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Commencement speakers make the most of their brief time onstage

A Santa Monica College president may hold the record for shortest graduation address: three words.

June 07, 2009|Steve Harvey

Commencement speeches, the cartoonist Garry Trudeau once theorized, were invented largely in the belief that graduating students "should never be released into the world until they have been properly sedated."

This is the time of year when young people clad in gowns and mortarboards sit through endless, platitude-filled talks. Which raises a question: Has there ever been a short graduation address? Who gave the shortest one?

That title may belong to Richard Moore, then president of Santa Monica College.

One afternoon in 1992, Moore sat waiting under a blazing sun to deliver his address to 12th-graders at Crossroads School in Santa Monica.

The ceremony "took place on asphalt between buildings and below basketball hoops," one parent, Ralph Saltsman, told The Times. "Innumerable speeches preceded Mr. Moore.

"When he rose to speak, he paused, looked out over the audience with great presence and said, 'Feelings.' He paused again and continued to gaze out over all assembled. Then, with feeling, he said, 'Adventures.' And paused again before concluding with 'Ideas.' "

Then Moore sat down, his impromptu three-word commencement address finished.

Before Moore, one of the contenders for shortest speech-giver was Theodor Geisel, author of the "Dr. Seuss" books. He was lured out of La Jolla to receive an honorary degree from Lake Forest (Ill.) College in 1977.

Though he was listed as commencement speaker, he told officials upon arriving that he had no intention of addressing the crowd. It appeared his speech might amount to: "Thank you."

But Geisel surprised everyone by pulling out a 100-word ditty he had composed while sitting onstage.

It was an account of his Uncle Terwilliger ordering a puffed tart in a restaurant and went, in part:

"To eat these things,"

said my uncle,

"you must exercise great care.

You may swallow down what's solid


you must spit out the air!"

And as you partake of the world's bill of fare,

that's darned good advice to follow.

Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.

And be careful what you swallow.

Estimated speaking time: 40 seconds.

At Harvard in 2003, another guest seemed to be a candidate in the briefest-speech category when he showed up in nautical attire, including captain's hat, and asked the audience: "This is not the Worcester, Massachusetts, Boat Show?" Except that it was a put-on by USC alum Will Ferrell, who hung around to yuk it up for several minutes.

Though offbeat commencement speeches seem to be more common these days -- to draw bigger crowds, if for no other reason -- Beverly Simmons, a librarian/researcher at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, recently wrote that she heard about a "six-word speech given by Andrew Jackson" at Harvard in 1833. But, she added, the school has no record of it.

In the brevity-is-the-soul-of-wit category, some Internet sites contend that Winston Churchill gave this talk at a prep school in 1941: "Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never -- in nothing, great or small, large or petty -- never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense."

Time magazine, however, found that those inspiring thoughts were only part of Churchill's speech. (Even he would have admitted he was too loquacious to limit his remarks to 29 words.)

Another onetime contender was boxer Muhammad Ali. In the documentary "When We Were Kings," the late writer George Plimpton says that Ali once gave a speech at Harvard that consisted solely of the words, "Me/we."

Others, however, contend that Ali uttered the rhyme in the middle of his actual speech after a spectator yelled out a request for a poem. (Whether Ali meant to say "Me/ whee," or even "Me/oui," is a separate issue.)

Some other mini-speeches have been confirmed.

At Queens (N.Y.) College in 1994, graduate Jerry Seinfeld gave a joke-filled commencement address that lasted 1 minute and 50 seconds, according to Entertainment Weekly. The New York Times timed it at 3 minutes.

Whatever the length, a college spokesman said afterward that Seinfeld's chat "was a little more casual than I had hoped."

More taciturn yet was Utah entrepreneur Jon Huntsman Sr. at Weber State University in 2000.

He confined his remarks to one sentence: "No exercise is better for the human heart than reaching down and lifting another up." He asked audience members to repeat the words, then announced he was donating $1 million in scholarships.

Brief, but not as terse as the three-word speech Moore, the Santa Monica College president, gave that sweltering day in 1992.

"I think he felt very good about it," Bruce Smith, a college spokesman, said the other day.

And how did the spectators at Crossroads react?

"They gave him a standing ovation," Smith said.


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