They wanted a role model, a teacher, a motivator of young people to issue the final rousing challenge to the class of '94 at Cal State Long Beach's College of the Arts. And there he was at the podium Friday morning, an unlikely sight in black robe and mortarboard instead of Dodger blue--Tommy Lasorda.
Mills College in Oakland wasn't as lucky filling its commencement marquee. After rejection by Oprah, Whoopi and Chilean-born author Isabel Allende, the all-female school settled for Alice Waters, the owner of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley. She used the occasion Sunday to warn about the hazards of fast-food.
"She was available and that's how we settled on her," said Sharon Jones, executive director of college relations at Mills.
With more than 3,500 schools hunting graduation speakers this year, administrators must stalk eye-catching names for months and put the grip on influential alums to avoid stifled yawns and even embarrassment at commencement time.
Lasorda was the first choice for Long Beach's College of the Arts even though the longtime manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers and diet-drink pitchman never attended college. His strongest higher education credential is an honorary membership in the Valparaiso University alumni association, but that was of no concern.
The idea was to sprinkle a little Dodger glory on the program and make the point that sometimes art imitates baseball. "It's very difficult to get into the major leagues and it's very difficult to get into a Spielberg film," said Howard V. Burman, chairman of the theater arts department.
In what may be the only graduation covered by ESPN, the professor of the clubhouse talked about what it takes to succeed in life (nope, it's \o7 not \f7 a split-finger fastball). According to Jay San-Martin, the student body president, Lasorda's anecdotes and banquet-circuit wisdom were a hit with the 600 aspiring Pacinos, Baryshnikovs and Van Cliburns.
"Students have been flailed, for lack of a better word, in the past by speakers, who although intelligent or renowned in their field, have not necessarily had a good connection with the student class," said San-Martin, whose position has required him to sit through seven commencement addresses so far this year. "Tommy has the ability to make that connection and he did today."
In 1947, Gen. George Marshall elevated the standards for commencement speeches when he chose Harvard University's graduation exercises to reveal his plan for redeeming postwar Europe.
For the most part, however, college officials say they are just happy to find speakers that bridge the gap between the profound and the popular. The problem is that the small circle of instantly recognizable people who can do that--President Clinton, his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, actors such as Edward James Olmos--are too busy to honor all but a few invitations.
High-demand speakers such as poet Maya Angelou, who charges $20,000, are too expensive for schools with paltry budgets or only honorary degrees to offer.
Those realities do not always stop the grumbling. Some Stanford seniors complained because President Gerhard Casper invited a former alum and distinguished Yale law professor, Stephen Carter, to speak at the June ceremony instead of Angelou, author Scott Turow or David Letterman. A student newspaper editorial lamented that the Palo Alto school could not attract a heavyweight for the graduation of its 100th class.
And at USC, a bizarre twist left the May 6 graduation program without a designated commencement speaker. The reason: Two of its honorary degree recipients, producers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, asked not to be billed as commencement speakers, although they offered limited remarks, a school spokesman said.
In the game of lining up speakers, the Milwaukee School of Engineering claimed a minor public relations coup in February when it induced actor James Doohan, who played Scotty on the original "Star Trek," to give the winter commencement address. Doohan was invited and given an honorary degree, school officials said, because he had inspired a generation of Trekkies to study engineering.
Fortune and luck shined on Whittier College--a personal plea from its president during a London trip a year ago led to Friday's extemporaneous commencement address from Anglican Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, an anti-apartheid activist who, school officials said, stood at Nelson Mandela's side during the recent South African presidential inauguration.
A commencement address is important because it helps define the school and student, said Harvard education professor Arthur Levine. The college lays bare its institutional values by selecting a speaker and the speech becomes the "last lesson" for students heading into the cruel world, he said.