President’s introduction of Oprah, congratulations to Class of 2008

Following is the text, as prepared, of remarks by University President John Hennessy at Commencement on June 15, 2008.

Introduction of Oprah Winfrey

It gives me great pleasure to introduce this year’s Commencement speaker: global media leader and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey.

At Stanford, we encourage our graduates to think about the impact they can have on the world and to make good use of their skills. Few people have done so better than Oprah Winfrey.

As a young girl, Oprah did not plan on growing up to become a media icon. But she did know that she would do something with her life. A native of rural Mississippi, her early years were spent with her grandmother, who taught her to read. Her own personal interest and commitment to reading eventually led to the Oprah Book Club, igniting an interest and passion for reading by people across the country.

She also showed an early interest in public speaking. By the age of 3, she was holding church audiences spellbound with her recitations. In grade school, she memorized poetry, verses from the Bible and the sermons of James Weldon Johnson, delivering them with such zeal, her classmates called her “preacher.”

That gift of oratory has served her well over the years. She officially began her broadcasting career in high school, when a local radio station hired her to read news copy.

A stint in Baltimore as news co-anchor followed after her undergraduate degree. But it was becoming clear that reporting was not her genre. As she explained in an interview years later, “I used to go on assignment and be so open that I would say to people at fires … ‘That’s OK. You don’t have to talk to me.’ … And back at the news room … the news director says, ‘What do you mean they didn’t have to talk to you?'”

Her compassion for others may not have gotten her the story, but it is central to the evolution of the Oprah show. In 1984, she had an opportunity to host a local talk show in Chicago, and the format—talking, listening, sharing—was a natural for her. Within a year, both the show and its audience had expanded, and The Oprah Winfrey Show was on its way.

In 1988, she established Harpo Studios, which produces her show. With Harpo Studios, Oprah became the only African American woman to own her own studio. Over the 22 years The Oprah Winfrey Show has been in national syndication, it has received more than three-dozen Emmy Awards and is seen by millions of viewers each week in the United States and around the world.

Oprah’s accomplishments as a businesswoman and global media pioneer are legendary, but it is her work as a philanthropist that truly sets her apart. For more than a decade, she has been exhorting her viewers to make good use of their lives and make a difference in the world. In 1998, Oprah’s Angel Network was launched and has raised more than $50 million, providing assistance to women and children around the world for schools, shelters and homes. Many of you probably saw the amazing results of her efforts to help families whose homes were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina; it was truly inspiring.

Through the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, she has established schools and scholarships, provided libraries and teacher education, and donated millions of dollars so that young people with promise, but without means, have the opportunity for an education. After visiting with Nelson Mandela in 2000, she decided to build a school in South Africa. That pledge soon grew to a larger commitment, and last year the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls—South Africa was established to educate young women to become the leaders of tomorrow.

Oprah Winfrey is a woman of extraordinary accomplishment, and she has received numerous honors for her achievements. In 2008, she was named to Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people for the fifth time—more than any other person. She received the 2007 Humanitarian Award from the Elie Wiesel Foundation, the Library Lion in 2006 from the New York Public Library, the 2005 National Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum, the Global Humanitarian Action Award from the United Nations Association of the United States and the 50th Anniversary Gold Medal from the National Book Foundation—just to name a few of her many honors.

Whether she is interviewing Nobel laureates or victims of abuse, getting the country excited about a good book, sharing an experience in O magazine or launching a new satellite radio channel appropriately named Oprah and Friends—Oprah Winfrey has demonstrated a zeal for learning, an extraordinary ability to connect with others and a commitment to helping make the world a better place.

On her website, she states, “You get from the world what you give to the world,” and throughout her career, she has sought to give to the world in remarkable and varied ways. Her generosity of spirit serves as a model to us all.

Please join me in warmly welcoming this year’s Commencement speaker, Oprah Winfrey.

Concluding remarks

Graduates of Stanford University, on behalf of all members of the Stanford family, I congratulate and commend you.

Every year, as graduates are presented to me for the conferral of degrees, I respond by admitting them to the “rights, responsibilities and privileges” associated with a degree granted by this university.

You have worked hard to earn this degree and accomplished much during your time here, and you certainly deserve this day of celebration. But at Stanford, we believe the rights and privileges of an education also bring a responsibility to make good use of your knowledge, to change the world for the better and to help ensure that succeeding generations have the same opportunities you have had here at Stanford.

