Matt Lauer, co-anchor of NBC News’ “Today,” delivered the 2009 Senior Class Day speech in Tercentenary Theatre on Wednesday (June 3) under a canopy of green leaves and slightly overcast skies. With a joke-filled address that had the large crowd frequently in stitches, the accomplished journalist proved he is also an accomplished stand-up comedian.
In addition to crisscrossing the globe for “Today’s” popular travel series, “Where in the World is Matt Lauer?” Lauer has reported from Iraq, covered the Olympic Games in Beijing, and interviewed numerous prominent politicians, including President Barack Obama, then-first lady Hilary Rodham Clinton, and former President George W. Bush.
Recalling his own college application process, Lauer talked about a conversation with his guidance counselor in high school. Convinced he had a chance at getting into Harvard, Lauer made his case for applying. His guidance counselor, he recalled, set him straight, noting that he wasn’t allowed to add up his scores from the three times he took the SATs.
“He said, ‘Mr. Lauer, you applying to Harvard would be the biggest waste of fifteen dollars in the history of fifteen dollars.’”
Later, told by his “Today” executive producer that Harvard wanted him as the Class Day speaker, he said that he “immediately asked the question that any graduate of Ohio University would ask. I said, ‘Do I get an honorary degree? Do I get a doctorate? … Do I get a cap, a gown, a sash — anything I can sell on eBay?”
The journalist’s 20-minute speech was equal parts humor, equal parts heartfelt, as he left the seniors not only with laughs but with thoughtful parting advice.
“Have kids,” he said, “Have a lot of kids because when you find it hard to find humor in the world, kids will help you find that humor.”
Lauer told the graduating class to find at least one friend who would tell them the truth “every single time,” and to try to be that person for someone they loved, and to remember that the only thing that remains constant in life is their character.
Finally, he said, remember that a Harvard degree doesn’t mean entitlement.
“You did not win the chance to think that you are better than anyone else. This education is a powerful tool but it is just one of the tools at your disposal. I encourage you to use all your tools. Use your compassion, your kindness, your generosity, your sense of fair play, your sense of humor to build bridges to the people around you, not to erect barricades.
“You are the best and the brightest,” he added, “and I know you will make us proud.”
Class Day is a ceremony for Harvard College that is tinged with humor and is less formal than Commencement Exercises. It traditionally takes place in Harvard’s outdoor Tercentenary Theatre and includes addresses from members of the senior class.
Invited speakers Walter Cronkite, George Plimpton, Bono, Hank Aaron, and Conan O’Brien have all taken the Class Day podium.
The ceremony also included two Harvard Orations and two Ivy Orations from members of the senior class. The former took a reflective tone, while the latter were all about laughs.
In order to “resuscitate the Harvard brand,” spoofed Will Houghteling, “it will be necessary to remind the world how amazing a Harvard graduate is by keeping noses upturned at every occasion, and flouting superiority whenever possible.
“Over the next few days and week, countless people will try to humble us as we enter the ‘real’ world, constantly reminding us that hardship and failure are facts of life. Don’t listen to these people: They are losers, and they clearly did not graduate from Harvard like us.”
Trepidation is a normal and useful part of the transition from life at Harvard to the wider world, counseled Harvard orator Kendra Boothe, who in rhyming verse repeatedly advised the gathering of seniors to “Be nervous.”
“Let us sustain these nervous feelings. Let us take heart. Let us take responsibility for the spiritual currency that are our words. Let us place our attention on the positive and ignore fruitless worry.”
Alison Rich, the second Ivy orator, shared one of her future ambitions with the crowd. “I want yachts — 1,000 mink, encrusted-platinum, endangered baby yachts,” she mused.
Harvard orator Lewis Bollard told the 2009 senior class that the rigors of Harvard, which at times could lead to failure, provided an important lesson in true self-knowledge.
“The Puritans who founded Harvard College called this process finding one’s ‘calling.’ As we leave these gates, I hope that you have had enough doubts, setbacks, and frustrations to find yours.”
First Marshal of the 2009 Senior Class Committee Lumumba B. Seegars closed the event with an impromptu a cappella version of “Lean on Me,” by singer/songwriter Bill Withers.
“You are an amazing class,” he told the gathering of seniors, “and we should always be able to count on and call on each other.”