Steve Rushin's Commencement Address to Marquette University

 

May 20, 2007


Thank you. Good morning, Father Wild, trustees, faculty and administrators, my fellow honorees, proud parents and families. And congratulations, members of the Class of 2007.

That lovely introduction was a kind of way saying I am now out of a job.

I know what some of you must be thinking. You're thinking: I went to Marquette. I’m unemployed. Why aren't I giving the commencement address? And you have a point.

When Father Wild asked me to deliver this address, I thought I would literally be delivering it, to someone more dignified than I, who would then read it to you. When he mentioned DHL, I said, "Sure, DHL or UPS, I'll get it there." Then he explained that DHL was a Doctor of Humane Letters and that I would be getting one. And I thought, this must be some kind of a clerical error. After all, he is a cleric.

But I am grateful beyond words for this honor. Nineteen years ago, my commencement speaker was the honorable William H. Rehnquist, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. And while I don't remember what he said that day, I do vividly recall being inspired by his example, and I vowed then and there that I too would pursue a career that allowed me to spend all day in a robe.

And so I became a writer. Writing is a solitary existence, hours on end spent alone in a room. Many days, I have no reason to put on pants.

Today, for instance.

But I hope you will not infer a lack of seriousness from my lack of pants. Another man who seldom wore pants - Gandhi - was asked what he thought of Western civilization. He replied, "I think it would be a great idea."

And to this day, civilization too often remains just that - an elusive goal, a great idea, one that all of you are now charged with making a reality.

Iraq. The environment. Disease and genocide in Africa. All of these issues now seem insoluble, just as apartheid and the Cold War did when I arrived at Marquette. But have faith: By the time I graduated, they were already becoming memories. I wish I could claim some causal connection, but alas, no. I did not bring down the Berlin Wall as my summer job. No, on my summer job, I worked at a Tom Thumb convenience store and wondered what would become of my life, and if that life would involve Slurpees. Standing behind the counter in a red smock, I envied the hot dogs as they rode all day on that little hot dog Ferris wheel.

But the point remains: You mustn't think the world's problems can't be solved, and you mustn't think that you - you, individually - are not the one to solve them. You are.

Believe me: If I stand here today receiving a doctor of letters, you will all be getting Nobels. As a sophomore, I remember sprinting from the old Amigo's at 16th and Wells back to my room at Tower with a bagful of Mexican food when I got caught in a Biblical downpour. The bag - already translucent with grease - split open and all the food fell into a filthy puddle in the parking lot of Cobeen, and I stood there staring forlornly at the nacho chips and chalupas adrift on the water, a tortilla flotilla.

What did I do next? Exactly what all of you would have done: I gathered it up, brought it to my room, put it all on my radiator to dry. And then I ate it. For the rest of the year, my room smelled like 10,000 Taco Bells. Imagine sleeping inside a rolled up chimichanga or living inside the deep-fryer of a Chi-Chi's restaurant and you get some idea. It smelled so bad that at the end of the year, my roommate, driven to madness, committed an act so strange, so depraved, so irrational that it still defies belief: He transferred to Madison.

All of which is to say I am not a person who would presume to advise you on how to solve the world's problems. Except to repeat that they can be solved and that you are the ones to solve them.

Right now some of you are asking yourself how can I save Western Civ when I slept through Western Civ?

Well, here's a parable on the wonderful unpredictability of life: A few years ago I played a round of golf with the esteemed governor of my home state. Jesse The Body Ventura spent most of his adult life as a professional wrestler - like me, he made an honest if undignified living in his underwear - and he sometimes supplemented his wrestling income by working as stage security for concerts. He was one of those guys in the yellow shirts who throw you off the stage when you try to bumrush Bono.

At the old Met Center in my hometown of Bloomington, Minnesota, Ventura worked two Rolling Stones concerts.

Twenty years later, when the Stones were playing in St. Paul, Governor Ventura invited them to the Governor's mansion. And they accepted. When the governor mentioned that he twice served as the Stones' bodyguard in Bloomington, Keith Richards, wearing a silk kimono, stirred to life and said: "Let me get this straight. You bodyguarded us 20 years ago and now you're the guv'nor?"

"That's right," Ventura replied.

And Keith Richards shook his head and said, "Flippin' hell. Great country, mate." Only I'm pretty sure he didn't say flippin'.

And though Richards was recently in the news for allegedly trying to snort his father's ashes, I believe he is wise on this count: You still can be what you want to be in this flippin' great country of ours.

In high school, I watched Minnesota Twins games on the TV in my basement and wrote stories about them on my mother's Royal typewriter and dreamed that I was writing those stories for Sports Illustrated. Then I'd throw the stories away in case, God forbid, somebody should read them.

Three years after I graduated from Marquette, the Twins won the World Series in Minneapolis and I wrote the cover story for Sports Illustrated in that same basement. Only now I had 20 million readers.

When my wife, Rebecca, was a little girl, her mother told her she could be anything she wanted to be when she grew up. Rebecca said, "I want to play in the NFL." Her mom said, "Well, anything but that." So Rebecca wrote to Boston Celtics president Red Auerbach and said she was going to be the first woman to play in the NBA.

And guess what? Rebecca went on to win a national basketball championship in college, won an Olympic gold medal, helped found the women's National Basketball Association and - best of all - played one- on-one against BiG Bird on Sesame Street, demonstrating that there are "two Os in Lobo." Her college jersey now hangs in the BasketbalL Hall of Fame and her Olympic jersey hangs in the Smithsonian, right next to Dorothy's ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz." Follow the yellow-brick road, indeed. (Continued)

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