May 6, 2007
Demetria Kalodimos '81
President and Mrs. Wilson, Faculty, Friends, Family, and this good-looking class of double- oh- seven, welcome to the moment your parents have been fantasizing about, for 4 long years.
We gather today with the very fresh realization that no college campus anywhere is immune to pain or poison. But college campuses everywhere are spotted with towers of strong stone. We should have no doubt that at Virginia Tech, the stain of violence will be replaced with something even more fierce – that is resilience, and a renewal of faith.
Graduates, take a good look around today and commit this picture to memory, in living color, because if you’re like I was on graduation day 26 years ago, this is more green than you’ll be seeing in quite awhile.
If you’re like I was on graduation day, you’re sweating acceptance to grad school somewhere, hoping that letter arrives before the first student loan payment is due.
If you’re like I was, your room isn’t packed, your gas tank is bone dry, it’s not even your car, it’s your parents' station wagon. Your parking tickets are unpaid, there’s wet laundry in the dryer. Your breakfast was leftover Gumby’s Pokey sticks, and you’re considering keeping the cap on all day long for fear of the hat hair underneath looks like in pictures.
But fear not. It’s high time and the right time, to bust out of this Wesleyan bubble and write the first draft of your life story. A rough cut, as we call it in the edit room.
Now, it may sound cliché but we journalists believe this, we do. Everybody has a story and every good story has a twist. And if you’re like I was, you’ll twist alright, and find yourself changing that “perfect plan” you’ve had in mind for yourself starting today.
And guess what? It’s okay.
That was a little Dr Phil-ish wasn’t it? Yuck.
Really though, it is perfectly alright to start a brand new plan today. Just don’t plan on changing the world. Trust me, there’s not a diaper big enough.
I had no idea at my Wesleyan graduation that I would actually become a journalist. My music degree wasn’t exactly what a television station was looking for in terms of credentials. But looking back, this school, and the campus radio station, full of scratchy vinyl in the basement of Kemp Hall, helped me take a fearless, hairpin turn toward a new career.
You know what, I can't even continue until I do something. I’ve got to confess a little something before we go any further. I stole this album from WESN, 26 years ago. President Wilson, I hope you will accept my apologies and the return of the Brothers Johnson Funk Master album.
You have no idea how that has kept me up at night ever since they invited me back to campus. Let the record show I returned the record.
Back to our story now.
I took a fearless leap got me to this campus. I transferred to Wesleyan as a junior, halfway through my undergraduate years. When I was supposed to know what I was doing, I decided to make a big, big change.
It was the late 70’s, the height of disco. Not just low tech, I’m talking no tech. Web sites, they grew behind my bed at Dodds Hall. Blackberries were something, if we were lucky, we put on our cereal at Saga. Forget I-Pods or ear-buds, the best speakers were the biggest speakers, I'm talking floor to ceiling at the TKE house – they rocked.
To say I was broke is saying a lot. While I was collecting pop bottles like a bag lady, for the 5 cent refund at Kroger. My roommate had a charge account at Neirstheimers Drug Store, thank God and Mr. Anderson for that.
But I did have a plan. At best, I’d be a musician. At worst, I’d hang a lot of musicians in a radio station somewhere. Little did I know my Wesleyan experience was already preparing me to cover some of the great news stories of our time.
Take my campus jobs. I lasted a grand total of 2 days in a hair net, pulling red hot forks out of a dishwasher at Saga. It was then and there that I learned how to raise an issue and make a passionate argument for change. Who could be expected to play a flute with chapped, dishpan hands? And furthermore. would a Sigma Kappa be caught dead in a hairnet?
I was much better suited for job number 2, sorting the incoming mail at Dodds. My roommates and I learned quickly which magazines came in “plain brown wrappers.” Yes, that was a “higher” education, let me tell you.
It seems it also works in reverse. Five years ago, I produced a feature documentary that did pretty well at the Chicago International Film Festival. The subject was “Injurious George,” about the oddest criminal ever to terrorize Nashville, Tennessee, this guy obsessively stomped on women's feet. Now I learn there was a compulsive foot fondler loose here on this campus… coincidence?
I think not.
A good reporter digs deep does solid research and I’ve been in the “pipeline” so to speak, studying you folks, the class of double oh seven. It seems greatness has already been tapping at the door.
There’s a young composer out there who heard beautiful music in car alarms. What will he hear next?
The drama major/ turned filmmaker who broke new ground on a celebrated Spanish playwright. I expect to bump into him on a red carpet someday.
There’s a marathon runner who went the distance in memory of her mother and grandmother both lost to Ovarian cancer. I've got a feeling that race was just her “ warm up."
