Harvard University's commencement tomorrow marks a high point in the vibrant local graduation scene. MetroDesk asked columnist Sam Allis, Class of '69, to reflect on his own experience.
I hadn't a clue who the commencement speaker was at my Harvard graduation, back in the land before time, until I looked it up recently. It turns out that Stewart Udall, former secretary of the interior under Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, gave the address. I'm still trying to get over the news.
After said repast, everyone I knew blew town like road runners.
It's easy to blame such blackouts on the Great Graduation Hangover, and while that certainly played a part in my memory loss, it was exacerbated by the torpor of a hot, thick June morning that invites a good doze, if not full-bore sleep. And, of course, time. Huge chunks of my mind have been falling with unsettling regularity.
(Commencement stories are sublime. The daughter of a good friend graduated from the University of Montana a few years back, and he flew out to surprise her on the big day. He couldn't find her anywhere inside the hall with the graduating seniors so he went outside and found her splayed on the grass, passed out.)
Class Day speakers at Harvard orate the day before commencement. Once again, I had no idea who spoke on my Class Day because I wasn't in Harvard Yard for the occasion. And once again, I was hardly alone. I investigated who spoke that day and found it was Sander Vanocur, the veteran newsman. I have a pretty good idea what I was doing at the time, but there's no need to go into that here.
It was on Class Day that my patented blend of fact and fiction reached its zenith. I have always averred with moral certainty that our Class Day speaker was the late, great George Plimpton, and it was in his speech to us that he issued the immortal warning about life on the outside, "Tell them you won't go. Go back to your rooms. Unpack!"
It turns out he did utter these wise words on Class Day, but not mine. He did so in 1977. My only defense is I was so taken by his Yoda-like judgment that I simply adopted it for the class of 1969. Besides, if he didn't say it to us, he should have.
I've been referring to Plimpton as our Class Day speaker for decades without contradiction and see no reason to stop now. No one I've talked to about him was all that razor sharp on the chronology either. It has now been long enough that, rather like a common-law wife, he now belongs to us.
Like countless other colleges and universities, Harvard was roiled by massive protests against the war in Vietnam in the spring of 1969. On April 18, about 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students showed up at the cavernous Harvard football stadium across the Charles, to vote whether or not to end the student strike that had begun over a week earlier. The strike called for the boycott of classes -- an idea for all seasons as far as I'm concerned.
It was a grand spectacle. Everybody wanted in on this one. I do remember the day as warm and sunny, the powwow convivial. It also provided a nifty opportunity to catch some rays.
My memory has always been that we voted to strike. Exactly the opposite actually happened. What we did was vote to end the strike. My story is plumb wrong, but it's mine and I'm sticking to it. Besides, history is in the eye of the beholder, and I behold it this way.
So we arrived at commencement day that year on a strange roll. The previous months had been bizarre, occasionally profound and a tad hallucinogenic. Is it any surprise I, among many, flunked the commencement identity quiz?
I see no reason to have a commencement speaker at all. No one remembers who he or she was five or 10 years out, let alone what was said. I suggest instead that the president of the institution stand up and say something like, "It's been real. Goodbye."
Sam Allis can be reached at email@example.com.
Multi-media: Click here for a photo gallery of some of the notable commencement speakers at area colleges this year.
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