Leave it to Tom Wolfe to include Chuck Yeager, neuroscience, Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Ricky Martin cane cutter shirts and the recent college gross-out movie Van Wilder in his graduation commencement speech.
Always the American pop culture connoisseur, the celebrated journalist and father of graduating senior Alexandra entertained more than 3,500 graduates and their 15,000 friends and family members during an otherwise sober ceremony in a sun-bathed Wallace Wade Stadium Sunday.
Wolfe told the class of 2002 that as college graduates, they are now part of a "diploma elite," and as graduates of a top-ten research university, they are among the most elite members of that group.
"Fifteen minutes from now you will join only one of the only two definable social classes in America," Wolfe said. "There is a sheerly divided line and above that line are those who have bachelors degrees or better from a four-year university or college; below that line are people who don't. And that line is becoming a gulf that gets wider and wider."
Wolfe added that today, success stories like Thomas Edison, Chuck Yeager and Bill Gates--all of whom did not graduate college--could never achieve such success.
The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full author urged the class of 2002 to not worry about the currently poor job market and instead to take an active leadership role in their communities and their country.
"I'm not the first person who has ever said this, but America is a wonderful country," he said. "And I only ask one thing of you: Lead her well."
In a speech that jumped from topic to topic, Wolfe also talked of the changing culture in which the graduates' generation came of age. He touched on themes from his recent collection of essays, "Hooking Up," and quoted on several occasions from the first selection in the work.
Eager to display his knowledge of current campus events, Wolfe also joked about the Mt. Olive Pickle Company boycott, the controversial appointment of rising senior Jeremy Morgan as Head Line Monitor of Krzyzewskiville and the fluctuating parking situation.
"I saw the Ocean [parking lot] disappear, I've heard the rumors that the Blue Zone is going to be moved out closer to Route 64," Wolfe quipped. "I suppose I have this tremendous interest in the parking because I figure over the past four years I've paid roughly one half of the parking fines that the Bursar... sorry dear, just kidding about that...."
Wolfe joined former Williams College president John Chandler, sociologist Shmuel Eisenstadt, civic leader Eleanor Elliot and U.S. representative and civil rights leader John Lewis as honorary degree recipients.
Prior to Wolfe's speech, graduate student Timothy Saintsing told the 1,608 undergraduates and 1,956 graduate and professional students who received degrees to, "To us much has been entrusted, and of us much is required."
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