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Will Harvard grads remember what Oprah said?

President John F. Kennedy with Hurst Anderson, longtime president of American University, at commencement on June 10, 1963 (American University Archives)
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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — I was pretty sure that hearing Oprah Winfrey deliver Harvard’s commencement address on Thursday was going to change my life, which happens often if you want it to.

First, though, various Harvard whoozits talked so much about money I could have been in church, and the announcement that the Class of ’88 alone had just raised $115 million sort of undercut Harvard President Drew Faust’s perfectly valid message about the damage done by cuts to research funding, especially post-sequester.

Winfrey dedicated her talk to “anybody who’s felt screwed by life,” which I hope but am not sure she meant ironically. She talked about dharma and purpose, and I was jake with that. But the best thing she said was this: In doing more than 35,000 interviews, she’s learned that everybody wants to be validated. Everyone she’s ever sat down with, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama to “Beyonce in all her Beyonce-ness,” has asked, in his or her own way, after the TV lights went out, “Was I OK?” Just like we all want to know, “Did you hear me? Did what I say matter to you?” So on the campus where Facebook started, she challenged grads to “have more face-to-face conversations with people you may disagree with.” Which is purpose enough, given how little this occurs now, though more of a prior commitment than a change for me.

Alas, I did not even remember who spoke at my graduation until a Notre Dame classmate reminded me recently. (No offense, Benjamin Civiletti.) Yet I too vividly recall Father Ned Joyce mangling my name so badly — Melody Henager, he called me — that when I stood up to accept my big award, everyone seemed to be hoping I’d realize my mistake and sit back down.

Apparently, Commencement Speech Amnesia is epidemic, too, because of the first 10 friends I asked, not one could name his or her graduation speaker without checking. Radio journalist Jamila Bey said she’ll never be able to forget her ex’s commencement, though: “The speaker talked about river blindness and how people could be driven mad,” and even scratch their own eyes out. Then some business school grads who’d maybe had a sip of Champagne started booing, and were soon joined by their parents.  “A grand time,” she says — all three hours of it.

My buddy Carl Cannon skipped his college graduation, but does know that as California Congressman Paul N. “Pete” McCloskey Jr. rose to address his high school class at George C. Marshall in Falls Church, Va., it began to rain hard. Carl claims Pete disproved the common wisdom about what politicians do or do not have sense enough to do in such a situation, saying something like, “There are times to give great speeches. There are also times to get the hell out of the rain—like now!”

Then there are the American University grads of 1963, who 50 years ago on June 10th heard JFK make history by speaking, at their graduation, about “not merely peace for America, but peace for all men and women — not merely peace in our time, but peace for all time.” Those words so moved Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that he actually allowed the address to be broadcast in the Soviet Union, and the address led quite directly to the signing of the nuclear test ban treaty later that summer.

On a personal level, says ’63 grad Faith Shrinsky Kirk, the speech “was the thrill of our lives,” and for many in the class, set the course. To her, it said, ‘Wait a minute; start thinking; isn’t that why you came here?’

“He was the inspiration for my generation to start questioning the status quo,” Kirk said. And that talk led her to spend her whole working life advocating for people with disabilities. “I don’t want to go so far as to say it was life-changing,” said another ’63 grad, Carl Cook, who has worked as an adviser at American almost ever since. “But intellectually, it was.”

For those of us who did not have JFK to point the way, though, or were busy thinking about lunch, or soon-to-be-exes, or — in better times —  job offers, here’s a brief compilation of what a few people I asked said was the best piece of advice anyone had given them in the years since they wore a cap and gown:

Never turn up empty-handed. If they shoot at you, crawl forward and keep your butt down. If it doesn’t look yummy now, why stick it in the fridge? From a Girl Scout leader while lost on a hike: When in doubt, take the high road. Don’t let anyone take pictures of you naked. And no matter how much you feel like leaving with nothing but the clothes on your back, oh do take the pots. (Love may fade, but cast iron is forever.)

The Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman, who didn’t remember what Adlai Stevenson told Radcliffe grads in 1963 until she looked it up in preparation for her 50th reunion this week, said it was actually quite a remarkable speech, too. Stevenson addressed a class that, just a month after the publication of Betty Friedan’sFeminine Mystique,’ was “the first to receive the message that we were the elite women who could write the Great American Novel while the children were napping.”

In one way, it was ahead of its time, asking whether graduates soon turn from “scholar to slave,” while changing diapers. Yet in another way Stevenson, too, was a product of his time, praising Radcliffe for allowing students “to carry on their scholastic and professional interests part-time to prepare for greater participation in the post-domestic years.”

“Throw another hero on the fire,” Goodman joked. In the years that followed, the best advice she didn’t take, she says, was just this: Wear flats.

Elizabeth Drew, who believes her graduation speaker at Wellesley was “some banker,” says one of her favorite pearls came from William Shawn, “the justly legendary editor of The New Yorker, as I was struggling to decide what to say in the introduction to my first book, on Watergate: “Let it go, Elizabeth; the last decision you make isn’t necessarily the best decision, it’s just the last decision.”

So many of my best nudges in the right direction came from my college writing teacher and friend Elizabeth Christman: The passive voice is the enemy. There will be time enough. Deciding is the hard part; the rest is just work. No extraneous words. “Middlemarch” is the best book written in English. Soon you will be happy to be referred to as girls.

My father still quotes his own father: “Don’t quit in the chasm; keep on.” And as per my mom, who has nearly always had the last word, everybody looks better in nylons and a little foundation.

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