After you/your legal guardians/the government drop a couple hundred thousand dollars on that studio art degree with concentrations in gender studies and business, the least a college can do is send you off with an uplifting celebrity graduation speaker. Right?
Alas, for every Oprah or Conan there’s a J. Harvie Wilkinson III, Fourth Circuit Judge and author of Harry Byrd and the Changing Face of Virginia Politics. Usually the bigger the name, the better, but what matters most is having someone who can enrapture a crowd of a thousand-odd parents, grandparents, kicky siblings, and sweaty grads being held hostage in polyester gowns. Here are eight whose directives for a meaningful post-college life at least kept their audiences listening, whether in shock or false excitement about giving up three-hour discussions on Wittgenstein and endless nap breaks for a dank office cubicle in a midsize city.
Barbara Bush (Sr.), Wellesley College, 1990
Many Wellesley women cried “feminism” when the country’s most famous wife was invited to speak at the school, leading George H.W. to publicly come to Babs’s defense in a fit of uncommon chivalry—he kidded that he could not argue with students that most of his wife’s successes were a product of their union. Still, the fairer Bush showed her face at the graduation, humbly acknowledging that she was not the students’ first choice. “Now I know your first choice for today was Alice Walker, known for The Color Purple,” she said. “Instead you got me, known for… the color of my hair!” Her wide-ranging speech also paraphrased from the canon of John Hughes:
One of the reasons I made the most important decision of my life… to marry George Bush… is because he made me laugh. It’s true, sometimes we’ve laughed through our tears… but that shared laughter has been one of our strongest bonds. Find the joy in life, because as Ferris Bueller said on his day off… “Life moves pretty fast. Ya don’t stop and look around once in a while, ya gonna miss it!” (I am not going to tell George you clapped more for Ferris than you did for George.)
We’re sure that’s exactly what Wellesley students wanted to hear.
Manuel V. Pangilinan, Ateneo de Manila University, 2010
Prominent Filipino businessman Pangilinan (also known as M.V.P.) apparently couldn’t take the pressure of sending a college’s graduating class into the world. His dictum plagiarized from past speeches given by Barack Obama, J.K. Rowling, Conan O’Brien, and Oprah. For kicks, a side-by-side comparison of part of his speech with O’Brien’s 2000 Harvard address.
Now, I cannot tell you that failure is fun. Periods of failure in my life were dark ones. I’ve had a lot of success. But I’ve had a lot of failures. I’ve looked good. I’ve looked bad. I’ve been praised and criticized. And it hurt like hell. But my mistakes have been necessary.
I’ve had a lot of success and I’ve had a lot of failure. I’ve looked good and I’ve looked bad. I’ve been praised and I’ve been criticized. But my mistakes have been necessary. Except for Wilson’s House of Suede and Leather. That was just stupid.
If only there were Wilson’s Houses of Suede and Leather in Manila. Regardless, Pangilinan retreated into hiding after being sniffed out. He ruefully told the Philippine Daily Enquirer: “I am afraid the damage has been done—wala talaga akong mukhang ihaharap pagkatapos [I can’t face anybody after this].” In an act of apparent clemency (and want for his continued donations), Pangilian’s offer to resign from the board of the college was rejected.
Bob Barker, Drury University, 2007
Barker, sans lollipop-microphone, urged the Missouri school’s class of 2007 to “assume personal responsibility for their lives” and not to blame anyone else for their failures. “Whatever you choose to do, to it to the very best of your ability every day,” he said. Including, we posit, getting your pet spayed or neutered. A year later, Barker was invited back to the university to announce the foundation of an undergraduate animal ethics program with $1 million from his bank account. He told the A.P.: “If young people are introduced to the terrible exploitation and mistreatment of animals in society, it will help influence them in anything they do.”
Steve Jobs, Stanford, 2005
Jobs’s speech ignored the fact that you don’t have to graduate college to become a reclusive, visionary billionaire (he dropped out of Reed College). Rather, the computer magnate was uncharacteristically candid—talking about his childhood, his relationship with Steve Wozniak, his cancer—and full of new-age aphorisms:
Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards,” he said. “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.”
