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University Relations

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May 22, 2006
Contact: Lynn Bretz, University Relations, (785) 864-8866.

Text of Chancellor Hemenway’s commencement speech

This is the 11th time I have had the privilege of addressing a graduating class at the University of Kansas.

It is a wonderful privilege because you have secured such a wonderful prize — a degree from this university. It means something to be a Jayhawk graduate. You have every reason to be proud, as should your family and those who love you. You should feel good about yourself.

You may expect great oratory to mark the occasion. But this is precisely where it gets complicated. As you may know, KU does not give honorary degrees and therefore, does not have occasion to invite guest speakers to its graduation ceremony. Other universities invite high government officials or famous actors or funny comedians. At KU you are left with the chancellor.

It is unclear from KU history whether this is because we wanted to save the cost of a visiting orator or whether there is some other motive. It may be that some chancellor of the past simply wanted to have one last opportunity to harangue the graduates about library fines.

So let me put you at ease. I have no harangue in my agenda although, come to think of it, it would be nice if you all could pay off your parking tickets by Tuesday morning.

The problem for you with the chancellor giving the commencement address is that while he can probably keep it short, there is no certainty that the chancellor will have something noble to say.

Here we are on one of the most memorable days of your life, but can you be sure that the chancellor will be up to the task of recognizing your outstanding achievement? Given the fact that he has spoken each year for the last 10 years, it is quite possible that the chancellor’s idea tank is just about empty. It may be that he has had only 10 good ideas in his lifetime, and you arrive at year 11 when he is particularly short on inspiration. I have gone into the crowd to ask students what I should say. I received the following advice:

— Erin Bodzin and Nate Karlin got engaged last night.
— Mindy Terbovitch is receiving a marketing degree today. She wants to let Callahan Creek know that she is still interested in them. She hopes they are interested in her.
— Paige Phillips and the women of 1005 Indiana have suggested that I get rid of my nervousness by picturing everyone in their underwear. (I’m not sure how that will help.)

But there is a saving grace in this situation. I have been here 10 times before. Most of you are here for the first time. That gives me a special advantage and a special opportunity.

It means that I can share thoughts with you that I have shared with other graduating classes before. Over the past 10 years, I’ve had a lot to say. Why should you be deprived of the wisdom that I’ve dispensed?

One of my presidential friends, recently retired, used to give the same speech at graduation every year for 22 years. His position was, it’s a good speech, they should hear it.

“Doesn’t anyone object?” I asked him once. “What about the long-suffering faculty, who have loyally attended the ceremony every year?”

“You know,” he replied, “no one has ever complained. They may not have noticed.”

The revelation that most of you, perhaps with the exception of the faculty, are what might be called an unplowed audience, opens up a world of possibilities.

Admittedly, it is possible that some of you may have memories of past speeches. For example, you may be part of a family of 10 siblings whose parents have arranged, in a spectacular feat of planned parenthood, for one of their offspring to graduate each year from 1996-2006. If you are in that category, you may recognize some of what follows. I also have to acknowledge that the provost has heard all 10 previous speeches but he has always shown a remarkable tolerance for the chancellor’s thought process. Besides, he is leaving for Washington after the ceremony anyway.

So let’s give it a try. Chancellor Bob’s Greatest Hits. I hereby offer some of the best thoughts that were uttered at KU commencements during the Hemenway era.

My first commencement was May 19, 1996, and to be honest, like many of you today, I had no idea what to expect. Why was “walking down the hill” such a special occasion? I soon learned that walking down the hill was the way that a large public university put a human face on a commencement ceremony for 5,000 graduates and 20,000 of their friends and relatives. The walk is the ceremony, I realized, and I have repeated this thought at every Jayhawk graduation since. The walk is the ceremony. It is the glue that holds Jayhawks together in a community.

In 1997, I had help in writing my speech from the Lawrence Journal World. The chancellor frequently gets help from the LJW. The day before commencement they did a story entitled “Graduation Speeches 101” that said, “One of the few things more forgettable in life than the graduation speaker is the graduation speech.” This has helped keep me humble. My advice is for you to stay humble, too, especially if you have much contact with the newspaper.

