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7 Strange Commencement Speeches

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Author and mental_floss contributor John Green cracked a joke during his Butler commencement address that “these speeches only come in two varieties: short and bad.” One more category should get squeezed in with those first two: bewildering. For every short speech and bad speech, there’s one that leaves graduates scratching their heads. Here are seven of those just plain out-there addresses.

1. Tom Kenny and Bill Fagerbakke, University of Vermont, 2012

For a class of graduates born into the Spongebob generation, the prospect of Nickelodeon’s porous, yellow celebrity and his sidekick, Patrick Star, sending off the class was probably a thrilling one—even if it meant watching the show’s middle-age voice actors bantering back and forth on stage. The Kenny/Fagerbakke duo stayed in character for the entire speech, which concluded with a hip-hop cover of Vitamin C’s (spelled Vitamin S-E-A in the speech, because, you know, nautical puns) seminal “Graduation (Friends Forever).”

Here’s one choice couplet, rapped by Kenny as Squarepants:

I keep thinking about life on Lake Champlain
And how much I miss Squidward, who called me a pain.

2. Billie Jean King, University of Vermont, 2011

The tennis legend served up advice ranging from relationships (“you never know how you’re going to touch another person’s life or how they will touch yours”) to dealing with pressure (“champions in life adjust and adapt”). And then, in true Billie Jean King form, she pulled out a hidden racket and served up tennis balls too, lobbing at least 12 into the audience while Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom” played on the speakers.

She had explained that Sir Elton wrote the song in her honor earlier (her friendship with John was a centerpiece of the speech), but didn’t offer any explanation for showing off her wicked forehand by pelting a crowd of about 8000 with tennis balls.

3. Theodor Geisel, Lake Forest College, 1977

“He reached under his academic gown, announcing loudly for all to hear that it was ‘a bathrobe,’ pulled out a piece of paper from his shirt pocket and turned to the microphone,” Lake Forest President Emeritus Eugene Hotchkiss III recalled in 2004. “And the rest, as they say, is history.”

Thirteen years before penning perennial grad gift “Oh, the Places You’ll Go,” Dr. Seuss (who actually was a doctor—Lake Forest awarded him a Doctor of Humane Letters degree) read the Class of ‘77 a poem he titled, “My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers.” The poem is about exactly what it sounds like: popovers as metaphors for surviving the real world.

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.

4. Richard T. Jones, University of Maryland, University College, 2011

When the actor who stars in the Why Did I Get Married? films was charged to write the commencement address for UMUC, the smart move would’ve been to actually write a speech. Instead, Jones stumbled through 10 minutes of awkward improvisation, punctuated with bursts of awkward silences. “I had this great speech ready for you guys,” he says early on in the address, “but then they put me behind a bunch of doctors…and they said everything I was going to say. So I figure I’ll just keep talking until I say something.”

The bumbling speech was caught on tape—251,000 thousand views and counting—and for ten minutes long on awkwardness and short on applause, Jones kept talking until he said something.

5. Will Ferrell, Harvard, 2003

Ferrell’s speech, like several of his classic Saturday Night Live sketches, goofed on then-president George W. Bush. The former SNL star recycled his claim-to-fame impression of Bush’s Texan twang to read a letter he promised his audience was a “message from the President of the United States.”

Ferrell jumped from one bit to the next, capping his speech with a rendition of Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind,” singing, “Don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the Harvard alumni endowment fund.” At Harvard’s commencement, Ferrell was Saturday Night Live’s cold open, monologue, and musical guest all in the span of one speech.

6. Aaron Sorkin, Syracuse University, 2012

The screenwriter must have loved the speech he wrote for SU’s College of Visual and Performing Arts convocation in 1997. When he gave the Orange’s commencement speech 15 years later, not much changed. He regaled the audience with some anecdotes from his previous address—casting “A Few Good Men” being one—pretty much verbatim.

Besides revisiting his speech wholesale, Sorkin also lifted quotes from his own shows. One line (“It seems to me that more and more we’ve come to expect less and less from each other, and I think that should change”) appeared in the second season of both “The West Wing” and “Sports Night,” and again in the speech. Quote-ception?

7. Sacha Baron Cohen, Harvard, 2004

The speech started with Baron Cohen walking up to the podium sporting his character Ali G’s trademark red sweatsuit and beanie. It ended with Cohen in the handcuffs of a Harvard University Police Department officer (the arrest was fake).

