the usual commencement speeches that are inspiring but put us all
to sleep, and there are...well, speeches that truly rock.
is proud to reprint highlights of the keynote speech that columnist,
author and renaissance man, Ben Fong-Torres delivered this summer
version doesn't do justice to hearing it directly from Ben, the
man himself, but from all reports it was one powerful delivery.
For all of you who have not yet met Ben in person, he's got that
deep voice, dripping in honey that resonates a la Elvis Presley.
In fact, he does a sizzlin' Elvis. That's for another story, however.
highlights from Ben's 2002 keynote speech delivered at Thurgood
Marshall College at the University of California at San Diego:
It is a great
honor for me, a recovering rock journalist and disk jockey out of
Chinatown, Oakland, to be a commencement speaker here today.
I've been thinking
back to my own graduation day at San Francisco State College in
June 1966, which I didn't even bother to attend - hey, it was the
'60s - and I've thought of those that I have actually attended and
recalled why so many commencement ceremonies are seen as piles of
clichés, maxed-out maxims, pat platitudes, "it's an ending and a
beginning," "climb every mountain," "you can make a difference,"
"just do it," yadda yadda yadda. Well, you don't need to hear this.
In fact, you
have probably already heard that stuff at your high school graduation.
Remember high school? When it wasn't Britney but the Spice Girls?
Not P. Diddy but Biggie? Not 'N Sync but Hanson? Not Mary J. Blige
but ... well, actually, Mary J. Blige? Some things don't change.
That stuff you heard back then, some of you took it to heart, and
you applied it to your college years here at Thurgood Marshall.
You learned about your own and other cultures; you learned the importance
of diversity in today's world; you read about people who have endured
tougher times than you have had to.
I remember working
at the daily newspaper at San Francisco State, feeling that we were
all on an oasis of freedom, of living life the way we wanted, with
no concerns, or few anyway, about money, careers, and the long-term
future. Many of us lived for the day. College was an oasis, and
ultimately we did have to go into the real world. It was not pretty,
and many people were in for some very rude shocks.
I was lucky.
I jumped onto another oasis, a rock-and-roll fantasy island called
Rolling Stone. For a dozen years, beginning in the late '60s, I
interviewed what amounted to a Hall of Fame-full of musicians and
artists. What a gig! I mean, getting paid to hang out with Ray Charles,
the Rolling Stones, various Beatles, and Cheech and Chong.
But along with
the fun, the hard work, and the bottom-line realities of keeping
a magazine alive and growing, we did some good. I believe that we
deserved the notice we got for spearheading a new form of journalism,
of combining pop culture coverage with political and investigative
articles, and for pushing media into previously-unpaved and important
directions. That's the true reward of work: when you can take what
is essentially work and make it something more that that. Work can
be drudgery if you let it be. Reworking work, reshaping it and redefining
it, can take you into exciting new territory.
You are the
first graduating class since September 11. That day, and for days
after, I imagine you experienced fear and anger. You were emotional,
upset, galvanized. You came later on to debate ethnic profiling,
why the United States was so hated, and to consider what it meant
for this country to go once again to war. You wondered whether we'd
ever get back to normal. I, for one, think we got back to normal,
or a version of normalcy anyway, all too soon. We are back to our
old ways of thinking primarily of ourselves. We are back to too
much hatred and violence, too much greed and concern for the bottom
line, all the things that remind us that we are not always America
The fact is,
we can be. When my parents, young people living, unhappily, in China,
thought about coming to America, they knew this country as 'Gum
San,' which means golden mountains, or 'Mai Gok,' beautiful country.
Through hard, hard work and a devotion to their culture, they forged
a life, and raised a family, that gave them reason enough to believe
that the United States was, in fact, golden, and beautiful. Even
if one of their sons DID wind up writing about rock and roll.
This is my first
commencement address ... I visited a few Websites for inspiration.
There was one that had a collection of, quote, "words of wisdom
from commencement speeches." There was Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Carter,
Colin Powell and Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream. His main
advice was to buy by the gallon. And so I do.
And then there
was this: "The privilege of attending so fine a university as this
one must bear with it an unceasing responsibility to use your knowledge
and training for improving the lives of others." That fine university
was the University of Virginia, and the speaker at that commencement
in 1978 was one Thurgood Marshall.
lives of others." Most commencement speeches would urge that
you strive to improve others' lives in your chosen profession. I
think that, turning to journalism, that was one of my goals. I know
that some of you are aware that, beyond writing about rock and movie
stars, I've also addressed issues involving my own culture, whether
it was working as a volunteer editor at East West, a bilingual weekly
in Chinatown, or writing a piece for the San Francisco Chronicle
about why there aren't any Asian American men anchoring television
newscasts. Doing a story on that issue, or on the toll of AIDS on
the arts, was every bit as rewarding as a profile on Marvin Gaye,
Santana, or Bonnie Raitt-if not more.
the lives of others shouldn't be limited to your work. In your everyday
life, you can help others - with a donation, with your time as a
volunteer or mentor, with a kind word, a piece of advice or constructive
criticism, or with just an encouraging pat on the back. And it all
begins with you, with constantly trying to improve your own life.
You have already made great strides. But trust me, you've only just
begun, and the work will never end. You can always be better. And
if you accept that challenge and come to enjoy it, your life will
be richer every day, and you will find it all the easier to reach
out and do what Justice Thurgood Marshall preached.
I start saying things like "you can make a difference," "climb every
mountain," "just do it," yadda yadda yadda, I'm outta here. I began
by calling you the Class of 2002, emphasis on "class." If you too
put the emphasis on "class," you will do just fine. Congratulations,
good luck, farewell, and rock on.
A short time after Ben gave his speech, he
received an email from a graduate who was there that day.