In 1998, I quoted the “X Files,” with Agent Mulder telling us, “The truth is out there.” Does anyone even remember “The X Files?” There is a lesson here. Pop culture is not a long lasting phenomenon. “American Idol” will not be what you remember about your life on the hill, even though you wasted hours hating Simon Cowell.

In 2000, I first started talking about how the walk down the hill is a communal walk. That no one walks the hill alone. Every one of us walks because someone has been there — spouse, family, friend, faculty — walking with us. Above all, walking down the hill is a family affair, a celebratory path for a journey that began years ago.

This has been brought home to me, because I had the privilege of seeing three of my own sons and one of my daughters, walk the hill. In 2001, my son Matthew received a masters in music. He was a euphonium player. Do you know what the definition of an optimist is? A euphonium player with a pager. Matt found a job. So can you.

In 2002, when my son Zack received a bachelor’s in journalism, he had me pound my heart and point to him in the audience. I still don't know what that means.

In 2004, we talked about Clark Wescoe, KU’s 12th chancellor from 1960-1969, who had a great voice and used to sing the commencement speech, using variations of old show tunes.

I do not have a great voice, but I have played around with this idea, because I know a great blues lyric that Zora Neale Hurston collected called “Halimuhfack.” Hurston was a novelist and a folklorist, and she went around the rural South, collecting blues songs from juke joints deep in the piney woods. I spent eight years of my life writing a biography of her. Her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was made into a TV movie by Oprah Winfrey last year.

Hurston’s blues went like this:

Well you may go to Halimuhfack
But my slow drag will bring you back
Well you may go, but this will bring you back.

I lived in the country, but I moved to town
I’m a tolo shaker from the head on down
Well you may go, but this will bring you back.

Well, some folks call me a tolo shaker
It’s a doggone lie, I’m a back bone breaker
Well, you may go but this will bring you back.

Those blues lyrics came from a turpentine camp in Florida. How do we make them fit a commencement in Kansas?

Well, you may go to Halimuhfack
But the Hawks on the hill will bring you back
Well, you may go, but the Hawks will bring you back.

Well, I lived in the country but I moved to town,
I’m a waver of wheat from the head on down
Well, you may go, but the hill will bring you back.

Well, some folks call me a wheat state shaker,
It’s a doggone lie, I’m a rock chalk breaker
Well, you may go, but the hill will bring you back.

The power of Hawks on the hill is the moral for this commencement and for every commencement that has preceded it. Jayhawks know how to apply their creativity and courage to the future. And the future offers plenty of problems to work on. Help bring some sanity to Darfur. Stop the killing in the Middle East. Don’t be afraid of the large problems.

In closing, if I had to pick two Jayhawk stories to represent all of us today, I would choose Leigh McHatton and Larissa Ejzak.

Leigh McHatton walked the hill today. And she is glad to be alive to do it. Leigh lost everything in the Boardwalk fire and has courageously fought injuries to graduate. Unfortunately, one of her fellow residents at the Boardwalk did not survive. Nicole Bingham died in the fire. She was a senior. She walked with all of us in spirit today.
Larissa Ejzak is graduating with a 4.0 in her double major of physics and theatre. She made a perfect score on the GRE. She recently starred in the one-person drama she wrote in fulfillment of her honors degree in theatre. It is called “Burst,” about gamma-ray bursts, the brightest known explosions in the universe. Such bursts can seed destruction or supply powerful illumination.

That is a thought worth keeping for a future commencement. Each one of you is a bright explosion in the universe, about to take off for a destination beyond KU. We will watch how your bright bursts illuminate the galaxy. Know that we care about you and want you to be a shooting star for the rest of your life. Be a beacon to others so they, too, can be dazzled by the power of the Jayhawk. And remember, you may go a long ways, even to Halimuhfack, but the hill will bring you back.

Congratulations, Jayhawks!


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