Good afternoon President and Mrs. Wilson, distinguished faculty, honorable guests,
administration, alumni, and friends, and any assorted riffraff who may have wandered
into the campus. I'd like to start by extending my congratulations to the 2008 graduating
class of Illinois Wesleyan University, and to thank you all from the bottom of my
heart for giving me this tremendous honor and opportunity to address you on this very
important and joyous day. They say that time flies. Today, I’d have to agree, seeing
as it was 31 years ago that I sat in your place, filled with conflicting emotions
of great joy and a fair amount of sadness facing the end of my collegiate life.
On the first day I received word of this generous request to speak to you on this
special occasion, I felt a bit shocked, very grateful, extremely flattered, and most
proud to have been selected by the graduates and governors to deliver this address
at my beloved alma mater. On that same night, as I drifted off to sleep, I began to
dream of this soon-to-be memorable day. In this dream I found myself up on a stage
in the midst of my address, the graduates were approaching the stage and in addition
to receiving their degrees they were each given a bright green baseball, and it then
became apparent to me that no one in particular was paying much attention to what
I was saying. I then realized that I was looking through a metal cage. I glanced down
and saw that I was seated on a small stool perched above a tank of murky water. As
the graduates passed before me they stepped up and hurled the green projectiles toward
a small, red target just to my left. They hurled a few insults my way, as well. The
first few missed the target so I began plowing through my speech, desperately trying
to finish, when suddenly one of the balls hit its mark. There was a roar from the
crowd as the stool gave way and I plunged into the cold grey water and descended into
the depths still speaking, entangled in my robe ... and I awoke in a cold sweat.
The uplifting emotions I that felt earlier that day had been rudely snatched from
me and now I was left alone in the dark to wrestle with feelings quite altogether
different ... abject and utter terror. Yes, terror. And it didn’t take a rocket scientist
to figure this dream out.
You see, as an actor, my entire career has been forged on committing to memory the
words of oftentimes brilliant screen and television writers, and merely repeating
them on cue, in front of a camera as if they suddenly appeared off the top my head,
as if I had created them myself, that I owned them. Now I was being called upon to
send the 2008 graduating class of Illinois Wesleyan University out into the world
with fifteen minutes of eloquent, uplifting and stirring oratory that would dwell
in their hearts for years to come. What was I getting myself into? No sooner had these
feelings of terror which had now percolated down to the pit of my stomach begun to
subside, I now came face to face with a new and equally unsettling slate of angst
rendering revelations of inadequacy, shame, embarrassment, and guilt had now claimed
their place. “You’re a fraud!” my conscience barked. “Never in your sorry life have
you ever headed up the FBI, put a deranged killer behind bars, sailed an uncharted
course for the New World, advised a United States President, or rid the world of a
ferocious oversized lizard. No, none of that was you. You only “played” these parts
in movies and on TV. What gives you the right to address our future doctors, lawyers,
scientists, artists, titans of business and industry who are, in reality, going to
be the ones called upon to save this dying planet? And if memory serves, Mr. Dunn,
you probably spent more time in front of a pitcher of beer at this university than
in front of a book.” Harsh words from my conscience.
It took me only about a day to decide that I desperately needed to devise a way out
of all this. I came up with a plan. I would simply phone President Wilson, and, after
expressing my heartfelt gratitude and regret, offer some grandiose excuse: a grueling
three-month shoot in some exotic location on a movie that would only go straight to
video, in Chad. That may work. Or perhaps I had developed a deadly allergy to pollens
found only in Central Illinois, during the month of May. That may not work. As I continued
to mull over this less than graceful exit strategy, my mind began to fill with fond
memories of my days at Illinois Wesleyan way back in the '70s. Vivid memories. Memories
of freedom, of camaraderie, of invulnerability, an endless stream of pranks, impromptu
parties, cramming for exams. Late nights at the theatre, building sets, rigging flies,
hanging lights. Performing in plays on the McPherson stage, wildly cheering Jack Sikma
and the rest of Dennie Bridges' fighting Titans as they stormed through the league.
Surviving on nickel burgers at Burger Chef and dime beers at the Metropole. And serving
up mystery meals at the Sig House.
All of these sweet memories reminded me that it was here, on this little island of
about two thousand people, in the midst of the fertile fields of Central Illinois,
that the seeds were sewn which gave breath to the soul of my life’s pursuit. So, despite
my nagging fears and feelings of unworthiness, I decided that I must be here today,
not only because it would it be an act of cowardice to refuse such a generous request
-- it’s not every day you’re invited to give a Commencement address at your alma mater,
and to receive an honorary degree, to boot -- but how could I insult the very institution
that gave me the tools necessary to pursue my craft, and my dream? Because if it weren’t
for this University and its faculty, my future could have turned out much differently.
