By Julie France
In 1982, writer, actor, director and screenwriter Alan Alda gave the commencement speech for Kenyon’s graduating class over the hum of cicadas. But for one graduate, it was not the first time she had heard advice from Alda. That graduate was Alda’s daughter, Elizabeth Alda ’82.
Inviting commencement speakers who have a personal connection to Kenyon is not unusual. Continuing that tradition this year is ABC Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent Martha Raddatz, who will give the commencement address this May to Kenyon’s Class of 2015, which includes Raddatz’s son, Jake Genachowski.
Raddatz’s invitation to speak came in the form of a letter from Kenyon President Sean Decatur. “I got a letter from Sean Decatur — I mean like a regular, old, in-the-mail letter, and it was great and asking me to do it and I was completely thrilled,” she said. “There’s something about having it in letter form and then it was very exciting because it said, ‘Contact us if you are interested,’ and there was no email or no phone number so I think it’s more exciting than the call [Raddatz received asking her to moderate the 2012 vice presidential debate].”
Soon after moderating the debate in October 2012, she gave a speech on Kenyon’s campus titled “From War Zones to the White House” that would end up inspiring a student member of the commencement selection committee to nominate Raddatz for commencement speaker. Unlike during the debate in 2012, when she strove to remain neutral towards vice presidential candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, Raddatz will use her podium at commencement to impart advice to viewers.
“If I can make them remember one thing, that’s great, but mostly that day is about them and celebrating them,” Raddatz said regarding her upcoming Commencement speech. “But — it’s a party. It’s a celebration of the senior class and that’s what it should be, and I’ll be the party host on that day.”
In fact, this is the third “party” Raddatz will host, having previously addressed graduates at Centre College in Kentucky — the location of the 2012 debate — and Norwich University in Vermont.
Raddatz explained that she will to follow the advice Former Governor of New York Mario Cuomo was given before giving his first commencement address. “He got advice from a Jesuit, and the Jesuit priest told him you should pretend you’re the body at an Irish wake — you have to be there for the party, but no one expects much from you,” she said.
Even so, Raddatz expects the attendees on May 16 to be a “tough audience.” The toughest part of being commencement speaker, however, may have been getting nominated in the first place.
Anyone in the Kenyon community may nominate potential commencement speakers; the faculty-comprised Commencement Speaker Selection Committee then decides whether to accept or reject the nominations. The Board of Trustees narrows down and then approves the pool, which is then taken back to the faculty subcommittee for further winnowing. The final list is taken to Decatur, who has the final say in the selection.
Decatur explained that Raddatz was a candidate who had expansive knowledge to share with graduates. “[She was chosen for] the work that she’s done, the areas of the world she’s been involved in covering as a journalist and the fact that so many of those issues are still incredibly pressing and major things that we are dealing with today,” Decatur said.
Director of Public Affairs Mark Ellis agreed, saying, “I think the Kenyon audience is very well informed, the Kenyon audience is plugged in. This is a global community and she speaks to that.”
Raddatz will not receive monetary compensation for the speech — Kenyon has never paid its commencement speakers — but she will receive an honorary degree. Raddatz herself never graduated from college, but she doesn’t want people to use her experience as an excuse not to do so.
“I always said I won’t give [the fact that I never graduated college] away to people who are now juniors or seniors,” she said. “They have to graduate before I tell them that. It’s been a terrible example, but on the other hand, it’s a good example of someone who made up for stupidity, if nothing else, and figured it out nevertheless.”
Raddatz has not solidified any topics to cover in her speech; she says she is still brainstorming. In any case, her strong connection to Kenyon should make the speech more personal than usual.
James Keller, associate professor of chemistry and head of the Commencement Speaker Selection Committee, said, “We’ve run the gamut, from Bill Bryson, who pretty much only knew we were in Ohio, to someone who owns most of our paraphernalia.”
Raddatz can be seen sporting much of that paraphernalia on some fall weekends, when she visits campus to see her son play football for the Lords. When Raddatz found out about the good news at the end of last week, she said, “Jake immediately said, ‘So Mom, when someday people say, ‘So who was your commencement speaker?’ I have to say, ‘Mom’?’”