Commencement 2004: The words of Christopher and Dana Morosini Reeve
December 31, 2003
Commencement 2004: The words of Christopher and Dana Morosini Reeve
Calling on graduates to be ready for a life full of surprises-and to remember that each life can make a difference-the husband-and-wife team of Christopher Reeve and Dana Morosini Reeve '84 co-delivered the commencement address at Middlebury on Sunday, May 23.
At this year's commencement, held outdoors on a cool, breezy, cloudy and at times drizzly day, the Reeves and eight others received honorary degrees from Middlebury. An estimated 5,000 people were on hand at the new site for this year's graduation, on the green behind Voter Hall.
Also honored were Art Cohn, founder of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum; Kenneth Feinberg, special master of the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund and father of Andrew Feinberg '04; Claire Waterhouse Gargalli '64, a prominent banker and a former chairman of the Middlebury board of trustees; Marcia Kraft Goin '54, president of the 35,000-member American Psychiatric Association; F. Washington Jarvis, who is retiring after 30 years as headmaster of the Roxbury Latin School in Boston; W. Storrs Lee '28, who was honored in absentia for his years of service on the Middlebury staff; Paul Muldoon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who teaches at Middlebury's Bread Loaf School of English; and Meryl Streep, a two-time Academy Award-winning actor, whose nephew Abe Streep graduated Sunday, Phi Beta Kappa.
The 2004 commencement marked the last as president for John McCardell, who steps down at the end of June after 13 years in that job; he intends to take a year off and return as a history professor for the 2005-06 academic year. President McCardell (click here to read his baccalaureate address) will be succeeded by Ron Liebowitz, who has been a faculty member and administrator at Middlebury for 20 years, serving most recently as provost and executive vice president.
About 575 members of the class of 2004 received their diplomas at Sunday's ceremony, of a total class of 631. In addition to the 525 students who completed work on their degrees this month, 106 had finished up in February or earlier in the year. Between 50 and 60 graduates received their degrees on Sunday in absentia. Siddartha Rao of the class of 2004 gave this year's student address.
Honorary degree recipient and commencement speaker Christopher Reeve, an actor perhaps best known for portraying Superman, was paralyzed from the neck down in an equestrian competition in 1995, and soon became an advocate for those suffering from spinal cord injuries and other disabilities. Since 1999, he has served as the chairman of the board of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation (CRPF), and is also a volunteer for a number of other organizations, including the National Organization on Disability, which he serves as vice chairman.
Dana Morosini Reeve, an English major at Middlebury, is also an actor, with credits that include the starring role in the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival's recent production of "The Crucible," as well as a leading role in the Broadway comedy "More to Love." Like her husband, she is an advocate for increases in medical research funding, and for the rights of the disabled. She serves on the boards of several organizations, including the CRPF. Both received honorary doctorates in humane letters.
The commencement address co-delivered by the Reeves follows. Click here to watch the video.
Part I: DANA MOROSINI REEVE
Middlebury Class of 1984
Doctor of Humane Letters
Thank you everyone-the Class of 2004, parents, faculty and President McCardell. I am very excited to be here and truly honored to receive this degree. I have to say though, it was much easier to get this one than the first one.
Chris and I were asked several months ago to speak at this commencement, and from the moment we received the request from President McCardell, I've been turning over in my mind what I could possibly say to a graduating class of seniors from my alma mater that would be meaningful, inspiring, instructive, wise, and, most important, brilliantly witty. I took a few stabs at writing down my thoughts, crystallizing some of the lessons I've learned in the twenty years since I've graduated Middlebury. I knew I was being given 10 minutes. Better make them good.
When I finally sat down to work, I made a few trips to the kitchen. I thoroughly cleaned my desk. I caught up on e-mails and phone calls. I basically did everything I could do to avoid coming up with the perfect, insightful ten minutes. Actually the process was not unlike that of writing a final paper. It's amazing how clean your room can get when you have an assignment due. I considered the possibility of just telling a bunch of jokes and leaving the inspiring to my husband, because he's very good at that. But, I'm not going to do that.
Eventually, what I realized is that it would be impossible to create 10 perfectly inspiring minutes full of instruction and wisdom about what to expect after you drive Route 30 South for the last time as a student. My job here today, our job, is to tell you the one thing you can count on. The one thing I can guarantee you can expect in life is that you will experience the thoroughly unexpected.
John Lennon-he was a Beatle. Please tell me you know the Beatles! He was sort of like the Eminem and 50 Cent, but very much not. At any rate, John Lennon wrote a line that I'm sure has been used in many commencement addresses. "Life is what happens to you while you're making other plans."
The night John Lennon's life ended, I was in my second semester as a February freshman residing in Voter Hall, and as the bells tolled in Mead Chapel for a full hour, the irony and prescience of this lyric was palpable to my suitemates and me.
There is really no way of knowing where your life's journey will take you. I never would have predicted the fabric of my life would have evolved into the rich, complex design I enjoy and am challenged by daily. My work, the achievements for which I am receiving such a great honor here today, my purpose in life, have been born out of a set of unplanned circumstances, in large part, but not completely, circumstances beyond my control. I never anticipated being a caregiver for my spouse at the age of 34. I don't think I ever dreamt I would help run a foundation that raises money for biomedical research and people with disabilities. I didn't get a B.A. in English in preparation to become a lobbyist in Washington, although the next time I'm there I think I'll go into some senator's office and say
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour.
and see what happens. (That was for Dr. Bertolini and all the English majors here today.)
I was trained as an actress, but as much as I love that work when I can get it, it is not my acting work for which I'm generally known. It is not my chosen career path that ultimately defines me, but rather an unfamiliar, unexpected path that has presented itself. To quote another group from my youth, "what a long, strange trip it's been," and I won't have it any other way.