During the summer of my junior year, my usual summer job on the roofs of a Caterpillar
plant failed to materialize. My father had lost his job when his company fell victim
to a corporate takeover, and his position was given to someone who had come in with
the new corporate ownership. So, disappointedly, it looked as if my senior year would
have to be at least postponed, until I could make enough money to finish my studies.
A high school friend of mine who worked for the railroad said he could get me a job,
fixing rail cars. It paid pretty well, so I thought I’d do it for a year and then
I'd return to finish school.
So, on a scorching July day I made the drive down to Wesleyan to meet face to face
with Dr. John Ficca, who headed the theatre department, and was always an important
advisor and confidant during my time at Wesleyan. As I walked through campus on my
way to our meeting at the DugOut, I was overcome with sadness. This was my home for
three years, and I truly loved it. The prospect of leaving it prematurely was almost
unbearable to me, yet I felt I had no other choice. I sat down with Dr. Ficca, and
awash with sorrow, informed him that I was unable to return for my senior year, but
I would come back after a year, after I saved some money, and finish my studies.
Dr. Ficca listened, intently, with an occasional nod as I told my story, and after
what seemed to be an eternity, he told me this. “If you leave school now, sport, you
won’t come back. You’ll be out in the world making money and in no time at all this
will seem like a distant memory. And years from now you’ll look back on your decision
and wonder if you ever could have succeeded in becoming an actor.” He then reminded
me of the upcoming season and the chances I had to play some choice rolls in some
of the productions, and of the hope he had of seeing me succeed in a profession that
required a great deal of fortitude and determination. We sat there in silence for
a few minutes, I really had no idea of how to respond, and then Dr. Ficca offered
me a proposal. If he could secure me the job of running the scene shop, which paid
about 250 dollars a month, would it be enough for me to reconsider finishing my education.
Of course, 250 dollars a month couldn’t cover my living expenses as well as my tuition,
but I found this proposal from Dr. Ficca to be a question requiring only one answer.
In the words of the immortal Don Corleone, I think he was "making me an offer that
I couldn't refuse." And that was that. The burden was swiftly lifted off my shoulders,
and from that moment on I never doubted what my path would be. I returned to school
in the fall, and it was the busiest, most fulfilling year of my academic life. And
although I was always behind on my tuition, the administration never held back my
250-dollar check. So I owe a great deal to this University and to my mentor, Dr. Ficca,
and to the many faculty members whose knowledge, sound assistance and encouragement
enabled me to pursue my path to the future.
In addition to getting me through school, my job as the scene shop foreman also sustained
me well beyond my college days. After college, I built many a set for theatre companies
in Chicago, and I was later hired as a carpenter, by a contractor who had a soft spot
in his heart for actors. I learned how to rehab old brownstones on the city's north
side, and I was given the latitude to rehearse and perform eight shows a week while
I could still swing a hammer during the day. And again in 1990, three years after
moving to Southern California, my wife Katina and I purchased a 100-year-old tear-down
in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, the only house we could afford out
in Southern California, and we began the next 10 years of reconstructing the house.
So while other actors were waiting for the phone to ring, I had walls to build, plumbing
and electricity to install, concrete to pour and footings to dig. But if it weren’t
for that old house, and a very patient wife, I don’t know if I could have survived
in that super-competitive world known as Los Angeles. That old house was my therapy,
my shrink, my way to channel the frustration that came from the constant rejections
that came with the territory. And, fortunately, over time, I managed to have some
successes as well.
When I met Katina in Chicago in 1985, she was a hard-driving journalist who was then
writing for the Southtown Economist and the Chicago Reader. Katina nailed down a job
out at the Orange County Register, which allowed us to make the move out to the West
Coast, and it also gave me the opportunity to pursue an acting job without having
a side job. Katina had a few rituals, which I found to be very useful in life and
that we’ve practiced for years. Whenever she was down to her last 50 dollars or so,
she would spend the last remaining dollars on a bottle of Veuve Clicqout. I found
this very rewarding; instead of worrying about your present condition of poverty you,
instead, cracked open a bottle of great champagne to celebrate being broke. Kat had
also one other ritual – maybe it was a condition – and that was no matter how great
the part or how badly I coveted it, or how many callbacks it took, if I didn’t get
it, I was never allowed to mope about it for more than 24 hours. So if I didn’t get
if out of my system in a day, in our house, there was no sympathy to be had. Period.
