Text of President Hennessy's concluding remarks to graduates
Graduates of Stanford University, on behalf of all members of the Stanford family, I congratulate and commend you. During your time on the Farm, you have made many contributions to our community of scholars, and I thank you.
Four years ago, we were freshmen together; the undergraduate Class of 2004 was the first class I welcomed as president of Stanford. That September, at Freshman Convocation, I urged you to use your time here wisely, to be bold in your endeavors and to discover your intellectual passions. I have certainly witnessed your passion and energy during the last four years, as well as this morning!
Every year, as graduates are presented to me for the conferral of degrees, I admit them to the "rights, responsibilities and privileges" associated with a degree granted by Stanford University. At Stanford, we believe that the rights and privileges of education bring a responsibility to make good use of the knowledge and skills you have acquired.
Today, you join a long line of distinguished alumni who have made excellent use of their knowledge and pursued their goals with passion. One of those distinguished alumni was Kirk Varnedoe.
Football, art and teaching were Varnedoe's lifelong passions. For 14 years he was chief curator of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Throughout his career, he organized numerous major exhibitions at MoMA and other institutions, including retrospectives of Jasper Johns and Jackson Pollock, and thematic exhibitions that explored modern art and popular culture and art, architecture and design. Newsweek magazine once called him "the most powerful man in the modern art world."
When he died of cancer in August 2003 at the age of 57, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences hailed him for his "exuberant love of art." The Washington Post described him as "modern art's athletic mind." Rugby Magazine labeled him "a hooligan and a gentleman."
Born in Savannah, Georgia, Kirk Varnedoe was the youngest of four children. Almost half a century before his birth, his grandfather was the youngest football coach in the history of the University of Georgia, and Varnedoe developed a similar love for the game. After graduating as high school valedictorian, he enrolled at Williams College because he thought a smaller college might give him more opportunity to play than a larger university would.
He briefly considered a career in coaching, and even spent a year as the defensive backfield coach at Williams. But the faculty at Williams encouraged him to pursue a newfound passion -- art. They recognized his extraordinary ability to understand art and to communicate that understanding to others, and they suggested he consider a career in teaching.
Varnedoe came to Stanford to continue his graduate studies in art history, where he worked with Professor Albert Elsen, a noted Rodin scholar. Soon Varnedoe's research on Rodin attracted the interest of the director of the National Gallery of Art, and in 1971 Varnedoe and Elsen worked together on the exhibition "Rodin Drawings, True and False" for the National Gallery. Varnedoe earned his master's degree and his doctorate in art history from Stanford in 1970 and 1972, respectively. A decade later, he and Elsen teamed up again for the National Gallery of Art and developed the highly regarded traveling exhibition "Rodin Rediscovered."
Varnedoe taught at a number of universities, including Stanford, Columbia, New York University and Oxford. In 1984, he co-curated the exhibit "Primitivism and Modern Art" for the Museum of Modern Art, and the following year he was invited to be the museum's adjunct curator of painting and sculpture. Four years later, he was named chief curator.
He was a consummate teacher and a mesmerizing speaker. The New Yorker called him "dauntingly articulate," and people learned to avoid speaking after him.
In 1984, Varnedoe received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, which recognizes people of exceptional talent in a variety of fields and provides five years of very flexible funding. Although he authored 18 books during his lifetime, it was during the MacArthur years that he wrote A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern. It was his most well-known book, and appropriately, sports provided him with the title. At the Rugby School in England, there is a stone commemorating the birth of rugby during a routine soccer game. A young man named William Webb Ellis picked up the soccer ball and ran -- and I quote from the engraving on the stone -- "with a fine disregard for the rules."
It was the perfect metaphor for Varnedoe's life. As he says in his book:
Innovation is a kind of secular miracle: secular, because it happens amid the humdrum machinery of life getting along and virtually everything about it is comprehensible ... miraculous, not only because it can change things dramatically, but because none of that machinery suffices to explain why it had to happen this way ...
Varnedoe's book A Fine Disregard was published in 1990. Two years later, Kirk Varnedoe returned to Stanford as the Commencement speaker. He noted that great art requires us "to make judgments without the comfort of stable rules and categories; and to navigate in seas of uncertainty ... without a map -- and with no guarantees."
In 2003, Varnedoe accepted two new assignments: He was named Mellon Lecturer at the National Gallery of Art, and he became the football coach of the Giant Metrozoids, a team of 8-year-old boys that included his godson. He worked on his lectures, and he practiced with the boys in Central Park, where he declared a remote spot Metrozoid Field.
Months before his death at the age of 57, Kirk Varnedoe gave the Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and he talked about abstraction in art over the last half-century. Students and colleagues lined up hours in advance to hear him speak. The crowds exceeded the designated room's capacity, so the National Gallery scheduled an overflow room.
As he progressed from one lecture to the next, he helped the audience see the miracles in the work of innovators such as Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Jackson Pollock and Richard Serra. By his fourth lecture, a third room had to be reserved to handle the overflow from the overflow room. At the conclusion of his sixth and final lecture, he received a standing ovation.
In my mind, Kirk Varnedoe's life exemplifies the Stanford spirit. He approached football, teaching and art with passion and with "a fine disregard for the rules." He became one of the most influential people in the world of modern art because he was an explorer, willing to "navigate in seas of uncertainty ... without a map -- and with no guarantees." He exhibited the pioneering and bold spirit that we at Stanford value so highly.
As you graduate, I hope that your time here has provided you with a deep reservoir of the Stanford spirit and that you leave this campus inspired to make your own contributions to the world. I hope that you will follow in the footsteps of the many alumni who have gone before you -- alumni like Justice O'Connor and Kirk Varnedoe -- who have made important contributions to our world, who have boldly blazed new trails and who exemplify the Stanford spirit.
Finally, I hope that you will be back often to this special place where the Stanford spirit was born in you.
Thank you and congratulations!