Life continues to surprise and delight me, even when I think I know what I want from it. I knew I wanted to be a mother, for example, but, and I'm sure your parents can relate to this, I had no idea how much fun I would have nor how much I would learn about life and myself from my child and stepchildren.
So, prepare yourselves fully. Four years at Middlebury have certainly been a great beginning. And then, get ready for a wild ride. There will be many choices before you, some of which you'll welcome and celebrate, and then there will be some over which you will anguish. Some choices will choose you. How you face these choices, these turns in the road, with what kind of attitude, more than the choices themselves, is what will define the context of your life.
Be brave. Be open-minded. Be kind. Be forgiving. Be generous. Be optimistic. Be grateful for the many unexpected lessons you will learn. Find the joy inside the hardship. It's there. I assure you. And, too, be open to inspiration from unlikely sources. I recently came across an article in The New York Times about Phil Jackson, the current coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Now I'm not a basketball fan, per se, but I was intrigued by the fact that this accomplished coach of a successful and flashy team tries to live his life and do his work within the precepts of Buddhism. In this article, Coach Jackson cites a Buddhist saying, which I think captures perfectly-the idea that life is a series of opportunities arising out of unforeseen circumstances. Unceasing change turns the wheel of life, and so reality is shown in all its many forms.
Now for those of you who have stayed up all night in advance of today's activities, it may take a while for the deep wisdom of that idea to fully resonate, but once it creeps into your consciousness, and, as you continue your life's journey from this day forth, I think the remarkable truth of this statement will surprise and amaze you and possibly even serve as a source of comfort at some point.
Change is good, but it can also be scary. Today's particular anthropological rite of passage marks a significant change upcoming in all of your lives, whatever you've chosen to do next year or whatever may have chosen you. As you embark on this very exciting part of your journey, I want to offer up a few more pieces of advice from a fellow Middlebury graduate-and, apparently, now a doctor as well-she's just a little further along the road than you, and, yes, believe me, I know that you've heard this before ad nauseam, but twenty years do go by at lightning speed, and that is my first pearl of wisdom. And, now, the others in this pocket pack of precepts to live by (that was also for my English teachers):
Take care of yourself and be caring with others. Nurture a sense of gratitude, and be grateful for a sense of humor. Be sure to thank your parents and mentors for all they've given you, but give love to your future children and mentees freely without any expectation of thanks in return. Look for ways to let your light shine, but don't be afraid occasionally to be in the dark. Strive to make your behavior above reproach, but be careful not to cast judgment on others whose behavior may reflect a different form of reality. The more you give, the richer you will become. Let your life be enhanced by the company you keep. And, related to that concept, in the words of Phil Jackson from his book Sacred Hoops:
If you meet the Buddha in the lane, pass him the ball.
And with that, I would like to again congratulate you, fix my mortarboard for the last time, and wish you well, and introduce you to the fine company I keep, my inspiration and certainly one of the best choices that I have made in my life, my husband, Christopher Reeve.
Part II: CHRISTOPHER REEVE
Doctor or Humane Letters
Thank you so much. President McCardell, trustees, faculty, staff, ladies and gentlemen, students. I'm extremely honored to receive a-become a Doctor of Humane Letters. If I could just torture the meaning of the phrase for a second: most of the letters I write are not very humane. Usually they're sharply critical of somebody, or else I'm asking them for money.
But many of you graduating today are probably apprehensive about your entry into the quote "real world." That's completely understandable. In fact, sometimes I harbor a secret desire to be kidnapped by aliens and taken to a planet more sensible than this one. But time and again, hope is renewed by the actions of ordinary people, and a couple of examples come to mind.
The formation of the 9/11 Commission was largely due to the activities and the courage of members of the families and friends of the victims. And, in a television interview, a family member said that, in 2001, all she knew about the federal government was that there was a House and a Senate-but she wasn't sure what they did. I think many Americans would like the answer to that one, too. But she literally didn't know how her government works, and yet she and others like her got together, they educated themselves, and they've had a significant impact on the investigation of one of the most critical moments in our history.
And, in the early '80s, the public discourse about AIDS was divisive and ugly. Some elected officials said the disease was God's revenge on people who lived a certain lifestyle. The federal government wouldn't fund research for a cure. But, today, the NIH spends $1.8 billion on AIDS research annually, and the virus is no longer an epidemic in this country.
So, how did we get from that climate of fear and animosity in the early '80s to where we are today? Well, it's by the extraordinary efforts of ordinary individuals, then change occurred, as it has time and time again throughout our history. So, all of you who are leaving Middlebury today are uniquely qualified to affect change and movement in our society. Never underestimate the difference you can make.
I've learned by being literally paralyzed that, to a large extent, paralysis is a choice. We can either watch from the sidelines or actively participate. We can rationalize inaction by deciding that one voice or one vote doesn't matter, or we can make the choice that inaction is unacceptable; either let self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy prevent us for realizing our potential, or embrace the fact that when we turn our attention away from ourselves, our potential is limitless.
Some people have to be pushed to the edge or confront their own mortality in order to gain that perspective, to learn to live a more conscious and fearless life. But, you don't have to do that. You don't have to go to the edge, and you can choose not to be paralyzed.
Whether or not you realize it right now, the education you've received here has prepared you to pursue your own ambitions without losing sight of the invaluable difference that you can make in this world.
And, as you go forward, I really hope you won't forget that. It may be difficult because you'll encounter corruption and chaos. You'll have to bring your personal integrity with you on this journey, because you may not find anyone to guide you. But, don't be afraid, and never give up. Just listen to the voice inside you. The voice of honesty that we all have within us that will tell you, if you let it, that you're heading in the right direction.
Congratulations to all of you for everything that you've achieved so far. I wish you the best of luck, and thank you very, very much.