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7 Memorable Commencement Addresses

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Complaining about your commencement speaker is a time-honored tradition. This year, students at several institutions have bemoaned their schools' selections, including Harvard (J.K. Rowling), the University of Georgia (Clarence Thomas) and Northwestern Law (Jerry Springer). And it's not just college students. Karl Rove was recently disinvited to speak at Choate—an elite Connecticut boarding school—after students threatened a walkout.

Most speeches end up being conversational tidbits ("So, who was your speaker?") But every once in a while, a commencement address lives on long after graduation in books or email forwards or YouTube clips. Here are seven such examples.

1. Steve Jobs, Stanford University, 2005

"Truth be told, I never graduated from college. This is the closest I've ever gotten to a college graduation."

My sister was a member of Stanford's Class of '05. Jobs' address won her eternal family bragging rights for most memorable graduation. (Soon after, my grandma bought an iMac.) In a speech that's been viewed by almost two million people on YouTube, the Apple co-founder told three inspiring stories about his life. Here's a little Jobsian wisdom:

"You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life. "
* * *
"Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle."
* * *
"Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish."

If you're not among those two million YouTube viewers, here it is:

2. Mumia Abu-Jamal, Evergreen College, 1999

Mumia Abu-Jamal delivered his 13-minute speech via audiotape. He was unable to attend the Washington school in person, for he was on death row in Pennsylvania.

The ceremony's inclusion of Abu-Jamal, who in 1982 was convicted of murdering a police officer after a controversial trial, incited widespread debate. Washington Governor Gary Locke—a former prosecutor—canceled his own scheduled address to show respect for law-enforcement officers, though he commended the students for their "efforts to develop a graduation program that includes a diversity of views." Congressman Tom DeLay called for a moment of silence on the House floor to protest.

In 2001, Abu-Jamal's conviction was upheld, but the death sentence was overturned.

3. Fred Rogers, West Virginia University, 1995

fred-rogers.jpegMr. Rogers was a regular on the graduation circuit. We chose his 1995 address at WVU because it was unlike so many "you can do whatever you want!" pep talks. He illustrated the message "wishing isn't enough" through a story about trying to become a Broadway composer. As a freshman, he landed an interview with a famous songwriter, and was prepared to drop out of school to realize his dream.

"That's not what happened. The famous composer was very welcoming to me. He asked me to play a couple of those original songs for him, and he listened intently while I played them and sang the words as well as I could. When I was finished, he said, 'Very nice, Fred. Now, how many songs have you written?' I told him five, and I had brought them all. Then he said something that has become very important to me. He said, 'I'd like you to come back after you've written a barrel-full, and we'll talk again.'"

Mr. Rogers ended on a high note: "After the initial disappointment, I got to work; and through the years, one by one, I have written a barrel-full of songs...I wished to be a songwriter, and I attached my work to my wish and that wish came true." But at least one student didn't go home happy. "On graduation day, that was the last thing that needed to be said," a WVU grad told USA Today. "I was so shocked and disappointed that it turned what should have been the greatest day of my life into one of the most surreal."

4. Russell Baker, Connecticut College, 1995

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author's address got to the heart of the whole commencement speaker tradition.

"Let's plunge right ahead into the dull part. That's the part where the commencement speaker tells the graduates to go forth into the world, then gives advice on what to do when they get out there. This is a ridiculous waste of time. The graduates never take the advice, as I have learned from long experience. The best advice I can give anybody about going out into the world is this: Don't do it. I have been out there. It is a mess."

Baker went on to list "10 Ways to Avoid Mucking Up the World More Than It Already Is." His advice was wide ranging, from "sleep in the nude" to "if you simply cannot resist being an incompetent klutz, don't boast about it by wearing a t-shirt that says 'underachiever and proud of it.'"

5. Neil Diamond, NYU, 1995

Neil Diamond attended New York University on a fencing scholarship, but didn't graduate. "I dropped out 35 years ago," he said, "and today I told my mom that I was going to receive an honorary degree." Diamond then launched into an extemporaneous rendition of "Louie, Louie." According to The New York Times, the audience cheered and danced. Had YouTube been around in 1995, this is the kind of thing the Neil Diamond-loving public would still be emailing each other.

6. Ali G, Harvard (Class Day), 2004

Ali G was not the commencement speaker in 2004—that honor belonged to Kofi Annan. But Sacha Baron Cohen did address the soon-to-be graduates in full Ali G regalia at the annual Class Day celebration. Class Day, according to the Harvard Gazette, is the "student-focused, less formal celebration of the graduating class of Harvard College." Having two big names like Ali G and the U.N. Secretary-General could have been awkward. "Kofi Annan's speech is pretty much like this," said Ali G. "He's going to have to come up with all new material."

Here's a taste of what 2004 Harvard grads (and their grandparents) were treated to:

7. Mary Schmich, 1997

In 1997, news of Kurt Vonnegut's inspiring M.I.T. commencement speech was buzzing around the Internet. Perhaps this landed in your Prodigy inbox:

Wear sunscreen.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.

Problem is, Kurt Vonnegut did not give a 1997 commencement speech at M.I.T., inspiring or otherwise. In fact, these remarks aren't his at all. No, the widely circulated advice belongs to Mary Schmich, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. It was published in the Tribune on June 1, 1997. Here's how she wrapped it up:

Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth.

But trust me on the sunscreen.

You can read the full text here.

And here are just a few of this year's speakers:
George W. Bush (Air Force Academy & Furman)
Bill Clinton (UCLA)
Al Gore (Carnegie Mellon)
Cal Ripken (Delaware)
Mary Matalin and James Carville (Tulane)
Michael Bloomberg (UPenn & Barnard)
Dave Eggers (Brown)
Bill Nye (Johns Hopkins)
Craig Newmark (Case Western Reserve)
Chris Matthews (Washington U.)
Brian Williams (Ohio State)
Oprah Winfrey (Stanford)

Do you have fond memories of your graduation speaker? Who was it?

Special thanks to researcher Kathleen Pierce (Vassar, '99) for her indispensable assistance. Her commencement speaker was James Earl Jones, who ended his address by saying "May the force be with you." Coming from Darth Vader, this didn't sound right.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 

PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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