater Washington, D.C. area. 

“Having him as my valedictory speaker feels like the perfect culmination to my U.Va. experience as a D.C. resident,” Trainer said. “As a born and raised Washingtionian and the daughter of two U.Va. alums — one of whom is also a lifelong D.C. resident — D.C. and Charlottesville have always been the two places I could call home.”

In addition to being the second player in University program history to have his jersey number retired, Zimmerman has also had his number retired by the Nationals — where he was not only the first player to receive that honor, but also the franchise’s all-time leader in hits, home runs and games played. He still often spends time over the course of the college baseball season at Disharoon Park in Charlottesville, where fans can see his No.11 on a plaque adorned on the concourse walls — a reminder of the winning legacy he left behind. 

Fourth-year College student Kathleen McNerney said she was also excited to have Zimmerman speak at Valedictory Exercises. As a Northern Virginia native, McNerney agreed that Zimmerman’s impact in Washington, D.C. and its surrounding areas makes his Valedictory speech even more special for her.

“As somebody from Northern Virginia, it is cool to have someone who is so important to the greater DMV area and U.Va. and began his career at the University be the speaker,” McNerney said. “I think it is amazing to be proud of where you started, it is very inspirational.”

Though not a baseball fan herself, fourth-year College student Lauren Swain said that she still appreciates the fact that the speaker at Valedictory Exercises is an alumnus. 

“I appreciate that the University has notable alumni coming to speak, [Zimmerman] means a lot to a lot of people,” Swain said. “I can say that even though I do not really watch a lot of baseball … having a famous person speak here who actually went here makes Final Exercises even more special. It feels personal, and I like that he has continued to stay involved with this wonderful place we call home.”

Planning for Valedictory speakers and coordinating graduation programming is a long process, and the University announced the speakers for this year’s final exercises in April. 

According to University Deputy Spokesperson Bethanie Glover, speakers for Valedictory Exercises are selected by the Fourth Year Trustees — a group of fourth-year students tasked with organizing events for their class. Conversely, speakers for the commencement events for specific schools Saturday and Sunday are selected by the Committee on Public Occasions, which is composed of student leaders, faculty and staff. According to Glover, those speakers are generally esteemed and respected faculty or staff members. 

The University is no stranger to having athletes as keynote speakers at Valedictory exercises. Football players Peyton Manning and Chris Long delivered remarks at graduation in 2014 and 2018 respectively, and University basketball legend Ralph Sampson spoke in 2022. According to Kyle Woodson, fourth-year class president and Commerce student, the University does not traditionally pay keynote Valedictory speakers, nor does it offer honorary degrees. Instead, speakers are often alumni and are given smaller gifts including flowers or Jefferson cups. 

The Trustees have a unique task of coordinating several events during final exercises, including the keynote Valedictory speaker, while also being graduates themselves. Kyle Hudgins, Fourth Year Trustees marketing chair and fourth-year Commerce student, said that part of what made planning Valedictory Exercises important to him is that a lot of his classmates did not get a proper high school graduation, as many of them graduated high school in 2020 during the pandemic.

“We want to make sure that everyone is having as great of a time as possible,” Hudgins said. “And that they’re able to attend everything they want to and get that full graduation experience and really feel special, especially when a lot of them didn’t get to have that experience in high school.”

The Valedictory speech is just one part of the three-day graduation program — and Friday’s schedule also includes a class party with food, merchandise and other activities, according to Woodson. Glover said safety measures for events throughout the weekend will be similar to major sporting events, including entrance screening, clear bag policies, metal detectors and designated demonstration areas. The livestream for Final Exercises can be found here


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