At U of All People, we rarely get the kind of commencement speakers that draw headlines: no Hollywood film stars or Wall Street magnates, no First (or even Second) Ladies. When we invited our own college president, Rather Knott, we were turned down. Twice. Maybe this is why, for the past five years, the keynote speaker has been Provost Milt Toast, whose squeaky voice has become oddly reassuring, even as year after year he mispronounces graduation as “gradiation.”
But starting this year, we’d like to rectify the situation, especially since our students and alums are tired of hearing the same “go forth into the world and do no harm” speech from the last five occasions. (Also, Provost Toast has made it clear that he’ll be away this commencement, according to the seven memos he sent last week.) The problem is that we have, as always, no budget, so we have to rely on the kindness of strangers and presumed acquaintances in our little realm of academe. Here is our hastily composed short list of candidates:
Politician: Maybe we can’t invite someone like Nancy Pelosi or Al Gore, but we’ve got someone with senior statesman experience right in our backyard: Dan Minor, mayor of Burgh, the city 30 miles away from U of All People, and home of Sanding Belt Industries. Mayor Minor has been in his post for 20 years, largely uncontested, running on a tax-cut platform that’s reduced the Burgh school system to a one-room schoolhouse. Yet rumors of graft are largely unfounded, or at least unfindable, despite mayoral perks of a tennis court and private airstrip. A bonus: Minor is a 1980 UAP graduate, and though he’s never donated anything more than his annual class dues, he might kick in if we flatter him with an honorary degree in something or other.
Media personality: David Duchovny, Alicia Silverstone -- out of our league. Thank God for Summer Day, local TV weatherperson and occasional news anchor. With her trademark “stormy” hair and drizzle-proof smile, Summer has announced the weather on Channel 17 Cable through rain, shine, and those kidney-shaped hailstones we had last March. She’s the first person we tune in to every morning, and the one we look toward in times of doubt, such as when we’re planning a weekend at the beach. Inviting her would guarantee sunshine at commencement.
Business tycoon: Warren Buffett is never going to stand on our homemade proscenium stage and urge investment in the future. But we can rely on Woody Pohl, the owner of Sanding Belt Industries in Burgh. A mom ’n’ pop business that grew to over 50 employees during the '80s, tanked in the '90s, and was bailed out by Mayor Minor in a documents-sealed case, Sanding Belt remains a mainstay of the region. In 2007, when his son Tadd applied to UAP, Pohl donated three giant sanding conveyor belts to the UAP fitness center to be used as treadmills.
Writer: Toni Morrison and Derek Walcott aren’t in the cards. But probably for the price of a campus book-signing, we can get Art Manqué, the author of such semi-noted novels as Aha! and Bring Me a Fork. A fixture at the local Starbucks, Manqué can often can be seen walking his laptop along the slagged paths of the UAP campus while muttering what appears to be character dialogue. His second-to-last novel is set in UAP’s student cafeteria.
Doctor: Do people even know who today’s surgeon general is? Never mind Regina Benjamin or even C. Everett Koop. We’ve got Lotta Miles, M.D. Starting out as a cosmetologist two decades ago, Dr. Miles is now a plastic surgeon with a large regional practice (“Miles ahead of the rest!”), responsible for the look of an estimated 20 percent of our student bodies.
Scholar-educator: Harold Bloom is busy. Jacques Derrida is dead. But we’ve got the beloved teacher and trainer Thayer T. Rex, a mainstay of our Classics/Art/Phys. Ed. Department for over 35 years. The rumor about his retirement in 2008 never panned out, but having Professor Rex deliver a valedictory speech to the undergraduates might make him take a hint.
If none of these speakers accept, we have a video of Provost’s Toast’s speech from last year we might be able to use.
David Galef is happily employed as an English professor at Montclair State University, not, thankfully, at U of All People.