Remembrance of commencements past can be hazy at best
Think fast — who spoke at your college graduation ceremony?
If you’re like many graduates, old or young, you have no idea. Neither does Mike Peters, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist who has been chosen to address commencement next month at Washington University, where he graduated in 1965.
Does that blank spot in his memory put more pressure on Peters to make his speech something the graduates will cherish over time? Or does it bring less pressure, knowing that no matter what wisdom he has to share, the newly minted alumni aren’t likely to take much notice?
Peters considered the question for a second, then laughed.
"I have given commencement addresses before," he said in a telephone interview, "but surely not to my school. What a cool thing. I love the fact that I'm giving it to Washington U. I love Washington U."
“I’m just going to do the best I can. I’m very proud that the chancellor and the trustees have given me this opportunity, and I am just blessed to be able to do this.”
The announcement of Peters’ selection was not a big hit with everyone. Student Life, the Washington U. student newspaper that he drew cartoons for when he was enrolled back in the 1960s, even had an editorial titled “Give Mike Peters a Chance” that included this reasoning:
“He’s no Conan O’Brien, President Barack Obama or Bono, as many of the Class of 2012 may have hoped for. But Peters is a unique, interesting and extremely relevant choice for commencement speaker….
“Although his name isn’t instantly recognizable, he has the potential to give a comical, inspiring, and most importantly, memorable speech to the graduating class of 2012.”
It went on to compare Peters to recent Washington U. graduation speakers, including Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who addressed the ceremony last year. The editorial called Wiesel “the big name that many in the community had been hoping for.”
Other recent speakers, including Energy Secretary Stephen Chu and MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews, were described in less enthusiastic tones.
Making the choice
The selection of Peters was part of a yearlong process that starts with a committee of the university’s board of trustees and includes students, faculty and staff. Anyone from the committee — or the community at large — can nominate a potential speaker, said Rob Wild, assistant to Chancellor Mark Wrighton.
From there, it’s a matter of sifting through the names, finding out who may be available and coming up with a short list for the chancellor to consider — enough so that if the first choice says no, backups are available.
“I wouldn’t call it a ranked list,” Wild said, “but the chancellor knows who the priorities are.”
The speaker is also awarded an honorary degree, so that consideration fits into the mix.
“It’s a big day,” Wild said. “But I don’t think the university goes into this wanting the commencement speaker to be the thing that people remember from the day. It’s a day of celebration, of being with family and friends and celebrating the accomplishments of our students.
“If you look at the list of speakers, you can see the kind of back and forth that we go through — a big name speaker, chancellors, political figures. I don’t remember the last time we had an alum speak, but having someone who graduated from the institution, especially someone who is accomplished like Mike Peters, and someone who knows our community very well, is a dimension we have this year that we may not have had in the past.”
Other schools, other methods
Unlike Washington U., which combines the commencement from all of its schools into one ceremony on its Brookings Quadrangle, larger state schools often host separate ceremonies for each of their colleges.
The School of Journalism at Mizzou, for example, holds its own ceremony that always features speakers who have graduated from the school. Suzette Heiman, director of planning and communication for the J school, said the school tries to have a variety of speakers who represent the different areas of concentration, such as radio and TV, print, magazine, advertising and others.
“We’re looking for somebody who we feel will have something to share with the students,” Heiman said. “The graduation ceremony is all about the graduates.”
Recent speakers include CBS correspondent Bill Geist, Ken Paulson, who is head of the First Amendment Center, and advertising executive Joyce King Thomas, who created the MasterCard “Priceless” campaign.
More important than the name, she said, is the message.
“They speak on topics that they think are important,” Heiman said. “Many of the graduates will say they don’t remember who their graduation speaker was, but they remember something that was said.”
This year's speaker will be Cindy Brinkley, a 1991 journalism grad who is the vice president for global human resources at General Motors.
At Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, Elizabeth Keserauskis, assistant vice chancellor for university relations, marketing and communications, said that commencement ceremonies are conducted by schools because the university doesn’t have a facility large enough for all the graduates.
Faculty committees want to recognize people for distinguished service and excellence, she said, not necessarily someone whose name is instantly recognizable.
“We’re not looking for that one marquee speaker that is going to attract a lot of attention,” Keserauskis said.
“What we’re doing for the awards is looking to recognize members of the community, whether they are current faculty or citizens or alumni, who have contributed to the university in various ways. When it comes time to help them prepare speech topics, we make it clear it is a speech they are giving to graduates as they begin their next step. So it’s a twofold process.”
SIUE speakers this spring will be Fernando Aguirre, a 1980 business graduate who is chairman and CEO of Chiquita Brands International, and Paige St. John, a 1986 mass communications grad who won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.
Overall, she said, the process is fairly low-key.
“It’s pretty safe, with no controversy — not nearly what you’ve seen at other institutions.”
That kind of controversy can take many forms. In 2008, for example, when Phyllis Schlafly received an honorary degree from Washington University — though she was not the commencement speaker – many graduates, along with family members and even professors on the stage — stood and turned their back as her citation was read.
More recently, Fontbonne University had to withdraw its invitation for Greg Mortenson to be its graduation speaker last spring after “60 Minutes” raised questions about the truthfulness of his book “Three Cups of Tea.”
Remembrance of speeches past
Maybe allowing Mortenson to speak would have given graduates and their families a better shot of remembering who gave the commencement address as other memories faded.
Wild, at Washington U., said he remembers who spoke at his 1993 graduation from the university — Peter Raven of the Missouri Botanical Garden — but he admits he is more sensitized to such event than others may be.
On a personal note, the speaker at this reporter’s graduation ceremony from Washington University in 1971 was Thomas H. Eliot, who also was leaving campus after serving as chancellor since 1962 — a turbulent time that included sit-ins and the burning of the campus’ ROTC building.
Peters, who is the son of the late, local entertainer Charlotte Peters, chronicled part of that era with his cartoons in Student Life , recalled Eliot as an occasional antagonist who first gave him a sense of the influence his kind of drawings could have.
“I was doing cartoons about him,” he said. “He would write me letters. That was when I first understood about the power of being a cartoonist, about being in the paper. How cool is that, where you can have conversations with the top guy, and they tell you no, you’re seeing that all wrong?”
For the record, at his commencement, Peters’ speaker was Sister Francetta Barberis, who was finishing her tenure leading what was then Webster College. But he is hardly alone in not remembering whose speech gave him a sendoff from the campus into the real world. Read these comments from sources who are part of our Public Insight Network:
Joan Brannigan of Olivette:
Who was your speaker? No clue
What do you remember most about the speech? It could have been left off the program and made it too long.
Whom would you like to speak at a graduation today? The president. Maybe then I could remember who it was. But I would prefer no speaker. I just want to walk across the stage and get my hard-earned diploma.
Joseph Robnett of St. Louis:
Speaker? The guy who owns Winn Dixie Grocery stores; don’t remember his name.
Remember? He owned a food company that was still doing business in S. Africa during the embargo and our school decided to take his money and name a building after him. Guess that’s why his chair broke when he sat down from his speech.
Hear today? Jimmy Carter. He would speak about the need to do good and be peacemakers.
Jodi Redler of Chesterfield:
Speaker? Walter Something from the economics department.
Remember: He was funny — I can’t remember what he said that was funny, but I remember thinking he was. I graduated in a very small ceremony because it was mid-year and our speaker got sick — so Walter was a fill in.
Hear today? Bill McClellan.