In the long run, I guess, it doesn’t really matter who spoke at your college commencement.
Most students are either completely hungover or are too freaked out about their impending descension to the ranks of the unemployed to really listen, while their families in the stands tend to be overcome with emotion as their offspring matriculate. If the speaker was interesting enough, it might make for an interesting conversational tidbit down the line.
Cokie Roberts spoke at my college graduation, in her native city of New Orleans. I have absolutely no recollection of what she talked about.
But the schools see it differently.
The commencement-speaker game is an opportunity for a school to display its clout, give students and parents a little bit of what they paid for and collect great photos to use for recruiting.
The first wave of Triad graduations has already hit, and the rest will wind down over the next couple weeks. It seems only natural to rank them.
For TCB, it’s not all about fame — though fame is an important factor in the ranking. We also looked at the speakers’ accomplishments, talents, uniqueness and relationship to the place they speak.
1. JOEY CHEEK
Shorthand: Olympic gold-medalist speed-skater
Where: UNCG (May 4)
Past speakers: Margot Lee Shetterly (author of Hidden Figures, 2017), Gov. Beverly Perdue (2009), Jim Hunt (former NC governor, 2004), Nido Qubein (motivational speaker and eventual president of High Point University, 2003), Erskine Bowles (political figure, 2000), Fred Chappell (former NC poet laureate, 1999), Art Buchwald (newspaper columnist, 1967, 1997), Maya Angelou (poet and author, 1986), Lesley Stahl (broadcast journalist, 1986), Charles Kuralt (journalist, 1973), Sen. George McGovern (1969)
Bio: Cheek won his Olympic gold in 2006 at Turin in the 500-meter sprint, and a silver that year in the 1000 meters — he took bronze in the 1000 in Salt Lake City in 2002. He then retired from professional sports and founded Team Darfur, a nonprofit focused on humanitarian crises related to the war in Darfur. Before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the Chinese government revoked Cheek’s visa for his political activity, so he could not attend.
Ever heard of him? Almost certainly, if you’re over 25.
Appropriateness: Solid; Cheek is a local boy. Before becoming an Olympic athlete, he was born and raised in Greensboro and went to Dudley High School.
What he spoke about: Cheek’s speech stressed the importance of excellence and its pursuit. “[T]here’s so much evidence that being the best at something is incredibly awesome,” he said. “It is worth the work you put in.”
2. JOSH GROBAN
Shorthand: Grammy-winning, multi-platinum songwriter and recording artist; he also played Andy Bernard’s brother on “The Office.”
Where: High Point University
Past speakers: Wolf Blitzer (broadcast journalist, 2017, last year’s winner), Condoleezza Rice (former secretary of state, 2016), Tom Brokaw (broadcast journalist, 2015), Colin Powell (retired diplomat and general, 2014), Steve Wozniak (tech entrepreneur, 2013), Laura Bush (former first lady, 2012), Lance Armstrong (world-class cyclist, 2011)
Bio: Groban is best known for a string of multi-platinum hits in the late 1990s and early 2000s — he earned his first Grammy in 2005, Best Male Vocalist for “You Raise Me Up” — but his career really began with a small role in “Ally McBeal” in 2001. He’s performed with Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand and Michael Ball, among others, and has appeared in “Parks & Rec,” “The Office,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “CSI: NY” along with several British shows, and the films Crazy, Stupid, Love with Steve Carrell and Muppets Most Wanted.
Ever heard of him? He’s that guy from that thing.
Appropriateness: Meh. Groban’s from California; his only connection to North Carolina is that he plays Charlotte and Greensboro.
What he spoke about: He told HPU’s Class of 2018 to embrace fear and trust their instincts. “I believe that it would be better to fail at doing something challenging, something worthwhile, and something I’m excited to show the world than to succeed doing something safe, something that wouldn’t actually inspire much at all,” he said.
“Every day of the first few years of my career, I felt like I was faking it,” he continued. “My confidence was a sham. I was a student and a professional at the same time. On stage, I was crushing it. Off stage, I was a ball of doubt. I’m sure you’ve all felt that during the course of your time here, and you’re sure to feel it when you leave. That is natural, it’s human and it’s okay. Plow through it.”
