7 Memorable Commencement Addresses

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Complaining about your commencement speaker is a time-honored tradition. This year, students at several institutions have bemoaned their schools' selections, including Harvard (J.K. Rowling), the University of Georgia (Clarence Thomas) and Northwestern Law (Jerry Springer). And it's not just college students. Karl Rove was recently disinvited to speak at Choate—an elite Connecticut boarding school—after students threatened a walkout.

Most speeches end up being conversational tidbits ("So, who was your speaker?") But every once in a while, a commencement address lives on long after graduation in books or email forwards or YouTube clips. Here are seven such examples.

1. Steve Jobs, Stanford University, 2005

"Truth be told, I never graduated from college. This is the closest I've ever gotten to a college graduation."

My sister was a member of Stanford's Class of '05. Jobs' address won her eternal family bragging rights for most memorable graduation. (Soon after, my grandma bought an iMac.) In a speech that's been viewed by almost two million people on YouTube, the Apple co-founder told three inspiring stories about his life. Here's a little Jobsian wisdom:

"You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life. "
* * *
"Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle."
* * *
"Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish."

If you're not among those two million YouTube viewers, here it is:

2. Mumia Abu-Jamal, Evergreen College, 1999

Mumia Abu-Jamal delivered his 13-minute speech via audiotape. He was unable to attend the Washington school in person, for he was on death row in Pennsylvania.

The ceremony's inclusion of Abu-Jamal, who in 1982 was convicted of murdering a police officer after a controversial trial, incited widespread debate. Washington Governor Gary Locke—a former prosecutor—canceled his own scheduled address to show respect for law-enforcement officers, though he commended the students for their "efforts to develop a graduation program that includes a diversity of views." Congressman Tom DeLay called for a moment of silence on the House floor to protest.

In 2001, Abu-Jamal's conviction was upheld, but the death sentence was overturned.

3. Fred Rogers, West Virginia University, 1995

fred-rogers.jpegMr. Rogers was a regular on the graduation circuit. We chose his 1995 address at WVU because it was unlike so many "you can do whatever you want!" pep talks. He illustrated the message "wishing isn't enough" through a story about trying to become a Broadway composer. As a freshman, he landed an interview with a famous songwriter, and was prepared to drop out of school to realize his dream.

"That's not what happened. The famous composer was very welcoming to me. He asked me to play a couple of those original songs for him, and he listened intently while I played them and sang the words as well as I could. When I was finished, he said, 'Very nice, Fred. Now, how many songs have you written?' I told him five, and I had brought them all. Then he said something that has become very important to me. He said, 'I'd like you to come back after you've written a barrel-full, and we'll talk again.'"

Mr. Rogers ended on a high note: "After the initial disappointment, I got to work; and through the years, one by one, I have written a barrel-full of songs...I wished to be a songwriter, and I attached my work to my wish and that wish came true." But at least one student didn't go home happy. "On graduation day, that was the last thing that needed to be said," a WVU grad told USA Today. "I was so shocked and disappointed that it turned what should have been the greatest day of my life into one of the most surreal."

4. Russell Baker, Connecticut College, 1995

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author's address got to the heart of the whole commencement speaker tradition.

"Let's plunge right ahead into the dull part. That's the part where the commencement speaker tells the graduates to go forth into the world, then gives advice on what to do when they get out there. This is a ridiculous waste of time. The graduates never take the advice, as I have learned from long experience. The best advice I can give anybody about going out into the world is this: Don't do it. I have been out there. It is a mess."

Baker went on to list "10 Ways to Avoid Mucking Up the World More Than It Already Is." His advice was wide ranging, from "sleep in the nude" to "if you simply cannot resist being an incompetent klutz, don't boast about it by wearing a t-shirt that says 'underachiever and proud of it.'"

5. Neil Diamond, NYU, 1995

Neil Diamond attended New York University on a fencing scholarship, but didn't graduate. "I dropped out 35 years ago," he said, "and today I told my mom that I was going to receive an honorary degree." Diamond then launched into an extemporaneous rendition of "Louie, Louie." According to The New York Times, the audience cheered and danced. Had YouTube been around in 1995, this is the kind of thing the Neil Diamond-loving public would still be emailing each other.

6. Ali G, Harvard (Class Day), 2004

Ali G was not the commencement speaker in 2004—that honor belonged to Kofi Annan. But Sacha Baron Cohen did address the soon-to-be graduates in full Ali G regalia at the annual Class Day celebration. Class Day, according to the Harvard Gazette, is the "student-focused, less formal celebration of the graduating class of Harvard College." Having two big names like Ali G and the U.N. Secretary-General could have been awkward. "Kofi Annan's speech is pretty much like this," said Ali G. "He's going to have to come up with all new material."

Here's a taste of what 2004 Harvard grads (and their grandparents) were treated to:

7. Mary Schmich, 1997

In 1997, news of Kurt Vonnegut's inspiring M.I.T. commencement speech was buzzing around the Internet. Perhaps this landed in your Prodigy inbox:

Wear sunscreen.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.

Problem is, Kurt Vonnegut did not give a 1997 commencement speech at M.I.T., inspiring or otherwise. In fact, these remarks aren't his at all. No, the widely circulated advice belongs to Mary Schmich, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. It was published in the Tribune on June 1, 1997. Here's how she wrapped it up:

Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth.

But trust me on the sunscreen.

You can read the full text here.

And here are just a few of this year's speakers:
George W. Bush (Air Force Academy & Furman)
Bill Clinton (UCLA)
Al Gore (Carnegie Mellon)
Cal Ripken (Delaware)
Mary Matalin and James Carville (Tulane)
Michael Bloomberg (UPenn & Barnard)
Dave Eggers (Brown)
Bill Nye (Johns Hopkins)
Craig Newmark (Case Western Reserve)
Chris Matthews (Washington U.)
Brian Williams (Ohio State)
Oprah Winfrey (Stanford)

Do you have fond memories of your graduation speaker? Who was it?

Special thanks to researcher Kathleen Pierce (Vassar, '99) for her indispensable assistance. Her commencement speaker was James Earl Jones, who ended his address by saying "May the force be with you." Coming from Darth Vader, this didn't sound right.

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May 16, 2008 - 4:11am
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