Will Ferrell ended his commencement address at the University of Southern California with a rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” and we should all be grateful.
By contrast, half the graduates turned their backs when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke at Bethune-Cookman University this week. And not everyone will like hearing from President Trump, who spoke Saturday at Liberty University’s graduation ceremony.
Then there’s Ferrell, whose speech was alternately hilarious, poignant and wise. And earned him a standing ovation.
The “Saturday Night Live” legend graduated from USC in 1990 with a degree in sports information. “A program so difficult, so arduous,” he said, “that they discontinued the major eight years after I left.”
On Friday, Ferrell received an honorary USC doctorate, as did a humanitarian, an innovative spinal surgeon, a leading AIDS researcher and Dame Helen Mirren. “And then there’s me,” he said. “Will Ferrell, whose achievements include running naked through the city of Montrose in ‘Old School.’ ”
“I think my fellow doctorates would agree, based on our achievements, we are all on equal footing,” he added. From now on, Ferrell said, he is requiring that his wife and children address him as “Dr. Ferrell.” “There will be no exceptions,” he joked.
Ferrell traced his success back to his days on the Los Angeles campus, where he was “always trying to make my friends laugh” and would frequently crash lectures in character, including that of a drill-wielding maintenance man. He said he never dreamed that he would someday become “one of the most famous alumni of this university — mentioned in the same breath as John Wayne, Neil Armstrong and Rob Kardashian.”
Ferrell recalled the course of his post-college career, which started with a stint living with his parents — “for a solid two years, I might add” — and included a foray into stand-up comedy. “My opening joke was to sing the opening theme of ‘Star Trek,’ ” he recalled.
There were times, Ferrell said, when he sat in his apartment “eating spaghetti topped with mustard” and had only $20 in his checking account. “Yes, I was afraid. You’re never not afraid. I’m still afraid,” he said. But, he added, “My fear of failure never approached in magnitude my fear of ‘What if? What if I never tried at all?’ ”
Ferrell said that, for all his accolades and outward success, “To me, my definition of success is my 16½-year marriage to my beautiful and talented wife, Viveca. Success are my three amazing sons, Magnus, 13, Mattias, 10, and Axel, age 7.”
“No matter how cliche it may sound,” he told the class of 2017, “You will never truly be successful until you learn to get beyond yourself. Empathy and kindness are the true signs of emotional intelligence.”
He advised graduates who don’t feel sure of their next steps to “enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of the result. Trust your gut. Keep throwing darts at the dart board. Don’t listen to the critics, and you will figure it out.”
And, he told them, if they get really lonely and down, they should think of the support of their Trojan family.
“And imagine me,” he added, before breaking into “I Will Always Love you.” “Literally picture my face, singing this song gently into your ear.”
Thank you, Dr. Ferrell. We will.