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Inspiration in the rafters

| Wednesday, October 7, 2015

With basketball season just around the corner, I think it’s a good time to discuss commencement speakers and inspiration. The connection may not seem obvious, but I promise I’ll get to it, eventually.

It has only been in the last few decades that colleges began to compete to land “name brand” speakers for commencement. Prior to that, most speakers were business leaders or other professionals who could deliver a solid, inspirational speech. The same executive who could fire up a sales team to push storm windows could just as well inspire new graduates to succeed in the business world. Notre Dame also featured a litany of religious leaders and clerics who could be counted on for spiritual inspiration.

As Notre Dame gained a reputation as the leading Catholic university, it also became a vital stop for politicians, especially presidents seeking to burnish their Catholic-voter credentials. Both Presidents Bush delivered Notre Dame commencement speeches, as well as Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama and Dwight Eisenhower. Quick Notre Dame trivia: Having mentioned the Bushes, what is the other father-son duo to address University graduates? That would be Ambassador Joe Kennedy in 1941 and Congressman John F. Kennedy in winter of 1950.

In addition to the presidents and politicians who may not have been uniformly admired, a number of other speakers have legacies that are open to debate. In 1865, as Civil War and assassination echoed across the nation, General William Tecumseh Sherman addressed the graduating class. J. Edgar Hoover scared the beejesus out of the class of 1942, while the class of 1990 continues to handle the increasingly surreal memory of the inspirational speech from Bill Cosby.

My graduating class was fortunate to have a speaker who was not seeking our votes, but rather wanted us to help others with our talents. Vernon E. Jordan Jr. at the time Executive Director of the National Urban League, was a civil rights activist, attorney and trusted advisor to presidents, most notably to Bill Clinton. I have a vague recollection of Mr. Jordan’s speech being delivered in a beautiful sonorous voice, but my attention began to drift, and I started to look around the cavernous expanse of the ACC.

I thought about how I had been in the ACC quite often, mostly to attend basketball games, either as a spectator or playing in the band courtside. From my perch behind an alto saxophone, I had been able to see the players and coaches up close and recognized most of them from a distance as well. As my attention and gaze wandered, I looked into the upper reaches of the arena, and there, sitting in one of the last rows, high up in the rafters, was a familiar basketball player. It was Bill Laimbeer.

Today, William “Bill” Laimbeer Jr. is best known as one of the NBA Champion Detroit Piston “Bad Boys” and a winning coach in the WNBA. But at the time that I spotted him at commencement, things were not going so well. Bill was apparently having rough time academically. At the end of his first semester, Bill had a GPA that was less than the 2.0 required for eligibility at Notre Dame (though above the 1.6 GPA allowed under NCAA rules). He played well enough his freshman year, with 15 points and 14 rebounds against Manhattan in his last game of the year. The coaches expected him to rebound academically in his second semester, but he again posted less than a 2.0. Bill’s scholarship was suspended, and he was dismissed from school.

So that’s where he was when I spotted him in the cheap seats at graduation. Plenty of my friends in the dorm worked as student managers, and the word was that Bill had “flunked out,” so I was a bit surprised to see him in the stands. He was more attentive than I was, and he appeared to be taking in the speeches and pomp with seriousness, nodding occasionally at the messages being delivered to the graduates. He left before the ceremony was over, and I did not see him again that day.

What I learned later was that then-University President Fr. Ted Hesburgh had offered Bill a deal brokered by coach Digger Phelps. Bill could attend a junior college to improve his grades to a GPA of at least 3.0, then attend summer school at Notre Dame, where he was required to make As in two classes before re-applying. This being Notre Dame, you can guess the rest. Bill got a 3.0 during his year at Owens Technical College in Toledo, Ohio, and two As in Notre Dame summer school. He was reinstated as a student and as a member of the basketball team, and three years later, Bill graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in economics.

Bill’s story of struggle and triumph has been repeated many times on many campuses and is summarized best in a quote from Nelson Mandela: “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”

Those formal commencement speakers try to educate and inspire, but often that job is handled best by our friends and fellow students.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Raymond Ramirez

Ray Ramirez is an attorney practicing, yet never perfecting, law in Texas while waiting patiently for a MacArthur Genius Grant. You may contact him at [email protected]

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