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Garland at Niles West: Can’t anticipate life’s ‘twists and turns’

Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, a Niles West alumnus, speaks at Niles West's 2016 commencement ceremony Sunday in Skokie. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

Until Sunday, the last time Merrick Garland spoke at a Niles West commencement was in 1970, when he was the class valedictorian who defended a fellow student after his microphone was cut because of controversial comments about the Vietnam War.

Some 46 years later, a nostalgic Garland, a Supreme Court nominee facing an unprecedented confirmation battle, returned to the very same football field in Skokie to talk to the class of 2016 about the ebb and flow of life.

Garland, at the head of the graduation procession, marched into Basrak Stadium, the home of the Wolves, under a sunny sky. He led the robed grads — white for girls, red for boys — as the school’s string orchestra played “Pomp and Circumstance.”

He brought with him from his home in the Washington suburbs his Lincolnwood Little League team cap and briefly donned it at one point.

“I owe this place a lot,” said Garland, now a federal appeals court judge in Washington.

Garland did not mention the fight the White House and outside allies are waging against GOP Senate leaders who refuse to give Garland a hearing and an up-or-down vote.

The closest was an allusion – and even this may be a stretch — to the particular limbo Garland is in.

“I am here to tell you that you cannot anticipate the twists and turns that life will take, nor should you. Life would be pretty boring if you could plan it all out on graduation day,” said Garland.

Garland told the grads that Niles West did “for me, the next best thing. It prepared me for the unexpected.”

Garland has a very narrow path to the high court for reasons having nothing to do with him and everything to do with Republicans long at odds with President Barack Obama.

Hours after Justice Antonin Scalia died last February, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Obama – who then had 11 months left to his term – not to bother to nominate a replacement.

McConnell, in an interview aired this weekend on CBS “Sunday Morning,” said he was not wavering on blocking Garland’s nomination as long as Obama is president. If Garland is “on the Supreme Court, he’ll be nominated by the next president,” McConnell said.

Garland, born in Chicago and raised in Lincolnwood, toured Niles West on Friday and spent much of Saturday with his family at the Northbrook home of Jill Roter, his sister. Garland’s mother, Shirley, was able to view with her son the video of Obama nominating Garland to the high court on March 16 in the White House Rose Garden.

Joining Garland at the stadium Sunday for the judge’s homecoming were: Garland’s wife, Lynn; daughter Becky; Roter, with her family; and Steve Davidson, Garland’s Niles West and Harvard Law School buddy.

Garland sprinkled his speech of about 15 minutes with local references. Students cheered when Garland rattled off the names of the Niles West feeder schools, Culver, Lincoln Hall, Lincoln Junior High, Parkview and Fairview and the suburbs where they lived, Lincolnwood, Skokie, Morton Grove and Niles.

He put on his Little League cap as he talked about how his best friend — as a kid and as an adult — was his pal from Niles West.

On the most serious note, Garland talked about overseeing the investigation of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

“Bad things happen to good people,” Garland said.

Garland said his parent gave him a set of values, underscored at “West,” which he summed up as “a responsibility to give back.”

He urged the students to devote part of their lives to some form of public service.

“All of us, you and I, were lucky to be born in a place and time that got us to this graduation ceremony. All of who went to Niles West, you and I are better prepared to face the uncertainties of the future than many of our fellow Americans.

“Not one of us did anything — by ourselves — to deserve that initial luck. So pay it back. Devote some part of your life to public service. It does not matter what part of public service you choose,” Garland said.

Thea Gonzales, 17, from Skokie, was one of the Class of 2016 keynote speakers. She said after the ceremony she was a bit surprised Garland did not mention the Supreme Court, but that showed he came to Niles West to talk about the school, and not himself.

Said Gonzales: “He was focusing outward, on the greater good, on the greater school itself, which was awesome.”