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Memorable Graduation Speakers

Q: Now that it’s graduation season, I was wondering, who would be considered the most unusual speaker ever invited to a Boalt Hall graduation? - B.B., San Francisco

Chevy Chase
Comedian Chevy Chase in 1978

A. The Law School used to take part in the general commencement exercises hosted by the campus, traditionally held in Memorial Stadium. All that changed in 1970 when the invasion of Cambodia expanded the war in Southeast Asia.

In the wake of the Cambodian invasion, college campuses across the U.S. exploded with protests. Four students were shot by Ohio National Guard troops at Kent State, and at Berkeley many classes were moved off campus or were “reconstituted” into seminars on war, peace and international politics. The Chancellor cancelled the general commencement exercises scheduled for June, but urged departments and schools to hold individual ceremonies. Boalt Hall complied — and has held its own graduation ever since. 

Most graduation speakers have been drawn from the fields of jurisprudence or politics, but a few unexpected faces have graced the podium. In 1977 cartoonist Garry Trudeau was the featured speaker. That year his character Joanie Caucus was graduating from Boalt Hall in the Doonesbury comic strip, and Trudeau was an off-beat but perhaps logical choice for speaker. The selection the following year of the comedian Chevy Chase was somewhat more whimsical — and abruptly ended the briefly-observed comic tradition.

For the most unusual speaker we would need to reach back to 1971, and the choice of British actor Peter Ustinov, best known for his roles in the sword and sandal epics Quo Vadis and Spartacus. (For the latter he won an Academy Award.)

In his speech Ustinov reminisced about his experiences with American reporters at the time when journalist Malcolm Muggeridge was being excoriated in the British press for having criticized Queen Elizabeth II. “I was asked some gleefully jocular questions on American TV at the time,” Ustinov told the graduates, “and these questions expressed not only a delight in the absurdity of the incident, but also an ill-disguised vanity about that greater American freedom which would make such a situation impossible over here.  ‘What’s the matter with you people?’ I was asked. ‘Why can we criticize the President, and you can’t criticize the Queen?’ I pointed out that you criticized your President as an instrument of policy, just as we criticized our Prime Minister, but that the Queen is a reticent symbol of the nation solidarity, whose real equivalent in America is not the President, but Old Glory. I asked whether it was possible, or fruitful, in the United States to criticize the flag. The answer to that question had lost all trace of jocularity. I went on to say that I had seen in the long and complicated flag lore of this country that if the flag inadvertently dropped down the staff, and touched the ground, it was imperative for it to be burned forthwith. I added that if Her Majesty stumbled and fell, she would not be expected to share the fate of Joan of Arc, but would merely be helped to her feet, and asked if she was all right.”

 Have a question? Ask the Archivist: benemann@law.berkeley.edu

5/20/2010