Words of wisdom for our grads

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Photo provided by RIT Archive Collections

This image from 1967 shows RIT President Mark Ellingson handing out diplomas 
at the Rochester War Memorial.

The year-end ceremony to celebrate the accomplishments of graduating students is a popular tradition of colleges and universities. The event is characterized by pomp and circumstance, with processionals of faculty and administrators in full regalia, the conferring of honorary degrees and a commencement speaker to address students, parents, friends and staff. Engaging a high-profile person from amongst local and national politicians, business leaders, writers and journalists has become a large part of this ritual and RIT has lived up to the challenge. In the last few years, RIT has had a number of fine commencement speakers, including President Clinton, Dean Kamen, George Tenet, and Xerox chief executives Ursula Burns and Anne Mulcahy. 

But, who are some of the people who have addressed our graduates in more distant memory? The archives staff found boxes of commencement speeches from the past 80 years. Among the better-known individuals to have come to RIT: President George H.W. Bush in 1997 and Wernher von Braun, spokesman for space exploration and a key contributor to the United States’ successful moon mission. Von Braun’s 1969 speech emphasized the benefits of the U.S. space program. 

Other notable individuals with astute commentary on the times were discovered including Chet Huntley, NBC anchor of the famous Huntley-Brinkley Report team. He advised the 1967 graduates to think carefully about tearing down society’s institutions without having a plan to replace them, but also pointed out some of his own generation’s shortcomings including overriding concerns about jobs and money and, in his opinion, their overreliance on government to solve all problems. Huntley warned against letting government regulate morals and ethics, uttering the following prescient line about President Nixon: “It is doubtful that the President of the United States should be our chief ethics officer along with everything else.” 

Going back to the post-World War II period, Edward Weeks, chief editor of the Atlantic Monthly, titled his 1948 speech, “Are We Strong Enough for Peace?” and spoke about the desirability of mobilizing for peace. In 1944, Ruth Leach, the first female vice president at IBM (appointed at age 27), spoke of the women performing “men’s jobs” while the men were at war, and the women’s advancement in industry as one of the “advantages civilization will gain from the war.” These individuals and many others have addressed the RIT community, perhaps provoking, and usually inspiring the assembled crowd with their world views and sensibilities.