A brilliant double major in this class was named a “Lincoln Laureate” for exemplifying the best qualities of Honest Abe… (he’s the one out there in the top hat and beard, I think that’s taking it a little far, but it's up to him).
And last night I learned of a young man who returned to campus after a life-altering accident, and he will graduate along with you today.
Those are just a few of the great stories you’ve already started, so I can only imagine the sequels.
In 25 years of news reporting, I’ve exposed some bad guys, been caught in a shootout, witnesses the Olympic bombing, even talked to a serial killer face to face, but I got to tell you, nothing tops a commencement speech for pressure.
I’ve been researching a lot of speeches, because I frankly never paid attention to any of mine. The pressure’s on to offer some pearl, some great wisdom to put in the passenger seat when you’ve got this Quad in your rearview mirror.
The advice I offer today is what we call “broadcast style” – brief, direct, I hope important. I’ve got it down to 2 words:
It’s worked for me.
When I noticed trucks full of Hispanic men in an all-white rural Tennessee county, I asked why, and ended up exposing the exploitation of migrant tobacco workers. When I questioned why so many of those tobacco pickers ended up in the hospital E.R.s, I learned that wet crops and no gloves lead to nicotine poisoning.
When I asked why 19 children were born with cleft lips in a single Tennessee county, I found a municipal water well, poisoned by a leaky landfill.
When every un-identified John and Jane Doe ended up at the state’s largest anthropology lab, I found research being done on real dead bodies without the first effort at obtaining consent. Eventually though, the families of veterans and ordinary people got long-delayed funerals and burial with dignity.
In the subway stations of Romania, why did all the kids seem to play with Ziplock bags? Well, huffing chemicals killed their appetites. The orphans gobbled the bubblegum we brought, paper and all. They had never seen bubblegum before; didn't know how to unwrap it.
And when songs started sounding really familiar on the radio and I could hum along to something brand new, I asked, "Who really wrote that?" and stumbled onto a cottage industry and a new legal specialty – attorneys hunting for copyright infringement and stolen songs.
If we’re persistent and focused and a little lucky, our questions lead to answers and action.
Year after year, when we run into a family who won’t have Thanksgiving dinner or the elderly sweltering without air conditioning or the kids who need a transplant, people rally, congregations help and often, we get the happy ending everybody’s hoping for.
TV news does not have the best reputation these days for depth or compassion, it's true. We’re competitive and we’re in a hurry, but let's face it, so are all of you.
It wasn’t long ago that we had to wait for film to develop. Now our cell phones can take the picture. Everyone’s got a camera and a good idea of what will make a splash or a career or a quick windfall. Even mass killers who mail manifestos to networks.
Question everything, even what you see on TV. Especially what you see on TV.
The Rodney King tape ushered in the era of citizen journalism. Now it can shine a bright and necessary light on injustice for sure, but we don’t always pause before going live with explosive images that lack context or even verification.
Now the blogs break stories. MySpace and YouTube fill in the blanks. A green screen can change the background. Competition fuels the fire, and ultimately credibility burns.
Until you’re satisfied that your truth has been revealed.
Until you know where you need to go, and how best to get there.
Then do the work, and put in the time necessary to find answers.
You know we all did it as kids.
Where are we going?
Are we there yet???
Somewhere along the line we stopped asking, we gave up too soon, took no for an answer.
Can they really do that?
Is this right?
Can I help?
Do I agree?
Could this make a difference?
And why just one year from now, the men in this class will be earning on average 20 percent more than the women in this class, we need to ask why.
Trust your own curiosity, mind your own moral compass. And in time, your purpose, your role, and your truth will be revealed.
And if you’re as blessed as I’ve been, with terrific parents, sisters who are my best friends, a brother who hung the moon, 3 little nieces who I hope will be Wesleyan graduates one day, and best of all, a second chance to find the husband I should have had in the first place – and he's a professional musician, no less.
When it feels right and you can sleep at night, it probably is.
And that applies to your job.
Your volunteer work.
What you spend or don’t spend.
Question everything. You may be really fun to live with for awhile, but you will be true to yourself.
I’ve now lived in Nashville, Tennessee, longer than my hometown of Chicago or anywhere else. I may live in Nashville, but I opted not to go with the sequined wagon-wheel cap and gown, just to keep it professional today. But in Music City we do have a saying, "it all starts with a song," so I’m gonna end with one, from the late Townes Van Zandt.
Everything is not enough
And nothing is too much to bear.
Where you’ve been is good and gone
All you keep is the getting there.
To live is to fly
Both low and high,
So shake the dust off of your wings
And the sleep out of your eyes.