The following will be the last of my California Patriot articles. I would like to thank everyone on the Patriot staff with whom I worked – 2005 to 2009. It has been a wonderful ride! It’s hard to believe it’s been almost four years since my first column. God speed to all of you, and thanks everyone for reading.
A relatively minor controversy has erupted over U.C. Berkeley’s Spring 2009 commencement speaker. The Californians, who choose the speaker every year, selected Chris Gardner – the real-life inspiration for the film The Pursuit of Happyness.
The Facebook and Twitter pages of my friends were filled with venom. “Chris Gardner!?! Who? WTF!” one read. Another threatened to boycott the graduation ceremony altogether.
For those who haven’t heard of him, Christopher P. Gardner is a self-made millionaire who lived on the streets in the Bay Area for almost a year with his son. He slept in locked BART station bathrooms and even on this very campus in the early 1980s. He passed his stock broker’s exam, worked his way up the corporate ladder, and is now rumored to be worth $165 million.
I concede Mr. Gardner is not a household name. Far from it. But did anybody bother to look up his biography before blasting his selection? All in all, my fellow seniors were probably hoping for a more political and even more famous speaker (never mind the fact that they must cross union picket lines – a no-no in Democratic circles – or that Berkeley is best-known to avoid cultural mainstreams). It is rumored that Oprah Winfrey and Stephen Colbert were runners-up to Gardner. But what angered seniors most was the selection of Michelle Obama by U.C Merced (est. 2005). “UCM got the First Lady?!?” one Facebook status stated.
The Daily Californian Editorial Board and I are probably in the minority of people in Berkeley impressed with Gardner’s selection; the former ran a fairly positive op-ed on April 10. But I’m convinced that Gardner’s speech – and his inspiring story – will trounce any speech by the fake news personality or the overexposed talk-show host or even the new first lady.
The basic fact is that Gardner is an ideal commencement speaker. He breathes and lives inspiration. He is a testament to the power of the individual and the American Dream. His story (his homelessness and where he made his millions) takes place right here in the Bay Area. That he is relatively unknown should not be a detriment to the speech he will give and the people he will undoubtedly motivate, but should be part of his appeal.
I cannot even imagine what a U.C. Berkeley commencement address from Michelle Obama would sound like. Global warming, health care, multiculturalism, the White House vegetable garden, Barack, Bush, and so on. Spare me. If I want to be lectured on such topics all I have to do is (a) go to class, (b) listen to an A.S.U.C. speech, (c) walk down Telegraph Avenue, (d) watch a television channel other than Fox News, or (e) read a newspaper not named “The Wall Street Journal”. See, I want something different for my commencement address.
Fortunately, with Chris Gardner, I’m pretty sure that’s what I’m going to get. More refreshing and pertinent to the majority of Americans (and soon-to-be jobless Berkeley graduates) is Gardner’s story. When he was homeless, who did he blame but himself? When he became a multimillionaire, who did he have to thank but himself? He didn’t need a bailout, a stimulus package, or even a tax cut. He worked himself to the bone, caring for his son and studying and working all along the way. If that doesn’t top the list of stories sure to inspire Americans today, I don’t know what is.
Why should we, the U.C. Berkeley Class of 2009, value stature over content? Does it really mean more – in the long run – that someone that famous speaks as we receive our diplomas? Or is the content of the speech itself more important? I would like to think that after four years of rigorous academic and philosophical exercise we have shed some degree of superficiality.
An entrepreneur speaking to graduating seniors in the year 2009 is, if not inspirational, an absolute necessity. Given the economic downturn and the changing economy of late, we need, now more than ever, to foster creativity, emphasize personal responsibility, and encourage people to pursue their dreams and their own happiness.
A commencement speaker who rejected government intrusion when it mattered, determined not to let the federal government pay his bills and bail him out of his mistakes, is not just timely and important to have at graduation this year, but is worth boasting about and exemplifies the unique qualities that have earned Berkeley a world-renowned reputation for excellence. Chris Gardner is the living example of these principles. Neither Mrs. Obama, nor Oprah Winfrey, nor Stephen Colbert is a better fit than that.