There were requests for Robert Redford and George Bush. Ronald Reagan made some lists and Jimmy Carter made others. There was even a plug for Barbara Walters, the queen of talk.
But if Redford and other glitterati are missing from the podium this week as the first high school graduations of the season are held in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, it won't be for a lack of trying.
"Everyone wants a big name. Who wants a nobody speaking at his high school graduation?" asks Bob Hammerman, senior class president at Woodward High School in Rockville. "People say, 'Oh, my father knows someone who can get George Burns or Robert Redford.' But then it usually turns out they don't know them or they're conveniently busy."
What about substance, academic endeavour, fiat lux?
"The point is, you want to get someone who will grab the audience."
Whom did Woodward High get?
"Jim Vance, but it cost us $300. Can you believe it? We were kind of shocked when we got the contract."
The travails of graduation day, how well we remember.
There's been a bit of teen-age madness this past month as seniors scrambled for graduation speakers. Some have made last-ditch calls to friends of someone-who-I-think-knows-someone, some have written earnest letters, others have tapped parents to call in political chips, and still others have resorted to the old standby: cash remuneration. Few speakers asked for a fee, however.
Much of the effort has paid off. Although not all the classes got their first-choice speakers for this graduation day, second string isn't so bad at all.
In both counties, television anchors and politicians are favorites. Anchors Jim Vance, Renee Pouissant, Gloria Gibson and David Schumacher will all make commencement appearances. Montgomery's Democratic Rep. Michael Barnes will address five senior classes, and Rep. Steny Hoyer of Prince George's will speak to two.
Former astronaut Michael Collins will talk at Rock Terrace in Rockville and Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) will deliver the graduation address at Montgomery Blair in Silver Spring. Professional basketball player Tracy Jackson of the Atlanta Hawks will speak at his alma mater, Paint Branch High in Burtonsville, and teammate Tom McMillen will address the graduating classes of Bowie Senior High and Northwestern High in Adelphi.
In some high schools, two celebrities will share top billing. At Walt Whitman in Bethesda, the earnest and mild-spoken Barnes will pair off against irascible Channel 20 (WDCA) talk show host Petey Greene. Students asked Barnes to join the festivities after some parents called school officials to question the appropriateness of the less-than-predictable Greene.
"We got a lot of flak initially because here we have Petey Greene, who is seen as this black activist, who no one ever knows what he's going to say, coming in to address a student body like Walt Whitman that is wealthy and more than 90 percent white," explained student body president Lisa Baldez.
"But in the past couple years, the graduation speaker here has usually been someone somebody in the class knew. They come in and say something like, 'The future is up to you,' and give the conventional graduation speech," Baldez said. "The class didn't want something like that. The one thing you can say about Petey Greene is that you don't know what he's going to say, but you know it won't be a typical speech."
The students at Whitman took a poll. Chicken magnate Frank Perdue came in first, with Greene a close second. Perdue couldn't make it, but Greene said he'd love to come, according to Baldez.
Barnes said he's looking forward to meeting Greene and added, "I've never met him, but I hear he's an interesting fellow."
"I can speak as good as any of them out there," shouted Greene when asked what he might say. "I've been up against Jimmy Carter and a host of other dignitaries and niggers and other crackers when I was in the penitentiary. I don't know what I'm going to say. I don't know until I get up there with them."
TV personalities are popular in Prince George's County, too, with Channel 4 (WRC) anchorwoman Gloria Gibson, Carol Randolph from Channel 9 (WDVM) and David Schumacher and Renee Pouissant from Channel 7 (WJLA) all making appearances.
Crossland High School netted Gibson, who, incidentally, was a speech therapist with the District of Columbia schools for six years.
"We wanted someone who is articulate," explained Vice Principal Eva Gerin. She telephoned Gibson after the students' first two choices declined. Commencement ceremonies are in the Capital Centre, Gibson noted, saying, "It's such a big place you need somebody with poise."
Former Health and Human Services Secretary and District of Columbia mayoral candidate Patricia Roberts Harris will take the stand at Fairmont Heights Senior High. Explains senior class adviser Charles Ross: "They wanted someone who had a name, as opposed to a county council or board of education member."