In true Jobsian fashion, he wore a summer version of his trademark outfit beneath his robe, swapping his New Balances for sandals.
Neil Diamond, N.Y.U., 1995
Skilled in the art of épée, Diamond went to N.Y.U. on a fencing scholarship but left after a music company agreed to pay him $50 a week to write songs. He returned to his almost-alma mater 35 years later to impart wisdom to the graduating class through an off-the-cuff performance of “Louie, Louie.” Later, in 2002, he sent off law school graduates with a strange, lovey-dovey ode penned for the occasion titled “Forever N.Y.U.” (Sample lyrics: “In this city of dreams / You gave me my wings / For everything that I planned / For everything that I am / I know I owe it to you.” And so on and so forth.)
Chris Hedges, Rockford College, 2003
Veteran New York Times war correspondent Hedges’s anti-war oration did not go over well with the Illinois college crowd. Minutes after taking the stage and waxing righteous about the Iraq War, Israel/Palestine, troikas, and Dante’s circle of hell, college officials snipped his microphone feed. The college president requested he cut his speech short and students booed and honked air horns. Others turned their backs to Hedges; one student even threw his cap and gown toward the stage and walked out. I don’t necessarily blame them—Hedge’s speech was light on mood-lifting:
What saddens me most is that those who will by and large pay the highest price are poor kids from Mississippi or Alabama or Texas who could not get a decent job or health insurance and joined the army because it was all we offered them. For war in the end is always about betrayal, betrayal of the young by the old, of soldiers by politicians, and of idealists by cynics. Read Antigone, when the king imposes his will without listening to those he rules or Thucydides’ history. Read how Athens’ expanding empire saw it become a tyrant abroad and then a tyrant at home. How the tyranny the Athenian leadership imposed on others it finally imposed on itself.
Ah, yes. Nothing like some Athenian tyranny to start off your adult life on the right foot.
Russell Baker, Connecticut College, 1995
Growing Up author Baker concocted a top 10 list for his speech, which he limited to a humane 20 minutes. By no. 4, he had everyone’s attention:
Sleep in the nude. In an age when people don’t even get dressed to go to the theater anymore, it’s silly getting dressed up to go to bed. What’s more, now that you can no longer smoke, drink gin, or eat bacon and eggs without somebody trying to make you feel ashamed of yourself, sleeping in the nude is one deliciously sinful pleasure you can commit without being caught by the Puritan police squads that patrol the nation. And you don’t even need a degree to do it.
His speech concluded: “Now it seems I have run past the 15-minute limit and will have to buy my own lunch. That’s life, Class of 1995. No free lunch. My sermon is done.”
Dr. Seuss, Lake Forest College, 1977
The Illinois college’s president at the time, Eugene Hotchkiss, had a problem: Though Dr. Seuss was listed in the program as the ceremony’s speaker and would be receiving an honorary degree, he wasn’t sure if the poet would actually, well, speak. Days before graduation, Seuss informed Hotchkiss that there had been a misunderstanding: He did not give speeches. (“I talk with people, not to people,” Seuss reportedly told him.) Nevertheless, come ceremony time, Seuss approached the microphone and, after calling his gown a bathrobe, recited a new poem called “My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers”:
My uncle ordered popovers
from the restaurant’s bill of fare.
And, when they were served,
he regarded them
with a penetrating stare…
Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom
as he sat there on that chair:
“To eat these things,”
said my uncle,
“you must exercise great care.
You may swallow down what’s solid…
you must spit out the air!”
as you partake of the world’s bill of fare,
that’s darned good advice to follow.
Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.
And be careful what you swallow.
Leave it to the doctor to understand the essence of a winning commencement address—short, punchy, employs a food metaphor—and prove that the wisest words are written, alas, for those who have not yet begun kindergarten.