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Pence's Grove City commencement appearance cheered, protested

Tom Fontaine
| Saturday, May 20, 2017, 2:18 p.m.
Vice President Mike Pence receives an honorary degree from Grove City College at its commencement ceremony in Grove City, Saturday, May 20, 2017.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Vice President Mike Pence receives an honorary degree from Grove City College at its commencement ceremony in Grove City, Saturday, May 20, 2017.
Stacey Steele, 79, of Slippery Rock, holds protest sign on a Grove City street while Vice President Mike Pence speaks at Grove City College's commencement not within sight or earshot on Saturday, May 20, 2017.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Stacey Steele, 79, of Slippery Rock, holds protest sign on a Grove City street while Vice President Mike Pence speaks at Grove City College's commencement not within sight or earshot on Saturday, May 20, 2017.
Vice President Mike Pence gives the thumbs-up to the crowd at Grove City College's commencement ceremony in Grove City, Saturday, May 20, 2017.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Vice President Mike Pence gives the thumbs-up to the crowd at Grove City College's commencement ceremony in Grove City, Saturday, May 20, 2017.
Vice President Mike Pence shakes hands with graduates at Grove City College's commencement ceremony in Grove City, Saturday, May 20, 2017.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Vice President Mike Pence shakes hands with graduates at Grove City College's commencement ceremony in Grove City, Saturday, May 20, 2017.
Carla Haas, of Akron, Ohio, holds a protest sign on the Grove City street while Vice President Mike Pence speaks at Grove City College's commencement ceremony, which was not within sight or earshot of the protesters on Saturday, May 20, 2017.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Carla Haas, of Akron, Ohio, holds a protest sign on the Grove City street while Vice President Mike Pence speaks at Grove City College's commencement ceremony, which was not within sight or earshot of the protesters on Saturday, May 20, 2017.
Vice President Mike Pence shakes hands with graduates at Grove City College's commencement ceremony in Grove City, Saturday, May 20, 2017.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Vice President Mike Pence shakes hands with graduates at Grove City College's commencement ceremony in Grove City, Saturday, May 20, 2017.

Vice President Mike Pence told Grove City College's 606 graduates Saturday that they have a responsibility to become leaders when they leave the conservative Christian school.

Criticism will come with the territory, he said.

“You hold within you all that you need to leave this place and lead with courage. And if you aspire to lead, you will need courage, because leadership brings both honor and criticism,” Pence said during his 10-minute commencement speech.

Grove City's selection of Pence as commencement speaker was met with criticism from some students and alumni. Some argued that Pence's politics don't always line up with Christian teachings, while others complained that the college has become too aligned with Republicans.

Before Pence, recent commencement speakers included prominent Republicans such as former first lady Laura Bush, former U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, and former presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Dr. Ben Carson, but no Democrats.

More than 200 people attended an off-campus protest march during the commencement.

“I think it's vitally important to come out and support people in rural Western Pennsylvania who have come out to have their voices heard,” said protester Cheryl Lessin of Cleveland.

The protesters couldn't be seen or heard from the commencement ceremony in the college's Quad.

Pence received a standing ovation from the crowd of about 4,500 people when he was introduced.

None of the graduates walked out or made any other public displays of protest when Pence was introduced, during his speech or when he received an honorary degree.

Jonathan Powers, 22, a Mars native who earned a communications degree, said a small number of students declined to shake Pence's hand after receiving their diplomas.

Powers wasn't one of them.

“He's my favorite in the current administration,” Powers said.

Some students at the University of Notre Dame, where Pence is scheduled to deliver a commencement speech Sunday, have vowed to walk out when Pence is presented with an honorary degree there.

Pence — who often describes himself as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order” — mentioned President Trump briefly during his speech.

After saying that his boss has been working to rebuild the military, improve public safety and spur economic growth by rolling back regulations, Pence drew applause when he said that Trump “stands without apology for the sanctity of life” — referring to his stance on abortion.

“I'm glad it didn't get too overly politicized,” said Greg Sigler, 22, an Elizabeth-Forward High School graduate who earned an accounting degree. “Everything was handled very well. The day went off without a hitch.”

Life won't always be that way, Pence told the graduates. He noted that it took him three tries to win a race for Congress in his home state of Indiana.

“Nothing worth doing ever came easy,” Pence said. “Persistence is the key. Never quit on your dreams.”

Pence said the foundation laid at Grove City should bode well for the graduates.

He described the school, one of the nation's few that does not accept federal funding, as “an institution of principle and independence.”

“You have received an education not just in facts and figures,” Pence said, “but in principled leadership grounded in faith and freedom.”

Tom Fontaine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847, tfontaine@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @FontainePGH.

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