Drawing on stories from his own life and those of his once-enslaved ancestors, historian and Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch challenged graduates at Northwestern University’s 161st commencement ceremony last week to think beyond themselves and use what they have learned in college to make the world a better place.
Bunch, who became the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution on June 17 – just four days before he delivered Northwestern’s commencement address – said education has transformed his life and has the power to do much more. He urged the graduates to remember that there is a higher calling that transcends individual gain or personal achievement.
“The burden, the challenge for the class of 2019, is to find your own good fight,” Bunch said. “To realize that your skills, your creativity and your educational achievements are needed to work for the greater good.”
More than 11,000 people attended the 90-minute ceremony at a sun-drenched Ryan Field, which honored 6,148 students who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees. A livestream of the event was broadcast to viewers around the world.
Throughout his speech, Bunch spoke poignantly about how education helped transform his family’s lives. His paternal grandparents were sharecroppers on a plantation outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, where their parents and grandparents were enslaved for generations. Bunch said his grandparents picked cotton, chopped peanuts and planted corn for 27 years of their lives. But they knew they were suited for more than picking cotton.
They attended night classes at a local college and graduated after 11 years of schooling.
“Thanks to a college like this one, they were given a chance, and they never forgot the benefits of education, nor did they forget the promise of American life,” Bunch said. “They not only remade themselves, but they remade and transformed our entire family. And I’m proud to say my daughters have become the fourth generation of my family to graduate college.”
As secretary of the Smithsonian, Bunch oversees 19 museums, 21 libraries, the National Zoo, and numerous research centers and education units. Before being named secretary, Bunch was director of the Smithsonian’s widely acclaimed and enormously popular National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, he served as president of the Chicago Historical Society.
In his remarks to the graduating students and their families, Bunch said he could never have imagined he would be part of a team to build a museum that uses African-American culture as a lens to understand what it means to be an American. He also didn’t imagine he’d become secretary of the Smithsonian, he said.
Bunch told the graduates they, too, will face surprising challenges and opportunities, along with disappointments and failures. To navigate those times, he encouraged the graduates to draw support and sustenance from others.
He told the story of an incident that happened when he was just 13 or 14, growing up in the mostly white community of Belleville, New Jersey. Bunch said he was playing baseball when he was attacked by a mob of teenagers, who hit him with baseball bats and rocks. Terrified, he fled, and ran until he could run no more.
He collapsed on the front lawn of a stranger’s house. Just as the mob approached to inflict more pain, a young blonde girl came out of the house. At first, he thought she was going to tell him to get off her lawn. Instead, she told the mob to leave.
“She stood between me and the mob and rescued me,” Bunch said. “At that moment, I learned much about how help comes from unlikely places. I learned about the generosity of spirit. I learned about race, and I learned about goodwill.”
He said he never saw the girl again, but he never forgot what she did. The incident changed him. It taught him that race mattered, but also that he should never generalize — or pigeonhole people based on generalizations.
“No matter how fast one runs or how smart one is, there will be many times when we need to draw that sustenance, inspiration and guidance from others,” Bunch said. “It is crucial that that well of sustenance – that you can draw from – comes from many of the people you have met here.”
Bunch was not the only honoree. Six people – Bunch, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Alan Kay, Bernard Osher, Shirley Welsh Ryan and Andrew Youn – received honorary degrees, recognizing them as distinguished leaders in the arts, sciences, business and philanthropy. Each was presented by a member of the Northwestern community, and Northwestern President Morton Schapiro bestowed each honor.
In introducing Bunch, graduating senior Faalon Andrews echoed many of the speaker’s themes, including principles of service and helping one another.
Calling Bunch “an amplifier of our voices,” Andrews asked the graduating class not to forget the women who have had their voices silenced, the Black bodies that have been subjected to neglect and violence, and the queer and trans people who have been victimized. “These stories deserve to be heard and to be displayed – which is exactly what our commencement speaker today, Secretary Lonnie Bunch, has and continues to dedicate his life to doing,” Andrews said.
Andrews said she spoke to Bunch, who humbly described himself as “just a guy from New Jersey who’s trying to make it in the big city.” Bunch might have sold himself a bit short. “This guy from New Jersey, whose work is deeply personal, who doesn’t put his identity in a bag when it comes to work, wants to build a place to make the country better,” Andrews said. “I hope as we leave Northwestern, we can assist Secretary Bunch in doing so.”
For the ninth year in a row, President Schapiro paid tribute to five high school teachers who inspired graduating seniors and had a lasting impact on their lives. Each was honored with a Distinguished Secondary Teacher Award, which recognizes teachers from across the country who were nominated by members of the senior class.
“I thank them for their contributions to this senior class and for sharing their extraordinary talents with so many,” President Schapiro said before asking them to stand to be recognized.
President Schapiro then recognized all the others who helped the graduates make it to this day. “One of the nicest aspects of yesterday, today and tomorrow is to be able to watch our graduates share moments with faculty and staff who have done so much to make their Northwestern experience productive and rewarding,” Schapiro said before asking members of Northwestern’s faculty and staff to stand up. As has become a tradition, the president then asked the parents and stepparents of the graduates to stand, so the students could turn and give them a round of applause. Next, he asked the grandparents to stand, followed by siblings, spouses, children, aunts and uncles, cousins, other family members and, finally, friends.
Honoring Patricia Telles-Irvin
President Schapiro also recognized the extraordinary contributions of Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin, who passed away June 3 following a long battle with cancer. “She was a tireless champion for all our students and always found the best in each of us,” Schapiro said. “May her memory be a blessing to us all.”
Speaking on behalf of the Class of 2019, graduating senior Elizabeth Coin harkened back to her first days on campus. “Remember when we all received our first ‘Purple Pride’ T-shirts? Yeah, Go ‘Cats! Purple Pride is very real, and when I feel that pride, I also feel this deep purple gratitude,” Coin said. “This University means something unique to each of us. For some, this is a proud moment for the alumni in your family who share this with you. For others, this is the first college graduation for your family – congratulations. We are our ancestors’ wildest dreams.”
It’s a concept Bunch certainly knows well. “I am struck by something a dear friend of mine, Studs Terkel, the great oral historian from Chicago, once said,” Bunch recalled. “Near the end of his life, Studs, who never missed a picket, never missed a chance to struggle against the big guys, said to me, ‘You know, Lonnie, I can’t hear anymore, can’t see much, can’t stand up, so all I ask you to do is point me in the direction where I can do good.’ That’s what I think you want to keep in mind. Always point yourself in the direction where you can do good.”