In August of 1992, our son Jack was born. Since Kat and I were both in our upper 30s
-- maybe I should just be speaking for myself, sorry -- we felt one child would be
just fine. The prospect of having any more children after Jack conjured up images
of kids at the baseball diamond calling me gramps and having to play wheelchair basketball
with any additional offspring. Jack is now a sophomore in high school, only two years
away from leaving the nest for college. And, although he’s a fine student, a fine
drummer, a good athlete, and a pretty great guy, I’ve been spending a lot of time
lately worrying about what the world will be able to offer him when he, like all of
you here today, leaves college to join the ranks of working America. Those same concerns
and fears that keep me awake some nights, thinking about his future, I share with
all young people today who are faced upon entering this uncertain world, and I share
them with all of you here today who are now about to make the transition from student
life to staking your claim in society.
Our world, our country is changing at a faster rate than at any time in our history.
I certainly don’t need to inform you of the ecological peril which threatens our climate,
our agriculture, our oceans, the delicate balance of millions of species with whom
we share a fragile existence. Most of you probably possess much more information about
these circumstances than I do. What concerns me most about this global predicament
is that the leaders of our nation, the richest country in the world, don’t seem to
have much interest or sense of urgency in joining in with the many government forces
around the world who are willing to step up to the plate and use the vast array of
existing technology and research that could begin to halt the devastating effects
that threaten our very existence. Many of you here today have been preparing yourselves
to take on these very challenges, yet without the collective will of our government
to prioritize the need to seriously address these urgent problems, there may not be
enough opportunities available for you to pursue.
We now live in a nation where corporate executives are paid tens if not hundreds of
millions of dollars to figure out ways to cut the costs of their companies to the
bone in order to create profit. And it's not profit to be shared with the workers
who supply them with the goods and services needed for those companies to prosper;
the bottom line now is about shareholder profit and their own obscene compensation.
The less they pay their workers, the less benefits they provide for them and their
families, the more profit they create for a select group of shareholders and themselves.
Retiring employees who have given years of their working lives to a particular company
are now informed that the money they invested in pensions during their working lives
just simply no longer exists. Small businesses have the near-impossible task of affording
the prohibitive costs of insuring their workers. And some of the lawmakers that we
have elected to protect the rights of their constituents have, instead, abandoned
them in favor of corporate dollars to fill their campaign war chests so they can keep
up with the spiraling costs it takes to stay in office. These are some of the harsh
realities facing you upon entering your post-collegiate lives.
Our country has now become the largest debtor nation in the world, mired in an astonishing
three trillion dollars in foreign loans, a debt that, through no fault of your own,
will be bourn by your generation. The five-year conflict in Iraq has cost us nearly
one trillion dollars and continues on at a cost of nearly one billion dollars a week.
This debt will also be saddled by your generation. Sadly, on March 23rd of this year,
the number of U.S. service members killed in Iraq reached 4,000, 25 more have died
in the two weeks following. And sadder still, in a national survey only 20 percent
of those polled were even aware of that tragic milestone. Over 30,000 of our American
soldiers have been seriously wounded and, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins,
the number of Iraqis killed as of July of 2006 stands at over 600,000.
Despite these seemingly insurmountable problems and troubles which now face us, I
see in your generation great hope for the winds of change. More news is now disseminated
on the Internet than ever before because this generation has developed an unquenchable
thirst for disparate points of view, and different sources of information, and this
search to find the truth has created an audible rumble across this nation. More young
people in their twenties have registered to vote than at any time in recent history.
This new generation is waking up to give answer to a new call to arms, and we as a
nation in desperate need of a great infusion of activism in this country and in this
world are awakening to its sound. Our uncertain future is now being placed into your
waiting hands. And with great anticipation, with great expectation, we call on you
to seize it with the vigor, compassion, fortitude, and grace that only your generation
can provide. Democracy is a form of government that can only exist with actual participation.
Without participation, it's just another word.
I’d like to close with a passage from Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” where the King rallies
his ragged troops, who were greatly outnumbered on the fields of Agincourt, as they
prepare for battle.
“If we are marked to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tiptoe when this day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors,
And say “Tomorrow is Saint Crispian:
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispian’s Day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day: Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words,
Harry the King, Bedford, and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester --
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the end of the world,
But we in it shall be remembred;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
To the graduates of Illinois Wesleyan University, their families, President and Mrs.
Wilson, guests, my congratulations and thanks, for allowing me to be with you on this
wonderful day. Thank you.