The Class of 2001 left GW on a soggy note Sunday, as sporadic rain on the Ellipse cut the ceremony minutes short and prompted some guests of the 4,000 graduates to leave early.
“When I saw people put up umbrellas, there was a sinking feeling,” University Marshal Jill Kasle said.
Despite the weather, Kasle said she thought people enjoyed the ceremony, which featured speeches by keynote speaker Pulitzer Prize-winning author Herman Wouk and Grammy Award-winning singer Tony Bennett.
Some Columbian School graduates chanted “Sing! Sing! Sing!” as Bennett began his speech, but he waited until the end of the ceremony to perform the first few lines of his famous song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” which drew loud applause from the crowd.
Kasle said the song was “totally spontaneous,” but GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg would not answer whether the performance was arranged.
“That’s between Tony Bennett and me,” he said.
Trachtenberg said the program was shortened by about seven minutes by cutting out introductions of schools conferring degrees – a change he said he might make permanent.
In his address, Wouk said he would tell a story instead of offering words of wisdom.
“I am not a sage at all. What I am is a storyteller,” he said. Wouk told a fable about a mouse that scared a cat by barking like a dog to demonstrate the importance of knowing a second language.
Wouk said a second language does not necessarily mean the knowledge of French, Spanish or German a student should have by graduation, but being aware of one’s heritage and contemporary issues at the same time.
“There is a language of the moment, language of origins and language of tradition,” he said.
Wouk said the language of origins is the most rewarding because it is the language American people “turn to.” Wouk concluded his speech early as the rain returned.
“You are entering a new day,” Wouk said. “I wish you God’s speed and revert for a moment to the language of the moment, the language of the movies. Get out there and kill `em, get out there and knock `em dead, get out there and win.”
After accepting an honorary doctor of music, Bennett told graduates the importance of teachers who helped him with his artistic talent. He spoke about great musicians, including Frank Sinatra who told him “to stay with great songs” and not worry about marketing or publicity. Bennett concluded by telling graduates to fight for their lives and be successful.
“Stay with all the integrity you can muster up,” he said.
Student speaker Larissa Davis told fellow graduates individualism is important for success.
“Find your own style of playing the game,” Davis said. “If it stops working, change it.”
Other speakers included Director of the National Science Foundation Rita Colwell and inventor of the aerosol inhaler H.R. Shepherd. Both speakers received an honorary doctor of science degree. Southeastern University President Charlene Drew Jarvis and President of the Greater Washington Board of Trade John Tydings received honorary doctors of public service degrees. National Symphony Orchestra music director Leonard Slatkin received a doctor of music degree and encouraged students to “seek new direction and new goals.”
During the speeches, an occasional beach ball or silly string shot out from the crowd of students, some of whom threw their caps in the air or sprayed bottles of beer on the crowd when their degrees were announced.
Students said they enjoyed the ceremony despite the rain.
“It was good, but kind of short because of the rain,” said School of Business and Public Management graduate Jonathan Wilds. “(Wouk) knew what he wanted to speak about to grads . he told a good story with a good point.”
“(The ceremony) was OK, it wasn’t terribly exciting,” said CSAS graduate Dan Smith. “Wouk was interesting.”
The ceremony was filled with mixed emotions for some students.
“There’s sadness on a social level but happiness on an academic level,” SBPM graduate David Greenberg said. “I don’t believe it in a way.”
-Tim Donnelly, Jason Steinhardt and Kate Stepan contributed to this report.