Commencement Speakers Of The Past Range From Distinguished Students To U.S. Vice Presidents

In the final weeks of school, as seniors desperately attempt to scratch off the final points on their Boston College bucket lists, one thing lingers on their minds through it all: graduation. The all-consuming thought of May 19 has campus chattering with excitement, nerves, and disbelief. What’s more, just this past week, on April 24, BC announced that the 2014 commencement speaker will be U.S. Secretary of State and former Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. Although all of the thoughts this time of year regarding graduation and otherwise remain directed forward,  past issues of The Heights provide seniors with an excuse to reverse their thoughts briefly as they look back upon BC graduation ceremonies of the past.

Reflecting upon past choices for commencement speakers at BC allows seniors to contextualize the history of their soon- to-be-alma mater. Chosen speakers reflect relevant trends in the culture, politics, and issues at the time of the graduation. Individuals range from authors to artists to political figures, providing us with insight into what once mattered. The first recorded commencement speaker was a full 90 years ago in a 1924 issue of The Heights.

The chosen speaker was Joseph A. Turnbull, gold medal winner of the Fulton Debating Society who spoke on the issue of the Bok Peace Prize. “Turnbull’s main speech was a masterpiece showing careful preparation,” the 1924 article read. Interestingly enough, there is a distinct difference in graduation tradition nearly a century ago-that is, Turnbull was a BC student himself, graduating that spring.

The following year, 1925, The Heights again announced the commencement day speaker as a medal winner in “fine oratory,” one Mr. Carr. These seemingly ancient choices speak to an emphasis on rhetoric and speech skills that pervaded academics and society at the time. This tradition of student commencement addresses continued for another decade, as in 1938, an April issue of The Heights read, “Tryouts for Commencement speakers will be held next Wednesday, April 6, at 3:15 p.m. in the Senior Assembly Hall … three judges, not yet completed, will make the final decision on the merits of the contestants.”

Tradition changed the following year toward a more familiar trend of selecting an older, distinguished leader for commencement speaker. The 1939 speaker announced in The Heights was Rev. Robert J. Gannon, S.J., president of Fordham University and a graduate of Cambridge University in England. Prior to his position as president at Fordham, Gannon was regarded as a “favorite” professor of Latin and English. Evidently, from the selections of speakers in the early 20th century, the University valued “close-to-home” academic prestige in the humanities over figures relevant in a national or international context.

Jumping ahead to a 1964 issue of The Heights, there is a shift toward the more familiar tradition of political, military, or more nationally relevant speakers with the choice of Sargent Shriver, director of the Peace Corps and brother-in-law to the late President John F. Kennedy. Shriver was described by one writer as “a man who, at one and the same moment, manages to remind the dedicated that they can achieve the American vision only by immense personal sacrifice and to assure the indifferent that the American vision is theirs on a payment plan so easy that they will barely feel it.”

As the first BC graduation to take place after the November 1963 assassination of Kennedy, the choice of commencement speaker was truly relevant to the current national issues. A little over a decade later, this tradition strengthened with the 1979 choice of U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale, who served under President Jimmy Carter. The 1982 graduation then brought George Bush Sr., then the vice president under President Ronald Regan.

In 2006, the choice of commencement speaker sparked controversy as many students labeled Condeleezza Rice as too political of a selection in a Heights column reading, “The seniors are what commencement is all about. Not Condoleezza Rice. Not protests. Not honorary degrees. Not politics.” Yet the issue was responded to in a follow up column titled “Politics put aside, Rice is right choice.”

Circling back to the present day trend of forward thinking, students can only guess what eminent speakers BC has in store for the future graduating classes. As time goes on, students will continue to look back on the choices of speakers to remind them of the times and experiences that students at BC have been a part of. If nothing else, students can be sure Kerry will compel and inspire the graduating seniors in the upcoming May 19 graduation ceremony.