3. APRIL RYAN
Shorthand: The Root calls her “Queen of the White House Press Corps.”
Where: Bennett College (May 5)
Past Speakers: US Rep. Alma Adams (2017). In recent years, Bennett commencement speakers have generally been past and present university presidents.
Bio: She’s served on the White House Press Corps under four different presidents for CNN and the Urban Radio Network, one of very few women of color. Under the Trump regime, she’s squabbled with Sean Spicer, who accused her of having an agenda, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders — the day before her speech at Bennett she stormed out of a press briefing after accusing Sanders of threatening her.
Ever heard of her? If you’re newsy, or black, almost certainly.
Appropriateness: Spot-on for the venerable institution for young, black women.
What she spoke about: Strength and beauty, with a little sales pitch for the school thrown in. “Graduates, you’ve got to think about from whence you’ve come,” she told the Class of 2018. “And you’ve got to remember to give back to Bennett College. It’s not about how much you give. While you’re standing, make a pledge to Bennett in your heart today. Graduates, I also want you to remember you’re beautiful, black women, but most of all you’re beautiful.”
4. Paul Tazewell
Shorthand: The guy who designed the costumes for Hamilton.
Where: UNC School of the Arts (May 5)
Past Speakers: David LaChappelle (photgrapher/director, 2015), Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences President Cheryl Isaac Boone (2015), Angus MacLachlan/Peter Bogdanovich (directors, 2010), Kristin Chenowith (actor, 2009), Danny Elfman (composer, 2007), Forrest Whitaker (actor, 2004), Mandy Patinkin (actor, 2001), Debbie Allen (actor and choreographer, 1992)
Bio: Tazewell won a Tony for his costume design for Hamilton in 2016 and an Emmy for “The Wiz: Live” — in all he’s been nominated for six Tonys, the first in 1996 for Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk and subsequent nods for The Color Purple (2005), In the Heights (2008), Memphis (2009) and A Streetcar Named Desire (2012)
Ever heard of him? It’s safe to say you’re familiar with his work.
Appropriateness: Perfect. Tazewell is a UNCSA graduate, Class of 1986.
What he spoke about: The work-life balance, and the importance of blazing trails. “If I can pass on only one piece of wisdom, everyone deserves and should create a fulfilling life outside of work,” Tazewell said. “I learned this the hard way… slept in way too many hotels, took countless red-eye flights and I have probably reached my lifetime maximum consumption of coffee…. What I couldn’t see was that I was already successful.”
5. CARLA HARRIS
Shorthand: A unicorn — educated, black, female, rich, powerful.
Where: Wake Forest University (May 21)
Past Speakers: Stephen Colbert (TV host, 2015), Jill Abramson (former executive editor of the New York Times, 2014), Insar K. Nooye (PepsiCo CEO, 2011), Kenneth Chenault (American Express CEO, 2010), Vice President Joe Biden (2009), Arnold Palmer (professional golfer, 2005), Colin Powell (2004), Michael Bloomberg (businessman and former mayor of New York City, 2003), Sen. John McCain (2002), Barbara Bush (former first lady, 2001), Tom Clancy (author, 1992), Garry Trudeau (creator of Doonesbury, 1996), Maya Angelou (1985), Bill Moyers (journalist, 1984, 1970), Rep. Gerald Ford (1972), Walter Lippman (newspaper columnist, 1926)
Bio: Harris is currently managing director and senior client advisor at Morgan Stanley and board chair of the Morgan Stanley Foundation, as well as chair of the Food Bank for New York City and treasurer for the Apollo Theatre.
Ever heard of her? Probably not, but that won’t stop you from asking her for a job.
Appropriateness: Harris is a Wall Street banker who lives in New Jersey, so it works pretty well for Wake Forest.
What she’ll talk about: If her website, carlaspearls.com, gives any clue, her comments might include some insight on being a powerful, black woman or perhaps her philosophy of giving back, a key theme in her life. And maybe she’ll sing — she was in the Radcliffe Choral Society while an undergrad at Harvard University, has released several albums of gospel music and has performed three sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall.
