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That time of year: Commencement speakers offer words of wisdom

Actor/Comedian George Wendt, with student commencement speaker Chance's Walker, gave the keynote speech on May 7 at Saint Xavier University on the Far South Side. | Provided photo

Actor/comedian George Wendt told graduates at Saint Xavier University it’s OK to take time off to figure out who you are — if you don’t already know when you’re leaving college.

Arne Duncan, the former U.S. education secretary, told City Colleges of Chicago grads few people can plan their lives; they just have to be ready to grab opportunities when they arise.

Loyola University grads were told by Bill Plante, CBS News senior White House correspondent, that they must advocate for justice wherever they are — the world cries out for it.

CBS News Senior White House Correspondent Bill Plante gave the keynote speech at Loyola University of Chicago’s School of Communications commencement on May 12 at Loyola’s Gentile Arena. | Provided photo
CBS News Senior White House Correspondent Bill Plante gave the keynote speech at Loyola University of Chicago’s School of Communications commencement on May 12 at Loyola’s Gentile Arena. | Provided photo

And Evan Wolfson, founder and president of the national Freedom to Marry movement, told Northeastern Illinois University grads that America’s challenges can be solved if we embrace each other’s differences and work together in unity.

“This is my first college graduation ceremony,” Wendt told College of Arts and Science grads earlier this month at the university in the Mount Greenwood neighborhood.

“I did graduate . . . with a bachelor of arts in economics, for no apparent reason. I didn’t go to the ceremony though,” he said.

Former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan gave the keynote speech at the City Colleges of Chicago commencement April 30 at the UIC Pavilion. | Provided photo
Former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan gave the keynote speech at the City Colleges of Chicago commencement April 30 at the UIC Pavilion. | Provided photo

It’s that time of year when the famous don academic robes and ascend college commencement stages across the nation in hopes of inspiring the next generation.

Personalities including President Barack Obama, Howard and Rutgers universities; Michelle Obama, City University of New York; Oprah Winfrey, Johnson C. Smith University; director Steven Spielberg Harvard; and actors Spike Lee, at Johns Hopkins University, and Matt Damon, at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have shared words of wisdom this month on national stages.

A steady stream of speeches continues through June. On June 17, comedian and “Late Night” talk show host Seth Meyers will give the commencement address at Northwestern University, his alma mater. And it’s always interesting to learn who attended — or, in the case of Wendt, had a brush with — the colleges on whose stages they pontificate.

Wendt, best known for his character Norm Peterson on the long-running TV show “Cheers,” grew up in the Clearing neighborhood on Southwest Side.

“I muddled my way through high school and got into Notre Dame, but really, I was a legacy; like I imagine George W. Bush was at Yale, you know?” Wendt said.

“But Saint Xavier saved my freshman year. I had this calculus class, and I was carrying a solid ‘F.’ I come home for Christmas, and my mother, who had a great relationship with the Mercy nuns at Christ the King school on the Southwest Side, called the nuns, and they sent me right here, to Saint Xavier — where every day of Christmas break, I met with a tiny, little old nun who drilled me in calculus,” Wendt said. “After two weeks, I broke through. I figured it out.”

He still flunked out of Notre Dame during his junior year, but he graduated from Rockhurst College in Kansas City. He flailed for a few years before figuring out that he wanted to act. He enrolled at Second City and became a member of the troupe. He went on to appear on “Saturday Night Live” and has acted in film and on Broadway.

“I was an idiot. I think a more polite or accurate term might be ‘a late bloomer,’ ” Wendt said of his youth.

“All through college, my dad would badger me about my goal. Finally, to get him off my back I said, ‘OK, dad, my goal in life is to someday have a goal in life.’ When I landed at Rockhurst College, they insisted on people going to class. Suddenly, I’m going to class, and suddenly, college is so much easier. After graduating, I still had no clue what to do with my life,” he said.

“Today, I’m not speaking to you about the rest of your lives. You guys will be fine,” Wendt said. “If like me, you are a late bloomer . . . give yourself permission to figure out who you really are, and what you really want. Get any sort of job, save up to go to Europe, or Africa . . . just somewhere really far away, and for a little longer than you should. Eventually, it’ll come to you. It’s sort of like growing up. Most importantly, and I mean this sincerely, have fun!”