Last week I enjoyed one of my favorite times of the year: Commencement Week at Harvard. I love it then because so many students bring their parents and families into the libraries to see the glorious resources to which they’ve had access during their studies here. There’s a definite feeling of excitement in the air, and both the parents and students are absolutely sparkling with energy and lively interest. Serving at the Information Desk I get to meet lots of these folks, and I enjoy answering the myriad questions they pose (for example: “Who was Harry Elkins Widener?,” Where’s the Gutenberg?,” “Who painted those immense murals on the landings?, “Why are those flowers on the desk in the Widener Memorial Room?,” “How many libraries are there at Harvard?,” “How many books are there in the libraries here?,” “Are there any digital collections we can see online?,” and “What is it like to be a reference librarian here?).
As I was writing this column I noodled around the web just to see what kinds of things were to be found out there about commencements. I came across one real gem, NPR’s The Best Commencement Speeches Ever, in which they “hand-picked over 300 addresses going back to 1774,” and the list is searchable by name, school, date, and theme. The speeches range from Barnabas Binney’s 1774 speech at Rhode Island College / Brown University (selected quote: “America, hitherto the infant state of glorious freedom, on which surrounding nations, while still enslaved, gaze with envy and wonder…but does the enjoyment and security of her religious rights less merit her attention than her civil?”) to Stephen Colbert’s speech at the University of Virginia, May 18, 2013 (selected quote: “If anyone here has a cellphone, please take a moment to make sure it’s turned on. I wouldn’t want anyone to miss a text or a tweet while I’m giving my speech”). Some are profound, some are hilarious, and it’s a downright wonderful collection. All items in the list have links to the full speech; some of them also have embedded videos.
My favorite is one delivered by Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, at Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, Illinois, on June 4, 1977. You can read the full speech, My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers, at this link at humanity.org (and do be sure to read the backstory that goes with it, by Lake Forest President Emeritus Eugene Hotchkiss III—it provides some great Dr. Seuss context), but the final stanza gives Dr. Seuss’ advice to the graduates:
“As you partake of the world’s bill of fare,
that’s darned good advice to follow.
Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.
And be careful what you swallow.”
As always, right on, Dr. Seuss!
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