Graduation Speakers Come From All Walks of Life

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When the graduating class of Magruder High School attended its commencement ceremony this week, the scheduled guest speaker was someone they might have seen just a couple weeks before--in the National Basketball Association playoffs.

A player for the Detroit Pistons, Jerome Williams is one of the Rockville, Md., school's more notable alumni.

Mr. Williams, who graduated from Magruder High in 1991, said he was honored that "the kids would think enough of me to ask me to come back and speak to them on such an important day.

"I'm too young to lecture them on what they should or shouldn't do to be successful," he said in an interview last week. "I'm going to tell them what they can do."

Most high schools select commencement speakers from a pool of students, teachers, and administrators, said Paul Houston, the executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators.

But others look outside the school system for figures of regional or national prominence. Usually they do so with the input of the graduates themselves.

"We have a meeting with the students and see what their interests are, and from that we hope to get a list of people we write letters to and see who responds," said Carol Kenefick, a teacher who helped organize the commencement ceremony at Magruder High this year.

High-Profile Names

Public and private schools located in or near large cities usually find it easier to attract celebrities.

In New York City, local authors such as Frank McCourt, a former teacher who wrote the critically acclaimed best seller Angela's Ashes, and travel writer Barbara Lazear Ascher are slated to speak at area high schools.

In Washington, as one would expect, politicians are frequently invited to serve as commencement speakers. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, R-Va., and former vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp are both scheduled to speak at graduations this month in Fairfax, Va., a Washington suburb.

At Washington's prestigious Sidwell Friends School, students and school officials typically select a speaker from a list of parents and alumni, said Ellis Turner, an assistant head of the private school.

This year, he added, "we had a parent everyone could agree on." President Clinton is slated to speak at his daughter Chelsea's graduation ceremony June 6.

But nationally prominent commencement speakers aren't limited to big-city schools. Last spring, at the request of the graduating seniors, Rush Limbaugh returned to his hometown of Cape Girardeau, Mo., to speak at Cape Girardeau High School.

The conservative radio personality kept his political views out of his speech, said Bill Biggerstaff, an assistant superintendent at the high school.

"He gave a motivational-type speech, challenging the students to be all they can be," Mr. Biggerstaff said. "I think the kids were excited to have him. His family still lives here so they had that connection."

Governors across the country are often asked to speak at graduations. Phil Batt of Idaho typically speaks at most of the seven or eight high school commencement ceremonies he is invited to address every year, said Frank Lockwood, the governor's press secretary.

"I think politicians should participate as much as they can in the ceremonies," said Mr. Batt, a Republican. "This is a chance to give the students some encouragement and some advice, and that's what I try to give them."

Unusual Traditions

Graduates of East Bloomfield Junior-Senior High School in East Bloomfield, N.Y., already know the theme of the speech they will hear on graduation night: flight.

In this school of 600 students, graduation speakers traditionally speak to a broad theme that the students studied in various ways over the course of the school year. This year, the school has asked Ontario County Court Judge James Harvey to speak at the commencement ceremony--40 years after his own graduation from the high school.

"I'm always willing to speak to young people because they are our tomorrow, and it's coming fast," Judge Harvey said. "But the important thing you have to remember is to keep it short."

Students at Eureka High School in Eureka, Ill., have an unusual tradition for selecting a speaker. Every spring, the editors of the school newspaper sponsor an essay-writing contest for students to describe their favorite teacher. The teacher with the greatest number of complimentary essays is given the honor of speaking at commencement.

Retiring teacher William Hohulin addressed the 1997 graduating class last month after teaching social studies at Eureka High for 37 years.

"My speech went together so quickly just with all the memories I have," Mr. Hohulin said. "It was a real honor to be chosen."

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