Imploring graduates to spend their lives building bridges for others to cross, U.S. Supreme Court Justice and Stanford alumna Sandra Day O’Connor cited the words — and example — of former President Ronald Reagan to remind students that “we have every right to dream heroic dreams.”

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor responded to a warm welcome from Stanford graduates as she began her address at the 113th Commencement Ceremony Stanford Stadium. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Delivering her second Commencement address at Stanford, O’Connor encouraged the Stanford Class of 2004 to dedicate at least part of their lives to public service. She was warmly received by students and their families, who gave her several standing ovations.

The university’s 113th Commencement featured the usual balance of emotional heft and student-inspired zaniness, courtesy of the traditional Wacky Walk procession and the assortment of beach balls that bounced through the crowd of students seated on the stadium floor. An estimated 25,000 people attended the ceremony Sunday in Stanford Stadium.

Years spent with noses buried in textbooks gave way to a flow of creative outbursts for many students who marked their last day with assorted cap-and-gown embellishments and other stunts.

A group of male students created a makeshift waterslide on the grass. Another group of students used long swimming-pool floaters and green ribbon to make palm trees for their recreation of the fabled Palm Drive, complete with a cardinal “Welcome to Stanford” sign.

Although still warm, the weather was milder than in past years, and some students whipped out baskets filled with food for impromptu picnics. Others brought along a felt table and clay chips for a game of poker. The ongoing NBA championship series also received some notice, with one student donning a Detroit Pistons uniform and another group of men holding individual letters that spelled out “Go Lakers.”

Once their moment of creative expression passed, the students filed over to their chairs and were welcomed by President John Hennessy, who kept with tradition by giving them a moment to turn and thank their family, friends and mentors.

He also noted that one past graduate who was pregnant on the occasion of O’Connor’s first Commencement address, in 1982, had returned Sunday to see O’Connor deliver her second Commencement address for that same child’s graduation.

Hennessy introduced O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court in 1981, as a trailblazer who almost didn’t consider a career in law until one of her Stanford professors convinced her to apply to the university’s Law School.

O’Connor earned her undergraduate degree in 1950 and her law degree in 1952 — both from Stanford — but found that the only job she could get after graduation was as a legal secretary. Undeterred, O’Connor settled with her husband in Arizona and opened a private practice. She was eventually appointed to the state senate and served two years on the Arizona Court of Appeals when President Reagan tapped her for the Supreme Court bench, which she said was “as much a surprise to me as it was to the nation as a whole.”

O’Connor said Reagan appointed her to bridge a chasm that existed between the genders. “In a single day, with a single action, he had laid the foundation for a bridge that would continue to be built by dedicated Americans in the years to come.”

O’Connor implored students to pursue careers in public service and to tackle societal problems even if they appear to be too challenging. She said the court’ decision to strike down the “separate but equal” doctrine for public school children in its historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 happened because of many small efforts that led to something much larger.

“The bridge to Brown was paved with many small stones, each laid by someone like yourself who decided to believe that even a small difference was worth making,” O’Connor said. “Our nation needs bridges, and bridges are built by those who look to the future and dedicate themselves to helping others. Commit yourselves today, as you embark on your new life as a Stanford graduate, to being a bridge builder.”

Following O’Connor’s remarks, Hennessy conferred the degrees of students one school at a time, and noted that they came with all the “rights, responsibilities and privileges”of being a Stanford graduate.

“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,” Hennessy said. “I hope that you will be back often to this special place where the Stanford spirit was born in you.”

The weight of the moment when he was asked to stand among his peers for his degree conferral produced a stream of tears for senior David Lau, who graduated with a degree in electrical engineering.

“It was the culmination of so much time and energy and I’ve made so many great friendships,” Lau said. “It hasn’t really hit me that this is the end.”

Alfonso Sanchez also was moved by the occasion of traveling from Chula Vista to watch his daughter Adriana become the first woman in his family to graduate from college.

“It’s a very proud feeling,” Sanchez said. “She’s the first female graduate from our family and she’s gone through such a great place. It’s very moving.”