Transcripts from Ali G’s teleprompter include faux-gangster slang like, “U iz clever and quite fly, if u don’t mind me sayin,” and “Normally da only public-speaking that me does is to 12 people.” Ali G wasn’t awarded any honorary degrees, but it’s not that Sacha Baron Cohen needed one: the comedian/actor is a Cambridge University alumnus.

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A Voice Recognition App Adds Sound Effects While You Read to Your Kids
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Technology is coming for kids’ story time, but maybe not in the way that you think. The future of bedtime stories, as MIT Technology Review describes it, won’t involve tablets or reading off screens, but it will have sound effects.

Novel Effect is an app that uses voice recognition to track the bedtime stories you’re reading to your kids and insert sound effects and music in response to certain cue words. It’s similar to a home assistant, such as the Amazon Echo or Google Home, except instead of playing music and setting kitchen timers for you, it’s on the ear-out for keywords contained in certain kids’ books.

Four mobile app screenshots side-by-side of the Novel Effect app.
Novel Effect

The app doesn’t work for all titles, but it offers effects for popular books you probably already own, like Where the Wild Things Are, The Hungry Caterpillar, and The Cat in the Hat. When you open the app on your phone, you select which book you plan to read. As you read the physical book out loud, the app listens for where you are in the text and adds sound effects, from dramatic music to monstrous roars.

It’s not going to trigger odd sound effects every time you say the word “caterpillar,” though. (Unlike the Amazon Echos that heard the words “Alexa, buy me a dollhouse” on a TV news report and rushed to fulfill the order.) The words have to correspond to the book you’ve selected in the app, though you don’t have to read the text from the beginning or keep any specific time. The app can recognize where you are in the book no matter where you start or whether you dive off into a tangent about how cool caterpillars are before resuming the story.

Novel Effect is part of Amazon’s Alexa Accelerator for voice recognition technology, and it seems feasible that one day this kind of functionality would be a skill you could enable on your Echo or other voice-controlled assistant. According to MIT Technology Review, the company hopes to allow users to create their own sound effects sometime in the near future.

[h/t MIT Technology Review]

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History
The Day Notre Dame Students Pummeled the Ku Klux Klan
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At first glance, there was nothing unusual about the men who stepped off the train in South Bend, Indiana on the morning of May 17, 1924. Dapper and mannered, they drifted from the station to the downtown area. Some headed for a nearby office that sported a red cross made out of light bulbs stationed in the window. Others roamed around looking for Island Park, the site of a planned social gathering.

A closer look at these visitors revealed one common trait: Many were carrying a folded white robe under their arm. Those who had arrived earlier were fully clothed in their uniform and hood, directing automobile traffic to the park.

The Ku Klux Klan had arrived in town.

Fresh off a controversial leadership election in Indianapolis, Indiana, there was no reason for Klansmen to have any apprehension about holding a morale booster in South Bend. Indiana was Klan territory, with an estimated one in three native born white men sworn members within state lines. Just a few months later, Klansman Ed Jackson would be elected governor.

It was only when Klansmen found themselves guided into alleys and surrounded by an irate gang of Catholic students from nearby Notre Dame University that they realized mobilizing in South Bend may have been a very bad idea.

The Klan wanted a rally. What they got was a full-scale riot.

Photo of KKK Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
By IndyStar, Decemeber 12, 1922 issue, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Politically-endorsed prejudice was the order of the day in the early part of the 20th century, when the Klan—first created in 1866 to oppose Republican Reconstruction with violent racial enmity and then revived in 1915—expanded its tentacles to reach law enforcement and civil service. No longer targeting people of color exclusively, the KKK took issue with Catholics, the Jewish faith, and immigrants. An estimated 4 million Americans belonged to the Klan in the 1920s, all echoing the group’s philosophy that only white, God-fearing citizens were worthy of respect.

Under the guidance of Indiana's Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson, the group had attempted to shift public perception from the lynch mobs of the past to an orderly and articulate assembly. Rallies were held in KKK-friendly areas; propaganda material was becoming an effective weapon for their cause. Acceptance of the Klan’s ideology seeped into political office; Stephenson was a prominent Indiana politician.

To help continue that indoctrination, the Klan made plans for a parade in South Bend to be held on May 17, 1924. That it would be in close proximity to the Notre Dame campus was no mistake: At the time, 75 percent of the school's nearly 2000 students were Catholic, a religion the Klan found abhorrent. By pledging allegiance to the Vatican, their reasoning went, Catholics were acknowledging a foreign power. In the fall of 1923, they had persisted in setting crosses on fire near the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, a predominantly Catholic college, and were frequently chased off by angered football players. That December, the Klan set off firebombs in Dayton during Christmas break. While no one was seriously injured, the intent was to send a message—one they wanted to spread to Indiana.

