Many young men and women received diplomas Saturday at Canisius College’s commencement, with lots of proud parents in the seats at the Koessler Athletic Center.
There was also one proud and grieving son – a young man who received the diploma for his father, who had been one class away from earning his bachelor of arts degree. The father, Aaron W. Salter Jr., put the degree on hold because of work and family responsibilities.
“Even though you leave the job, the job doesn’t leave you. I know he was thinking about, something was going wrong here. People’s lives were in danger, and he was probably the only person who was in there that could help and save people,” said retired Lt. Steven Malkowski.
And as his son, Aaron W. Salter III, walked to the stage, the graduates, family members and faculty who filled the athletic center rose to their feet with a heartfelt standing ovation of thanks and tribute to a hero.
Salter, 55, was the security guard working at the Tops Markets on Jefferson Avenue on May 14, when a white gunman wearing heavy tactical gear entered the store and killed 10 Black people. Salter fired at the assailant, and at least one of his shots hit the gunman, but he did not fall because of the protective armor.
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But those few seconds of engagement gave others a chance to flee.
Salter, a retired Buffalo police officer, was killed protecting the public he had pledged to serve when he became an officer.
Salter III and John J. Hurley, president of Canisius College, embraced on the stage. Salter also was presented with his father’s ALANA – African American, Latino, Asian, Native American – stole, and his Tri-Alpha First Generation Student Honor Society graduation cord. He was inducted posthumously into the society.
Salter attended Canisius from the fall of 1984 through the fall of 1988, completing the majority of his coursework as a communications studies major. He returned and took four classes in the spring and summer of 2007. That left one three-credit course left to complete his bachelor’s degree.
“His wife, Kimberly, told us that his work and family demand had put this final three credits on hold,” said Sara A. Morris, vice president for academic affairs and master of ceremonies.
A graduate of Hutchinson Technical High School, he also worked as a substitute teacher in Buffalo Public Schools.
Salter’s name also was mentioned at the beginning of the graduation, when Morris read the names of the dead and injured, and held a moment of silence for them.
It was a landmark graduation, the first graduation in two years that was unaltered because of the Covid-19 pandemic. And it was the last graduation for Hurley, who is retiring after 25 years with the college, including the last 12 as president.
He spoke of graduating from the college 44 years ago, of the deaths of more than 1 million in the United States from Covid-19, and of the bravery of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky in leading his country in war. The college gave Zelensky an honorary degree, in absentia, Saturday. And Hurley talked of the massacre of 10 Black people just a few blocks from the campus.
“Graduates, I’m afraid that the stark and painful realities of the world are immediately in front of you,” Hurley said. “When the going gets tough, and believe me, the going has gotten tough, you may be tempted to simply throw up your hands and conclude that the challenges are too great, that there’s little that one person can do to make a difference in this world.”
He said the world desperately needs graduates of Canisius College, a Jesuit institution.
“You graduates have learned how to be critical thinkers, analytical readers, effective writers, persuasive communicators. Your education has taught you to understand morality and athletics and to embrace the search for truth,” he said.
He implored them to listen empathetically to those they encounter.
“But when the time comes, be courageous in defending the truth and right and condemning falsehoods and wrongs. In your careers and in your private lives, do the right thing. Search for God in all things and in all people,” Hurley said.