Monday, May 21, 2018
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Note to graduation speakers: Predict carefully

A pop quiz: Name your commencement speaker. You get double points if you remember who spoke at both college and high school graduations.

I get an "F." I couldn't remember until I looked up an article from The Blade to see who talked to the 3,300 of us who sat in the June sunshine at the Horseshoe at Ohio State University 40 years ago - mostly wanting nothing more than to collect our diplomas and say good-bye to Columbus.

The speaker was Joseph Wilson, chairman of Xerox Corp., and I should have paid more attention: The late Mr. Wilson is regarded as an exemplary entrepreneur and philanthropist. He expressed the fear that rapidly advancing technology was "shutting off steadily and ominously opportunities for the uneducated."

But he also offered a ray of hope that society could turn technology "into useful and constructive tools for social advancement." He made this pronouncement three years before the United States put astronauts on the moon and many years before the Internet.

Perhaps he was right that we can eventually achieve "balance between catastrophe and utopia," and he was certainly right about the acceleration of change.

Over the years, I've had many opportunities to hear commencement speeches. I recalled some of the famous speakers but not their topics, until refreshing my memory with research.

For example, the first President Bush spoke at the U.S. Military Academy graduation in June, 1991. He lauded the military as "the greatest equal-opportunity employer around." He must have, because that's what I wrote in my story for The Blade.

He argued for eliminating racial quotas from a pending civil-rights bill in Congress, and he praised American creativity and character.

Malcolm "Steve" Forbes, Jr., president of Forbes Inc. and editor-in-chief of Forbes magazine, gave graduates of Heidelberg College some good advice in 1991. He told them they would have to be prepared to change jobs, and even careers, several times in their lifetimes.

And he urged them to forget the notion that "you have to be a success by 30 or 40," pointing out a number of highly successful entrepreneurs who started their companies after the age of 50.

Robert Eaton, then-chairman of Chrysler Corp., got everybody's attention at the University of Toledo graduation on May 9, 1998 - two days after Chrysler announced it was merging with Germany's Daimler-Benz to form what would soon be known as DaimlerChryslerAG.

He, too, talked about graduates' need "to reinvent yourselves throughout your working careers." And he reassured Toledoans of Chrysler's commitment to its new Jeep plant.

Actually, he may have understated it a bit: That plant in North Toledo, and additions, resulted in investment totaling $3.2 billion since 1998, more than twice the original commitment.

Another speaker was memorable, not so much for what he said as for what happened to him later. Olof Palme, prime minister of Sweden - who collected an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, in 1970 - was assassinated in 1986 in downtown Stockholm.

In his speech, Mr. Palme warned of the dangers of pollution and wondered if society could "press for the development of science for survival."

He praised rich industrialized nations for helping alleviate poverty and increase living standards, but he warned that "in the world at large, the chasm widens between the poor and rich nations."

As famous as Mr. Palme was, it's doubtful that he was better known than another Kenyon alumnus, actor Paul Newman.

Here's some advice to speakers: Make your talk memorable, or your crowd won't recall it very long. And make sure your crystal ball is well polished, for fear that somebody like me will look up your predictions 10, 20, or even 40 years later.

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