In the weeks and months leading up to the parade, both students and faculty began to get a taste of that perspective. Copies of the Fiery Cross, the official Klan newspaper, circulated on campus; one Klansman showed up at an auditorium to broadcast that Catholics were not good Americans. He exited the stage when attendees began throwing potatoes at him.

If that public response was foreshadowing, the Klan either ignored or failed to heed the warning. Members began arriving the Friday evening prior to the rally and were met at the train station by irritated students, who scuffled with the early arrivals by ripping their robes. By Saturday morning, when more Klansmen arrived, hundreds of students were in town, a loosely organized anti-Klan task force.

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Klan members were used to breezing into towns without incident. Here, they were immediately confronted by young, ornery college kids proud of their Catholicism. Klansmen were led into alleys and tossed into walls; students who played for the school’s legendary football squad formed wedges, the offensive line-ups found on the field, and plowed into groups of Klan members like they were challenging for a state title.

The violence, swift and sudden, prompted the Klan to retreat to their headquarters in South Bend. The students followed, their blood pumping hot at the sight of the red cross lit in the office window. Below it stood a grocery store with barrels of fresh potatoes. The students lobbed them at the glass, smashing the bulbs inside.

The conflict had been uninterrupted by law enforcement, but not for lack of trying. Deputy Sheriff John Cully, himself a Klansman, tried to enlist the National Guard but was shot down by officials. Notre Dame president Matthew Walsh had already implored students not to go into town, but his words went unheeded.

Unencumbered by authority, the 100 or so students idling near the Klan’s office decided they wanted to seize the hideout. Dozens began running up the stairs but were greeted by a Klan member who produced a gun. Unarmed, the students backed off. Four seniors went back and came to an impromptu truce: The student body would disperse if the Klan agreed to hold their rally without weapons or their robes.

The agreement seemed to placate both sides until Stephenson finally arrived in town before the parade’s scheduled 6:30 p.m. start. Assessing the roughed-up Klansmen and their skittish behavior, he complained to the police, who posted officers on horseback around their assembly at Island Park.

But there would be no rally: A heavy downpour prompted Stephenson to call it off, although the potential for further violence likely weighed on his mind. Lingering students who still hadn’t returned to campus met departing Klansmen as they attempted to drive out of town, smashing windows and even tipping over one car.

By Sunday, things seemed to have settled down. Walsh cringed at newspaper reports of the incidents, fearing it would portray the students as thugs.

Unfortunately, neither side was done protesting. And when they met a second time, the robed men would be backed up by lawman Cully and a squad of 30 deputized Klansmen.

Denver News - The Library of Congress (American Memory Collection), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Students back on campus Monday had taken to hanging up seized Klan robes and hoods on their walls like trophies. It had been a rout, with the Klan barely putting up a fight.

Now, word was spreading through the halls that the Klan had captured or perhaps had even killed a Notre Dame student. Roughly 500 students jogged the two miles back into South Bend, eager for another confrontation.

When they arrived at the Klan’s headquarters, the light bulb cross had been rebuilt. It was an act of defiance, and the students moved forward. But the Klan was prepared: Many had been deputized, and uniformed officers joined the melee. Axe handles and bottles were brandished, and blood began to stain the street. It was a clash, with parties on both sides laid out.

When he got word of the conflict, Walsh rushed to the site and climbed on top of a cannon that was part of a monument. Shouting to be heard, he implored students to return to campus. His voice cut through the sounds of breaking glass, snapping the students out of their reverie. They returned to the school.

Absent any opposition, the Klan did the same. Stragglers from out of town returned home. With bombastic prose, writers for the Fiery Cross later recapped the event by accusing Notre Dame students of “beating women and children.” Later that summer, they declared they’d be returning to South Bend in greater number.

It never happened. Although the Klan maintained an aura of strength for several more years, the conviction of Stephenson for raping and murdering a woman in November 1925 extinguished one of their most enthusiastic leaders; the Depression dampened the ability of new recruits to pay dues. By 1930, the Klan was down to an estimated 45,000 members.

While Walsh never condoned the vigilante justice exacted that weekend, he never disciplined a single student for it.

Additional Sources:
Notre Dame vs. the Klan, by Todd Tucker (Loyola Press, 2004)
"Hearing the Silence: The University of Dayton, the Ku Klux Klan, and Catholic Universities and Colleges in the 1920s" [PDF], by William Vance Trollinger

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