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Commentary Last Updated: Mar 20th, 2007 - 00:40:11

A commencement to remember
By Kenneth Nichols
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Mar 20, 2007, 01:34

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May 17, 2004, was a date I anticipated for many years. I overcame obstacles both academic and personal to find myself at commencement: I was graduating from the State University of New York at Oswego with a degree in English/Writing Arts. (In addition to proving my intellectual endurance, the EWA degree also licenses me to work the Fryolator at any McDonald�s in the country!)

One of these obstacles was the ironic intolerance of students who shamelessly proclaimed their liberal ideals. Liberalism, which should be fairly synonymous with pluralism, is practiced with a blind eye toward thoughts with which one does not agree. I possess very few extreme positions, but there are many issues for which college students, removed from real world concerns, can�t accept a moderate opinion.

These hardships were not on my mind as I slipped into my robe and mortarboard. (I also paid $13 for a gold cord because I graduated cum laude.) My father and friends and I took the requisite pictures. My father�s back usually fails him when he must remain stationary for long periods of time, but he was in good spirits. After all, his son was graduating, and the commencement address was to be given by one of his heroes.

The ceremony was a thrill. With all my colleagues in the garb of academia, and the culmination of my dream at hand, it was easy to be swept away. It was also easy to ignore the boring formality of such events. By coincidence, I would hear an address from a man who had inspired my father for many years. At last, the college president introduced him, and he took the stage. His movements were rendered with age-inspired care, but something in his regal bearing and staunch countenance inspired confidence and begged faith.

# # # # #

In 1965, my father was a bright 10-year-old boy who knew nothing of what his future would hold. Like most children of the time, he was infatuated with the Kennedys. The dreams and optimism of the time reverberated through his Detroit suburb, while the melancholy of the Kennedy curse was something he would face in the future.

At 10, the little boy who would become my father found out about a new book. A grown-up�s book. Probably tugging on her apron, he asked his mother if he could buy it. He is told he can do whatever he pleases with his own money.

Browsing through the shelves of books for sale, my father had a 10-dollar bill carefully tucked into his jeans pocket for security, just as he instructed me decades later. The little boy�s eyes scanned the book spines and their bright titles. At last: Kennedy by Theodore Sorensen. The hardcover book was thick, and barely fit in his tiny hands. He was captivated by JFK�s melancholy face and marketable name. He opened the cover, and looked to the inner flap. His heart sank when he saw the price: $6.95.

With his fifth-grade arithmetic, my father knew he had enough to buy the book. But seven dollars? He thought. That�s 65 comic books . . . or 140 packs of baseball cards . . . or a month at the movies . . . With a heavy heart, he returned the book to the shelf.

Returning empty-handed, my grandmother asked what was wrong.

�They didn�t have the book I wanted,� my father said, shrugging it off.

It�s something my father has felt guilty about for nearly 40 years: A few days later, his parents bought him the book anyway.

Though he didn�t understand all the words, the book and its message stayed with him.

# # # # #

Theodore Sorensen, wearing the new vestment bestowed upon him, certainly knew how to play an audience. (Probably a big help when writing speeches for John F. Kennedy.) He started with a joke about Oswego�s massive snowfall and bitter cold that made the audience laugh.

As one of the best-connected campus politicians was my friend, I knew that the contents of the speech were going to turn interesting.

�Three times in my lifetime,� Sorensen said. �Enemies of the United States have planned to unleash terrible destruction upon our homeland.�

I felt the imminent chill creeping over the audience as he reminded the audience about Pearl Harbor, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the �terrorist� attacks of September Eleventh. This chill eerily resembled the same breeze off of Lake Ontario that cooled the campus.

Sorensen spoke with the conviction of a preacher fighting for souls. �President Kennedy in 1962, unlike President Bush in 2001, upon being informed of a possible attack upon United States territory, did NOT take any of the following five steps . . .�

Some of the parents in the bleachers began to shout. �Get off the stage!� They booed. Though I was no more than 20 feet from the man, I couldn�t hear a word.

Sorensen simply compared Kennedy�s actions to those of George W. Bush. Where Bush has been lethargic, Kennedy was proactive. Where Bush has been closed-minded, Kennedy was open. (Sorensen should know -- he was by Kennedy�s side during some of the most harrowing days of recent history.)

I�m a performer, and I�ve hit some sour notes with audiences, but nothing like this. Several times, Sorensen had to stop because of the noise. The president of the college stood by his side and asked the parents to remain quiet. Most of the students ended one long pause with a burst of applause.

With dignity, Theodore Sorensen implored the graduates of the Class of 2004 to improve the world around them. Too bad few of us heard.

# # # # #

I�ve always tried to relate to my father through his love for the Kennedys. I spent a couple years on Cape Cod, sending him pictures of myself near the JFK Memorial in Hyannisport, and even distant pictures of the Kennedy compound I took from a harbor ferry. �So, Dad,� I said. �Did you enjoy the ceremony? I mentioned Kennedy�s speechwriter would be here, didn�t I?�

He stood near the exit, stretching his back, wincing in pain. �Yeah, I guess.�

�What did you think about Sorensen?� I asked.

�I don�t know . . .�

I rolled my eyes. �What�s not to know? He was close to JFK. Wasn�t it nice to see someone like that speak?�


�Well, what did you think about what he said?� I hoped this would inspire a multisyllabic answer.

�He was talking bad about Bush, right?�

�I couldn�t hear much.� I said. �Right or wrong, it wasn�t the parents� place to drown him out. This was my day. Not theirs.�

�Right, but all he did was say bad things about Bush. He�s supposed to inspire you guys, tell you that you�re inheriting the world, and you�re supposed to change it for the better.�

As we headed to a reception, I grabbed my $13 cord so it wouldn�t blow away in the wind.

�But that�s what he did, Dad. He feels that Bush isn�t doing the right thing. He compared it to a similar event he lived through, and he�s telling us how to apply his knowledge for the betterment of the country.�

�I just don�t think it was the place.� My father said it with the same no-hope voice he used when I wanted a car at 16. I changed the subject.

# # # # #

The pomp of the day wore away quickly, primarily because I had to move the contents of my dorm room into my father�s car in the rain. Hot and soaked with sweat and Oswego rain, we drove the hour home speaking of other things, primarily the future I would forge for myself.

I had to unload the car, and unpack my things. My father knew that I would reprimand him if he tried to help, so he resumed his place in his recliner.

I noticed it when I brought my 6-year-old computer and monitor in. My father was standing before his bookshelves, running his fingers over the spines. He has as many Kennedy books as Beatles CDs. After the paperback copy of Profiles in Courage that I gave him, he found Kennedy, by Theodore Sorensen. He tried to hide the title, but I noticed. He lovingly read the book, carefully turning the pages.

That is the future I shall try to build for myself, and society should follow suit. Strong opinions are a good thing, but better when reinforced by contemplation of facts supporting different ones. One can even admit one is wrong, for greater shame is derived from blind action, particularly when that action is born of proud ignorance.

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