6. BYRON PITTS
Shorthand: Emmy Award-winning black journalist
Where: Winston-Salem State University (May 18)
Past Speakers: Melissa Harris-Perry (journalist, 2016), Common (rapper, 2015), Michael Eric Dyson (author and educator, 2012), Stephen A. Smith (sports journalist, 2011)
Bio: Pitts has worked for “60 Minutes,” “The CBS Evening News” and ABC News, and his career has spanned the wars in Iraq, 9/11 and Katrina.
Ever heard of him? Maybe?
Appropriateness: Though he was born in Baltimore and educated in the Midwest, Pitts spent his childhood summers in Apex, which is good enough for us.
What he’ll talk about: Pitts overcame much in his career, including racism and the challenges of being raised in a single-parent home. He also had a stutter and was considered functionally illiterate by his teachers until he was 12 years old.
7. KAREN KOREMATSU
Shorthand: The daughter of the guy who resisted the Japanese internment camps during World War II.
Where: Salem College (May 19)
Past Speakers: Susan Goldberg (first female editor in chief of National Geographic, 2017), Erika James (dean of Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, 2016), Freda Lewis-Hall (Pfizer CEO, 2015)
Bio: As founder of the Korematsu Institute, Karen continues the work of her late father, Fred, who challenged President Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order to inter Japanese Americans during the war, in the process becoming a fugitive and civil rights activist. While his conviction was overturned in 1983, the law has never been formally changed.
Ever heard of her? You probably haven’t even heard of her father, though the states of California and Virginia celebrate a day named after him every Jan. 30.
Appropriateness: Points for gender and the social justice angle.
What she’ll talk about: Her father, obviously, and the legacy of the civil rights movement.
8. DENNIS QUAINTANCE
Shorthand: The guy who started Lucky 32
Where: Guilford College (May 5)
Past Speakers: Patricia Timmons-Goodson (first African-American female justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, 2017), Rev. William J. Barber II (activist, 2016), Jeff Thigpen (Guilford County Register of Deeds, 2013)
Bio: Quaintance worked his way up from a housekeeper’s assistant in Missoula, Mont. to founding partner of Quaintance-Weaver, the restaurant and hotel group that owns Lucky 32, the Green Valley Grill, Print Works Bistro as well as the Proximity Hotel and the O. Henry Hotel, all in Greensboro.
Ever heard of him? Yes, if you’re local.
What he spoke about: Quaintance discussed the importance of bringing values into day-to-day life in a humble, affable way. “My mind and my body are just my instruments — I am my intentions.” he said. “The idea of operationalizing values in general can only work if we really get good at distilling our values into something accessible, in that brief moment between stimulation and response.”
9. NC SEN. JOEL FORD (tie)
Shorthand: State senator from Mecklenburg County
Where: NC A&T University (May 12)
Past Speakers: Laila Ali (Muhammad Ali’s daughter, 2017), First Lady Michelle Obama (2012), US Rep. John Lewis (2015), Donna Brazile (author and political analyst, 2014)
Bio: A North Carolina native, Ford won his Senate seat in 2012 and has served three terms. He ran for Charlotte mayor in 2017 but lost in the primary and now seeks re-election in the Senate.
Ever heard of him? No, unless you’re an Aggie.
Appropriateness: Solid — Ford’s an alum, Class of 1994.
What he’ll talk about: When a politician gets his hands on a microphone during election season, it’s a pretty sure bet he’ll make a stump speech. Ford is in a pretty tight primary fight due to criticism that he’s too cozy with the Republican majority
9. GEOFF LASSITER
Shorthand: A baseball guy.
Where: Greensboro College (May 11)
Past Speakers: Joey Cheek (Olympic speed-skater, 2012), Navy Cmdr. Porter Halyburton (former POW, 2011), Elizabeth Dole (former senator, 2007)
Bio: Lassiter is the president of Major League Baseball’s Class A Carolina League, which includes the Winston-Salem Dash.
Ever heard of him? Probably not
Appropriateness: He’s an alum, Class of 1999
What he talked about: His speech was titled, “The View from the Valley.”