In the Washington region, it always helps to have connections.
And if you're charged with planning a high school graduation, it's especially helpful if that connection is of the parental variety.
That's how Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn snagged Sean O'Keefe, who recently stepped down as head of NASA, to speak at its ceremony June 17. O'Keefe, who has taken a job in Louisiana, had a daughter in the graduating class.
That's also how Alexandria's T.C. Williams High School got the vice president of the United States to address graduates in 1974. After all, Gerald R. Ford, who would become president two months later, was going to be at the event anyway. His son Steven was a member of the class.
"It was very memorable," said Stephen Colantuoni, who graduated that year and is now assistant principal at the school. "They had Secret Service men on the rooftop and in the trees and everywhere. . . . It's something very few kids at a high school get to have."
Most high school graduation speeches follow the same basic themes: Follow your dreams. Set goals and reach for them. Thank your parents -- for the cash they'll shell out while you're in college. (Insert laugh.)
But school sponsors say they feel more than a little pressure to find a speaker with some star power to keep the antsy audience interested.
"You want to have someone who's prestigious," said Bobbie Johnson, a social studies teacher at Park View High School in Sterling, who helped find the school's speaker for years. The names are "all published, and everyone wants to one-up each other."
In this area, prestigious often means a politician. A student at Manassas's Stonewall Jackson High School this year invited Jerry Kilgore, former attorney general and current Republican candidate for governor. Kilgore accepted, making Stonewall the only high school graduation at which he spoke this year. Assistant Principal Richard Nichols said Kilgore's staff promised not to turn the ceremony into a campaign rally, and his speech didn't even mention his run.
Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) was asked to speak at 10 high schools this year, along with eight colleges. Two Fairfax schools, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and George C. Marshall, made his dance card.
Schools handle the selection in different ways. Sometimes student council officers make the choice, and sometimes a teacher must shoulder the burden. Johnson recalls the year a student wrote a letter to comedian David Letterman and requested his services. Hoping to get noticed, the student scrawled the note in crayon. Letterman did not respond.
Of course, the connection game can always backfire, Nichols said. Every year, students claim they know someone who knows someone who can get a big name. But it doesn't always pan out.
"We've had students convinced they would get Barbara Bush, Colin Powell," he said. "You name it, and they'll say they can get this person because their mother works in their office. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it doesn't come together."
If all else fails, schools can work with a speaker's bureau. That's how several advisers said they booked local media celebrities, including news anchors Jim Vance and Barbara Harrison of WRC-TV (Channel 4).
Some speakers ask for a fee; others decline their normal asking price for high school students. Nichols said his school once paid upward of $4,000 for Miss America. "That was quite expensive for us," he said. "We haven't done it since."
Most speakers do quite well, the teachers agreed, as long as they remember the cardinal rule: brevity.
"It always goes well if, one, they have got a message, and, two, it is a quick message," Stone Bridge Principal Jim Person said. "People will forgive a lot as long as you're brief."