A Mouse, and Other Surprises

“In this perilous, suffering world and in this deeply troubled nation,” as John Lithgow ’67, Ar.D. ’05, characterized them, perhaps just what is wanted in a Commencement speaker is an actor to read a children’s story about a mouse named Mahalia.

Lithgow started his talk by setting out four lessons he had learned: be creative, be useful, be practical, and be generous. (His text is sampled here, and the texts of many Commencement-week speeches may be read on-line at www.harvardmagazine.com/commencement/2005.html.) He is, he noted, not only an actor, but a best-selling author of children’s books, and he ended his address by reciting—superbly, of course—the manuscript of his fifth work in the genre, which will be published in 2007. He has dedicated “Mahalia Mouse Goes to College” to the class of 2005 and has contributed his advance to the class gift. Lithgow wrote the book with the hope that it would “make little children curious and excited about the notion of education in general and college in particular,” he told his audience. “And hopefully its usefulness will extend to pouring oil on troubled waters: your campus was roiled by a bitter, divisive controversy in the last semester of your undergraduate years. The book is my cheerful and constructive response to all the turbulence: Mahalia Mouse, you see, studies science.”

Finding herself by misadventure in a classroom on the first day of term, Mahalia’s instinct is to flee:

“But a voice held Mahalia fast in her place:/‘This course is extremely advanced./It concerns the behavior of atoms in space—/their halations and visions, their motion and pace./Don’t take it unless you’re an absolute ace.’”

Mahalia finds the professor’s challenge stimulating, stays, and studies hard, but one day the inevitable occurs and she is spotted—a mouse in the room. Earsplitting shrieks pierce the air.

“The professor stepped forward to calm the class down./He stood at Mahalia’s side./He stared at her notes with a studious brow. /‘This mouse is a genius!’ he cried./ ‘Her grasp of the subject is sharp as a blade—/this rodent shall study with me!’”

Daniel Zaccagnino '05, of Dunster House and Madison, Connecticut, wears all-purpose headgear.

Thunder grumbled and the rains came down the night before Commencement, but the day itself, June 9, was sunny, humid, and hot. Above: Caitlin C. Gillespie '05, of Cabot House and Wilmette, Illinois, suits up for her Latin Salutatory (see text).
Photographs by Jim Harrison
From left: Lowell House seniors (from left, Nicholas A. Carrington, of Pomfret, Maryland; Jason Norman, of Woodside, California; Kwame L. Osseo-Asare, of East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania; Nana-Yaw B. Asamoah, of Piscataway, New Jersey; Steven A. Smith, of Dallas; and Brandon M. Terry, of Randallstown, Maryland).
Photograph by Jim Harrison

Lithgow was a first: the first professional actor to speak at a Harvard Commencement. Following the warm reception of his speech, he became the first speaker to offer an encore and to sing—a song of his called “I’m a Manatee.” Said an alumna to an alumnus at the end, “Do you think this will be the best-remembered Commencement speech since George Marshall proposed the Marshall Plan [1947]?” “I’ll never forget Solzhenitsyn’s, either [1978],” came the reply.

In fact, Harvard’s 354th Commencement was full of firsts, a nice trick in such a long-running show. It was the first nonrainy Commencement day of Lawrence H. Summers’s presidency. It was the first year that female class marshals and aides wore red-ribbon rosettes as identifying insignia instead of red sashes; Karen Spencer Kelly ’80, of Philadelphia, chief marshal of the twenty-fifth reunion class, sported what she called a “Kentucky Derby-sized” rosette. It was the first year that candidates for degrees in public health threw vegetables (of foam, squeezable for relaxation) into the Tercentenary Theatre air when their time came in the degree-conferring phase of the ceremony; they have previously thrown condoms. Law School candidates brandished rubber gavels, a nod to the judiciary; heretofore they favored plastic sharks. Candidates from the Extension School carried inflatable lamps of learning.

