Garrison Keillor, creator and host of Minnesota Public Radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” will be the orator at next week’s Harvard Phi Beta Kappa (PBK) Literary Exercises. The first academic event of Commencement Week, the exercises will take place at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, June 5, following the induction of about 100 seniors into the national honor society. The Sanders Theatre ceremony, featuring choral music by the Commencement Choir, is free and open to the public.
“This is something of a milestone,” says Everett Mendelsohn, professor of the history of science, master of Dudley House, and president of Harvard’s Alpha Iota chapter of PBK. “Over the 220-year history of our Literary Exercises, we have had distinguished statesmen, scientists, journalists, critics, and novelists as Phi Beta Kappa Orators. But we have not had a single literary humorist – not Mark Twain, not Stephen Leacock, not James Thurber. Garrison Keillor is arguably the Mark Twain of our times: an American institution.”
Keillor, 58, graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1966 and went to work for Minnesota Public Radio three years later. (“My last job interview, I trust,” he says now.) “A Prairie Home Companion” originated as a live variety show in 1974. In addition to conducting the show, Keillor hosts National Public Radio’s “Writer’s Almanac,” a daily program of poetry and history. He has written short stories, novels, a weekly column for the online magazine Salon, and occasional essays for Time. “Writing is pure entrepreneurship and a great way of life,” Keillor has said. “And then, if you do a radio show every Saturday, you have a built-in social life. So it’s a pretty good deal.”
Sharing the Sanders Theatre podium with Keillor will be Lucie Brock-Broido, this year’s Phi Beta Kappa poet. A former Briggs-Copeland assistant professor at Harvard, she now directs the poetry half of the creative writing division in Columbia University’s School of the Arts. The author of two acclaimed volumes of poetry, “A Hunger” and “The Master Letters,” Brock-Broido resides in Cambridge.
Founded in 1781 as the Alpha of Massachusetts, Harvard’s is the oldest continuously operating Phi Beta Kappa chapter in the nation. Its roll of past orators and poets includes Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Frost, and W.H. Auden.