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The best graduation speakers in history

By Jesse Rifkin
On April 11, 2012

President Barack Obama will deliver the commencement address at Barnard next month. Commencement speakers at other schools include television broadcasting legend Barbara Walters at Yale, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg at Cornell, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor at New York University, and my personal favorite, Bill Nye at Rochester Institute of Technology. However, when it comes to picking the best of the best, there is one glaring limitation: they are all alive.

If anybody from history could deliver the UConn graduation speech, who would you choose? Here are my top 10 selections.

Theodore Roosevelt. No, not for being elected President of the United States, winning the Nobel Peace Prize or serving as Governor of New York. Roosevelt should deliver a speech in honor of what happened when he delivered a presidential campaign speech in 1912. An attempted assassin shot him in the chest. Roosevelt, an avid hunter, knew that because he was not coughing blood the bullet had not advanced to his lungs. He told the audience, "I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot." Then he continued his speech. For an hour and a half. Seriously.

Ernest Shackleton. The primary purpose of a graduation speech is to inspire, and perhaps nobody in history inspires like Shackleton. His crew of 28 attempted the first-ever crossing of the Antarctic continent in 1914, but their ship "Endurance" became lodged in pack ice. Forced to walk by foot and then sail by lifeboat, every member survived the entire ordeal - over two and a half years long, on only a few months' worth of food and equipment.

Thomas Edison. A possible graduation speech excerpt: "Make the best of your lives, young graduates, and shine a light so that others may follow! After all, that's what I did. [Pause.] Get it? Shine a light? Because I invented the light bulb? [Pause.] Wow, tough crowd. Is this thing on? Anyway, as I was saying..."

Albert Einstein. One of the greatest geniuses of world history, his theory of relativity forever changed the way humankind viewed the universe. Who better personifies the rewards that come with obtaining education than a man whose last name is literally synonymous with genius? Plus he wrote all of his greatest scientific papers while still working as a patent clerk by day.

M.C. Escher. His iconic drawings proved so bizarre that they continue to puzzle viewers even decades after his death. You could spend hours trying to contemplate the optical illusions hidden in his works. Granted, his speech would probably make zero sense.

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. A French scientist, he created the world's first photograph in 1826, the "first successful experiment of fixing permanently the image from nature" as it was described at the time. Any proud parent who takes pictures of their child on graduation day has Niépce to thank. We also have Niépce to thank for last year's Internet-leaked pictures from Scarlett Johansson's cell phone. For that, he should be given an honorary degree as well.

Marian Rejewski. You would never know it from playing "Call of Duty 3," but this man might be the single biggest reason the Allies won World War II. (Winston Churchill even said so.) A mathematician from Poland, Rejewski almost single-handedly decrypted the Enigma code messages. By doing so, an immeasurable advantage was gained.

Mitch Hedberg. One of the funniest comedians of all time, Hedberg tragically died in 2005. His college speech would certainly contain many hilarious one-liners, like a joke about university he frequently incorporated into his act: "Whenever I perform comedy at a college, I always buy one of their shirts. So people will look at me and say, 'Whoa! You went to Harvard?' I'll be like, 'Yeah. It was a Wednesday.'"

T'sai Lun. Never heard of him? T'sai was an assistant to the Chinese emperor in A.D. 105 when he invented paper. The modern-day papermaking process, while much more complex and refined, does not differ significantly! Of course, to be environmentally friendly, he would probably read his speech off an iPad.

Benjamin Franklin. Wikipedia describes him as "a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat." Take that, double majors.


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