Left: Candidates for degrees in government hurl worlds. Right: Gabrielle Page-Wilson ’99, Ed ’00, M.D. ’05, of Oakland, California, center, and friends wave inflated surgical gloves.
Photographs by Stu Rosner (left) and Jim Harrison (right)


Senior Fellow of the Corporation James R. Houghton ’58, M.B.A. ’62, of Corning, New York, gets the student perspective on Harvard’s “Crisis at the Helm.”
Photograph by Stu Rosner

It was the first Commencement at which the anthem “Each Future Song” was heard, newly composed and conducted by choirmaster Jameson Marvin. It was the first time that the program noted, “There will be ample opportunity for photographs at the diploma-awarding ceremonies held in the Undergraduate Houses and Graduate Schools following the Morning Exercises”—a stratagem to keep the aisles unclogged. It was the first year that all three of the addresses by students were given by women. Before delivering her Latin Salutatory, Caitlin C. Gillespie ’05, of Cabot House and Wilmette, Illinois, doffed her mortarboard and put on a pink baseball cap with a black B on the front —a variant of a Red Sox cap—and launched into an address built on a baseball/Red Sox metaphor for a Harvard College education. She referred to “Magni Mannii” (the Great Manny), perhaps a first for Ramirez, and sang (unheard of from a Latin orator) “Deduc me ad ludum pilae Harvardianum” (Take me out to the Ball Game of Harvard).

Principal speakers at Class Day—an event programmed by seniors—have ranged from Mother Teresa (who counseled chastity for her young listeners) to last year’s Ali G (who did not). NBC newsman Tim Russert was a safer choice. Indeed, as was first noted in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Russert apparently has an acceptable stock speech for graduation events, gives it repeatedly, and has done for years. At Harvard on June 8, as the Chronicle of Higher Education reported, “the students were ready. Equipped with cards listing pat phrases from past speeches, s qet out in a bingo-like format, they ticked off the passages as Mr. Russert spoke and then, having completed a row, shouted out ‘Bingo.’”

“Let me be honest with you about my own experiences with commencement addresses,” Russert confided. “I’ve been through several of my own, sat through dozens of others, and I can’t recall a word or phrase from any of those informed, inspirational, or interminable speeches.” “The best speech I ever heard,” he said, “was all of 17 words: ‘No exercise is better for the human heart than reaching down to lift up another human being.’”

Russert told jokes based on his encounters as host of Meet the Press, Yogi Berra jokes, and a story in which Barbara Bush says something witty to John Sununu. “Memo to Larry Summers,” said Russert. “Larry, women are not only good at math, they also have a sense of humor.” (Clearly, not all of Russert’s speech was canned.)

Above: Chaplain of the day Carrie A. Vanderhoop, Ed.M. '02, of Masset, British Columbia, of Wampanoag ancestry, holds a blanket memorializing the 1655 founding of the Harvard Indian College. Right, top: An early morning tête-à-tête before the guests arrive. Right: Kaitlin B. Heller '05, of Pforzheimer House and Dallas, had just taken a Divinity School course on angels.
Photographs by Jim Harrison (left) and Stu Rosner

No public speaker during the week dwelled on the troubles of the semester just completed (readers may see “At Odds,” May-June, page 55, if they are somehow unaware of them), but the Crimson devoted the magazine section of its fat June 9 edition to “Crisis at the Helm” and ran a news story up front that reprised the topic with a twist. The admissions office sends a viewbook of enticing photographs of the College to prospective applicants, and the latest version contains a shot of students examining the front page of the Crimson. When people involved in producing the brochure realized that by happenstance the paper shown was the edition of March 9 with the headline “Summers To Face No Confidence Vote,” they simply erased the headline in Photoshop and replaced it with illegible type. A Crimson reporter discovered the cover-up.

Summers himself referred to the semester’s turmoil near the start of his Baccalaureate address to the class of 2005 on June 7. He noted that he had begun his presidency in 2001, the year his listeners matriculated. “I feel a special sense of closeness with this class. We arrived at Harvard together, and there was a moment this spring… [pause, laughter, applause]…I won’t even finish the line.”

Near the end of his speech, he said, “I am proud to have shared these four years with you. My time, like yours, has had its moments of comprehension and confusion, of accomplishment and disappointment, of satisfaction and worry, of life inside and well outside the comfort zone. All that comes with thinking and with growing.”  

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