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Grads Cheer 1st Lady's Ode to Family Values

June 02, 1990|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WELLESLEY, Mass. — In the end, Barbara Bush reaffirmed what she has stood for over the past 40 years--her husband, their kids, her cause--and the Wellesley College Class of 1990 stood up and cheered.

"At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal," Mrs. Bush said. "You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent."

On their feet and on their chairs, the 535 graduates rose to roar their approval. Instead of shaking fists, several women carrying bouquets waved their flowers. The controversy, polite as it had been, over the appropriateness of having as the commencement speaker a woman who had dropped out of college and earned fame through her husband seemed to disappear.

Although there was also lavish attention paid to the Soviet First Lady, Raisa Gorbachev, who joined Barbara Bush for the trip and also addressed the crowd, it was truly the American First Lady's day.

"I had my doubts whether (Barbara Bush) would be an effective speaker for our class," said Rochelle Prentice, a 21-year-old philosophy major from the Virgin Islands. "But she was phenomenal."

In fact, many of the students had had doubts. More than 150 seniors had signed a petition complaining that having Mrs. Bush as speaker "contradicts what we have been taught" to accomplish on their own. They had wanted Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker to impart wisdom on the occasion, but she was not available.

"What people tend to neglect is that what we've trained for for the last four years is to go out and be successful," said Kim Kunz, a graduate from Cleveland, explaining the negative reaction to the final choice. "For us, that means getting a job, not necessarily being a mother."

Yet Barbara Bush's message seemed to resonate. In an ode to individuality and personal choice, she simply said that the women had to set out clear priorities.

"Maybe we should adjust faster, maybe we should adjust slower," she said of the efforts by men and women to share family responsibility. "But whatever the era, whatever the times, one thing will never change: fathers and mothers, if you have children, they must come first."

" . . . Your success as a family, our success as a society, depends not on what happens in the White House, but on what happens inside your house," she said, to a big ovation.

She also encouraged the graduates to get involved in "something larger than yourself,"--citing her work in literacy as her choice--and not to accept a life without joy.

"One of the reasons I made the most important decision of my life, to marry George Bush, is because he made me laugh," she said.

Throughout her address, which an aide said had been "worked on by just about everybody but mostly Mrs. Bush," she quoted a commencement speaker she had heard last year at Smith College; she quoted a friend's husband; she even quoted such social philosophers as Ferris Bueller of the popular movie about a conniving teen-ager.

"Find the joy in life," she urged the graduates, "because as Ferris Bueller said on his day off, 'Life moves pretty fast. Ya don't stop and look around once in a while, ya gonna miss it.' "

She also joked about the controversy over her choice:

"Now I know your first choice today was Alice Walker . . . known for "The Color Purple." Instead, you got me, known for the color of my hair."

Because of her all-white hair, Barbara Bush has been referred to as the "Silver Fox".

The two seniors who had initiated the petition complaining about the choice of Barbara Bush gave her a letter in a private meeting before the graduation ceremony urging her to be "definitive and vocal" about seven critical women's issues, including abortion rights.

Barbara Bush would not comment on the letter, which also asked the graduates to wear purple arm bands to honor women like the First Lady who "have dedicated their lives to the service of others." "They were adorable," said the First Lady when asked about the two women. "I love them."

Raisa Gorbachev focused her brief remarks on her husband's goals in attempting to renew Soviet society.

But in both nations, she continued, women have a crucial role in achieving peace and progress.

"Always, even in the most cruel and troubled times, women have had the mission of peacemaking, humanism, mercy and kindness. And if people in the world today are more confident of a peaceful future, we have to give a great deal of the credit for that to women who are active in advocating friendship, cooperation and mutual understanding among nations."

It was only later, after the graduation ceremony and a quick sightseeing tour of nearby Boston, that the two First Ladies were drawn into a discussion of the strains between family and career.

"I belong to a people who consider children and family very important for a woman," Mrs. Gorbachev said. But she said Soviet women "want to pursue professions" and the strain that puts on families was "one of the contradictions of our time."

The only visible sign of unhappiness under the giant white tent shading the graduates and their families from a hot day was directed at the Soviet First Lady. But even that was mild. As she rose to speak, two women, who were sitting among the graduates but not wearing caps and gowns, raised a banner that said, "Free the Baltics."

Yet they immediately lowered the banner, demonstrating what one woman summed up as the Wellesley way.

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