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Stanford Report, June 18, 1997

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer speaks at commencement


By the time Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer stepped to the podium to deliver the address for Stanford's 106th Commencement, he was visibly enjoying the traditionally unconventional Stanford graduation.

He'd appeared startled when a bearded and befrocked member of the Leland Stanford Jr. University Marching Band dashed in front of him in the processional line to buss university President Gerhard Casper on the cheek. And he seemed unsure what to make of the Nike flying disk that glanced off the stage during the invocation.

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But when undergraduates hissed Casper's mention of the school where Breyer got his law degree - Harvard University - the associate justice readied his own one-liners.

Casper, Breyer told the good-natured crowd, had been reading and re-reading him a letter about boring commencement speeches. To compound his unease, the Stanford president also had tried to teach him the macarena.

"And he's not that good at it," Breyer added to whoops of laughter and applause.

As chants of "do it, do it" swept through the rows of undergraduates on the field in front of him, Breyer considered his options and concluded he had none. Criss-crossing his hands on his head and shoulders and swiveling his hips, the associate justice delivered a performance that was wisely brief.

In an address that drew cascading laughter, Breyer said he had received plenty of advice when he had graduated from Stanford in 1959:

"Join the army."

"Give blood."

"Travel east."

"Stay west."


The sly reference to the 1967 film The Graduate was cheered, as was Breyer's recounting of Conrad Hilton's pithy advice after spending 50 years in the hotel business: "Always keep the shower curtain inside the bathtub."

Breyer told graduates they would be advised to ask many questions as they found their own niches in society.

"The science graduate will ask, 'Why does that work?'

"The engineering graduate, 'How does it work?'

"The economics graduate, 'What does it cost?'

"And the liberal arts graduate, 'Do you want french fries with that hamburger?' "

Breyer's talk was laced with personal memories, and he noted that it was "a particular pleasure" for him to be speaking on Father's Day, with his own son, Michael, sitting among the graduating seniors.

"He's been giving me advice for more than 20 years," the associate justice quoted his son as saying. "I suppose another 15 minutes won't matter."

Breyer said that earlier that morning he had given Michael the ring his own father wore when he graduated from Stanford 70 years ago. The day was filled with emotion for him, the associate justice added, as he thought of the three generations who had attended classes in the Main Quad.

"Consider . . . that when my father was at Stanford, he could not join any of the social organizations because he was Jewish, and those organizations, at that time, did not accept Jews," he said.

Breyer also mentioned the difficulty his colleagues on the Supreme Court, Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, had finding jobs when they graduated from law school because they were women.

But the world has changed since then, Breyer said - "often for the better."

"I think it is very important to remember that those changes did not occur magically - that they represented individual, and collective, pioneering efforts."

To the graduates, he said, "There is so much still to be done. You still can choose to be a pioneer."

In a nod to his humanist training at Stanford as a philosophy major, Breyer said, "I take to heart an essay I once read about Jane Eyre.

"Charlotte Brontë's story of a governess . . . tells us that every person's life is a story of passion, with its moments of joy and happiness, or tragedy or sorrow. And each person's story is different, one from the other."

Noting that today's graduates face "no Hitler, no Nazis abroad," and that they do not have to confront "the evil of legal segregation by race," as earlier generations did, Breyer said the Class of '97 nevertheless has its own challenges.

"You do face inner cities where the greatest threat to children's lives is homicide; where drugs and crime are prevalent but education, jobs and hope are scarce."

Confronting and finding solutions to those problems, he said, will require commitment to principles of democracy, liberty and fairness, as well as personal integrity - the "rock that is secure and that no one can take from you."

Defying cynical voices that say today's generation has lost it moral compass, Breyer said, "I do not believe that can be so. . . ."

"We do know right from wrong; you do know right from wrong," he added. "Personal integrity - that rock - at the core remains the same. . . ."

"I trust you will confront and overcome pressures and problems that my generation did not have to face or did not succeed in overcoming," Breyer said. "And your lives will tell stories that have not just a private, personal part, but a public, a community part as well."

In his opening remarks, Casper said he was pleased to call attention to the many awards and honors received by this year's graduates.

