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May 28, 2002

Commencement speakers offer sage advice

By Eric Rangus


Pulitzer and Academy Award-winning writer Alfred Uhry led a dynamic and varied quintet of speakers at Emory 157th Commencement, on the Quadrangle, May 13.

Uhry was nothing if not down to earth. “What could I say that’s real to me and not sound pompous?” said Uhry, an Atlanta native who wrote Driving Miss Daisy and graduated from Druid Hills High School. “What would the me now tell the me back then?”

Uhry’s advice was easy to digest: trust your instincts, remember that actions have consequences, and stick with the truth—to a point.

“I don’t think you can tell the truth all of the time,” he said. “I mean, if a woman asks you how she looks, you always say ‘great,’ right? All actions have consequences, remember? But these are white lies. I’m talking about big honesty.”

His point to the graduates was to be honest with themselves; about their careers, relationships and every other aspect of their lives.

“You have come to maturity at a trying time,” Uhry said in conclusion. “Americans are being tested as we have never been tested before. I can’t even imagine what you will have faced when you are my age. Courage is more important now than it ever was. Make yourself have it—both the courage of your convictions and the courage to face whatever they throw at you.”

Even when serious, though, Uhry kept a lighthearted edge. “And have fun along the way. You might as well. It doesn’t cost anything.”

That breezy sentiment nicely wrapped up Uhry’s nine-minute speech, which made references ranging from basketballs to prostitutes to James Taylor.

The ceremony’s other speakers may not have shared Uhry’s irreverence in their remarks, but their words were no less memorable. Continuing a tradition begun last year, each honorary degree recipient briefly addressed the graduates.

Benoit Mandelbrot, a groundbreaking French mathematician whose work has influenced disciplines as varied as architecture, music and linguistics, told the graduates to be flexible.

“I’m almost 78, and I still haven’t decided [what I want to be],” said Mandelbrot, who is a professor of mathematical sciences at Yale. “Don’t rush, but don’t go too slowly either.”

Mamphela Ramphele is the managing director of the World Bank. A South African, she was the first black woman to hold the presidency of a major university—the University of Cape Town. She talked of the graduate’s responsibilities as citizens, once they left the Quad.

“Universities today are [here] to prepare global citizens,” Ramphele said. “I feel the responsibility of being a global citizen as the heaviest of all. It is the responsibility of making history every day of our lives.”

Lawrence Colburn and Hugh Thompson received a standing ovation when they received their honorary degrees—the only people on stage so honored. Colburn, Thompson and the late Glenn Andreotta risked their lives during the My Lai massacre in 1968 to save Vietnamese civilians from U.S. troops who had already killed more that 500 villagers. Three decades after My Lai, they were awarded the Soldiers Medal.

Their comments were the most sober of the ceremony. “Ordinary people are capable of unspeakable evil,” Colburn cautioned. In placing his actions during the in perspective, Colburn was succinct. “Some things are worth risking death for,” he said. “Many fewer are worth killing for.”

Thompson, who grew up in Stone Mountain, was straightforward as well. He told the graduates to stay away from negative peer pressure and revenge; and, like Colburn, he placed the actions of his youth in perspective.

“For 30 years I was very confused,” he said. “Because what we did that day was, we thought, was the right thing to do. But it’s taken 30 years to get out.

“If our future is based on our history, our past should be accurate and truthful, or our future is not very bright.”