Not everyone aimed for the stars, however. At Central High School in Seat Pleasant, two students will give the commencement addresses, with the theme "It's so hard to say goodbye to yesterday." The students were selected through a competition, and those not chosen can read their speeches through the public address system during classes.
"The philosophy behind it is to give the commencement exercises to the kids," explained Vice Principal Joe Murphy. Murphy said he first tried the idea while teaching at Bladensburg High, which is continuing its tradition of student speakers this year. The students "are much more interested in the ceremony because it's theirs," Murphy said. "It's the one thing you are going to remember for the rest of your life--that and your wedding ceremony."
Class president David Betancourt said student leaders had drafted letters to columnist Carl Rowan and newscaster Vance, but they were intercepted by Murphy, who was enthusiasitc about having students speak. "The students like the idea, but I have mixed feelings about it," Betancourt said. "I don't mind having students--but I'd like to have someone well-known."
And at Sherwood in Olney, student Hyun Yang will give a brief farewell speech. "I've never made a speech before in front of a crowd that large, but I think I'll tell the class that this is just the beginning of your life and that we should always remember this," said Yang, who will enter Howard University as a pre-med student. "I'll talk about the closeness that there was between faculty and students and how much we're going to miss this."
Yang said she plans to keep her message "short and to the point, but with a special touch. Just short enough to make the seniors really feel it. You know it's good when you see the girls crying."
For the less sentimental, sports is the name of the game. Basketball player McMillen will speak to students at Bowie High and Northwestern Senior High. A Clifton resident and Democrat with unabashed political aspirations, McMillen averages more than a hundred speeches a year, by his own count.
Dependable commencement speakers are to be found in the political world. When all else fails, call an officeholder or office seeker. "When people first heard we had chosen Barnes they thought he was a bit common," said Keith Yellin of Walter Johnson High in Bethesda. Last year former Iran hostage L. Bruce Laingen addressed the graduating class.
"We tried to get Bush first" this year, said Yellin. "One of the senior's fathers is a high-ranking White House aide who is a personal friend of Bush (Robert McFarland, deputy national security adviser to the president), but he (Bush) said his schedule was just too hectic and he didn't know whether he'd be in town.
"I've got great faith in Mike Barnes. He helped me get a nomination to West Point," continued Yellin. "He might end up someplace very big some day and then they (the seniors) will be happy, very happy."
As for Barnes, he says his speech isn't finished, but even if it were, he'd be hesitant to reveal its contents.
"I don't think it would be appropriate to give a political speech. I'm working on something that deals with the kinds of choices people can make in their lives," explained Barnes.
Hoyer will give two speeches this week, one to graduating students of Northwestern High School's evening program and another to students at Margaret Brent Special Education Center in Lanham.
Oxon Hill Senior High has summoned State Comptroller of the Treasury Louis L. Goldstein, who has a reputation as a speaker who'll leave his audience in stitches. "His qualifications for speaking are good," said class president Shirley Kelly. "He's not boring. And we don't want anybody who's boring."
Students at Surrattsville Senior High in Clinton had received five rejections before they called on State Sen. Thomas V. (Mike) Miller (D-Clinton). "He said, 'You're all in a bind and can't get anybody else,' " recalled 12th-grade president Alice Bader. But he gladly accepted the invitation to speak, she said.
Pouissant will give commencement speeches at nine Washington area high schools this year, including Rockville and Poolesville in Montgomery County and Potomac and Suitland in Prince George's.
Why is she so popular? "My speeches are cheap--in fact, they're free," she said.
"If there's a theme to the speech, it has to do with being adventurous and committed at the same time," Pouissant added. "In this day and age, maybe there's a tendency to be more concerned than in the past with things like security, getting a job that pays a lot, insurance benefits--which are certainly legitimate. But I feel that this is not necessarily the time in their lives when it ought to be a primary goal and concern."
As for her colleague Vance, he says he'll give the kids something to remember.
"If you gave me a million dollars I couldn't really tell you who spoke at my high school graduation," said Vance, who will also charge seniors at Magruder High in Rockville $300 for a graduation speech. "I'm going to make it a point that they will remember me. I'm not going to go at them with the normal platitudes. You won't hear me talking about embarking on life's voyages."
And about the honorarium?
"I'll talk to them about that, too. I'll tell them nothing's free."