At Stanford's 106th Commencement, he said, 1,763 bachelor's degrees were being awarded, in addition to 1,904 master's degrees and 880 doctoral degrees. The Class of 1997 included 371 students graduating with departmental honors and 270 graduating with university distinction. In addition, 144 students had satisfied the requirements of more than one major, 75 were graduating with dual bachelor's degrees and 219 had completed requirements for both a bachelor's and a master's degree. Another 159 students had completed minor programs.

Casper also thanked the graduates for their 62 percent participation rate in the Senior Gift, the highest rate by any Stanford class, including reunion classes. With matching gifts from alumnus and former trustee Peter Bing and an anonymous donor, Casper said, the total gift was more than $212,000.

Recalling his welcome to the Class of '97 in Frost Amphitheater in September 1993, Casper said he had given a talk titled "Concerning Culture and Cultures."

He would not repeat it in its entirety, Casper assured students and their families, but he did pass along the web address so they could refer to it later.

Noting that his remarks four years ago had focused on diversity, Casper said, "You may be so accustomed to multifaceted Stanford that you notice it only when you leave campus, for almost any place you have come from or will go to will be more monochromatic and uniform that this campus."

No segment of American society, he said, could "match college campuses in bringing together such a mix of people in such close contact - living, eating, working and praying together - with such success."

Beach balls, bingo

Beach balls were batted around the undergraduate section as Breyer and Casper spoke, and the associate justice interjected several sentences he said he'd been asked to read, to help Commencement Bingo players fill out their cards.

The sunny Sunday morning seemed made for relaxation, and several undergraduates in bikinis carried a plastic wading pool onto the football field and stretched out in beach chairs for a few reflective moments during the pre-commencement festivities.

Two determined riders arrived on a tandem bicycle, sporting neon green signs on their backs that read "Show me" and "the $," and struck off around the track to find their fortunes. Another student, Jason Hool, arrived on a sheet-draped ladder, carried aloft by four members of the crew team.

"Jason thought we should come in on elephants, but we thought we'd have a hard time finding some, so my grandmother said, 'Why don't you come in on a litter?' " bearer Mike Schaps explained.

"Life's a picnic," Bess Kennedy bubbled as she clomped around in gigantic red clown shoes and pointed to the picnic table and red-checkered tablecloth that draped her mortarboard. "My dad was sure I was going to trip and fall," she said of her father, history Professor David Kennedy.

Other hats were festooned with stuffed animals, pink flamingos, palm trees, wedges of cheese and balloon sculptures, and two candidates peered out of eye holes cut in towering giraffe heads. Thirteen friends comprised a deck of cards - "We're not playing with a full deck" - and one undergraduate wore a straightforward billboard: "Hire me 415-497-5392."

A few signs also were hoisted briefly by students milling near the stage - "Happy Father's Day dad, Bethany," "Guess what, mom: I'm home for good" and "Tenure Gupta." Candidates for master's and doctoral degrees, who marched around the track in more distinguished ranks, sported a single funky banner - "International Pontificating Sophists" - carried by soon-to-be graduates in international policy studies.

One candidate arrived with a cardboard cut-out of a friend, Flora, who wasn't able to come to the ceremonies, and another young woman strode around with a parasol, a croquet mallet and a videocam - ready to document any match she played.

Two rockets were launched from mid-field early in the morning, and several colored balloons with paper mortarboards attached rose above the stands in the final moments of the commencement ceremonies.

The 10-member Stanford Jazz Workshop ensemble, under the direction of Jim Nadel, managed to add a few cool flourishes to the traditional "Pomp and Circumstance." By the time band members stormed the stage at the close of the scheduled ceremonies, bubbles already were floating high above the occasional mortarboard that was tossed aloft.

Outside the stadium, Chris Donnell had tacked two flags to his black 'board, one to honor his Danish mother and the other, his American father. "I should have tied a rock to my hat," the geology and environmental sciences major said, straight man to his dad's, "You've got your head instead."

Seven family members who had come from Oklahoma, Colorado and Louisiana to see Troy Clardy graduate probably spoke for many in the audience.

"I'm happy, I'm ecstatic," said proud dad Gary Clardy. "It's just been a beautiful day. I can't think of a better Father's Day present."