In recent years, I have made it a Commencement tradition to talk about alumni who demonstrated great personal vision and took their responsibilities seriously. One of those distinguished alumni was Melvin B. Lane, or “Mel,” as most of us knew him.

Mel was a businessman, philanthropist, champion of the environment, guardian of the California coastline, Cardinal football fan and dedicated Stanford supporter. His death last summer was a great loss for us and for our state.

Mel was born in Iowa; as young boy, his family moved to California, and he later attended Palo Alto High. A member of the Class of 1944, Mel earned his degree in economics from Stanford.

After serving in the Navy, he returned to California and joined his brother, Bill—also a Stanford alumnus—to work at his father’s travel magazine, Sunset.

In 1952, their father transferred operations to the two brothers, with Bill heading up the magazine and Mel overseeing the book division.

Mel and Bill ran Lane Publishing for almost four decades, transforming it into a celebration of the West and an early pioneer in the do-it-yourself movement. Sunset Books reflected the western way of living; indeed, the magazine and books helped shape the West, especially the classic Western Garden Book, of which I have personally purchased at least three copies since I moved to California.

In 1990, Lane Publishing was sold to Time Warner. Mel was still driving his 19-year-old Chevrolet convertible. When asked what he might do after the sale, he said, “I don’t plan to do anything different as far as the money goes. … I might afford a new car.”

Mel Lane was not just a remarkably astute businessman, he was a passionate environmentalist and a pioneer in the conservation movement in California. He believed that good business and good environmental policy could work together.

In 1965 Mel was appointed by Gov. Pat Brown to be the first chairman of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. The commission comprised 27 members, each representing very different interests—and many predicted its failure. Instead, thanks in large part to Mel’s leadership, vision and incredible patience, the commission produced a plan that still protects the bay and its wetlands today.

In 1972 Gov. Ronald Reagan asked him to head up the new California Coastal Commission. After hundreds of public meetings, the commission delivered a plan that is still conserving the beautiful coast.

In 1977, Mel turned his leadership skills to co-founding the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), where he served on the board for more than two decades. During that time, POST preserved nearly 60,000 acres of open space.

In 1998, the California League of Conservation Voters named him Conservationist of the Year, writing, “If you look around California, you would be hard-pressed to find a place of beauty that Mel hasn’t played a part in preserving.”

Throughout his life, Mel was also deeply involved in the life of the university, and in that he was greatly helped by his wife of more than 50 years, Joan. In 1952, on a ski trip at Tahoe, Mel met Joan Fletcher; they married the following year. Joan is an alumna of Smith College—and a very loyal one to this day—but she is also a woman of tremendous heart. And she quickly became an invaluable member of the Stanford family.

Joan and Mel were tremendous partners in their support of the university, generous philanthropists and dedicated volunteers who served on countless boards and committees, hosted numerous Stanford events and supported activities from creative writing and the humanities to the reconstruction of Green Library. Both Joan and Mel have been awarded the Gold Spike, the university’s highest award for volunteer service.

After the Loma Prieta earthquake, Mel led the drive to restore Memorial Church to its early glory. And he was enormously successful. As Robert Gregg, longtime friend and professor emeritus of religious studies, explained, Mel could be very persuasive—inviting donors to don hardhats and join him as he climbed up ladders, onto scaffolding and into the dome. That was Mel Lane. Doing whatever was best for the university—and having fun in the process. He was so successful that Stanford was able to extend the restoration to include repairs to the church’s upper balconies, which had been closed for many years due to damage from the 1906 earthquake.

Mel Lane exemplified the Stanford spirit. At his memorial service last fall—held in his much-loved Memorial Church with all the balconies open—the song “This Land Is Your Land” reminded us of his joy, his passion and his great love for our planet. That is his legacy—a story of deep commitment and service to this and future generations—everything we know to be the Stanford spirit.

Today, I hope that you leave this campus with a deep reservoir of the Stanford spirit, a reservoir that will grow over the years. I hope that this spirit inspires you to make your contributions to the world, and I hope that it brings you back often to this special place. And the next time you are in Memorial Church, at some beautiful open space preserve in the Santa Cruz Mountains or somewhere along the glorious California coast, say a prayer of thanks for Mel Lane.

Thank you and congratulations!