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Commencement Speakers and Honorary Degrees 2009

I know a lot of (most?) people don’t actually pay attention to the sidebars, so I wanted to call this one to your attention.

Today the college announced the 2009 Commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients.  You can read the whole thing for the long background, but here is the quick and dirty version:

Clarence Otis ’77 – chairman and chief executive officer of Darden Restaurants – will be the principal speaker at the college’s 220th Commencement exercises on Sunday, June 7.  Anne Garrels – senior foreign correspondent of National Public Radio – will be the Baccalaureate speaker on Saturday, June 6.

President of the College Morton Owen Schapiro will confer honorary degrees on both of them as well as to astronaut and Senator John H. Glenn, writer Tracy Kidder, historian James M. McPherson, and musician James Taylor.

Quite the eclectic group this year:  businessman, journalist, astronaut, author, professor/scholar, and musician.  Should be a fun group.  Hopefully there are other side events where the honorary degree recipients can speak/perform.  Having James Taylor join in the Ivy Exercises singing of The Mountains would be pretty cool.

In various committee/meet the alumni settings I had the good fortune to meet Otis a handful of times.  He seemed like a great guy.  I hope he’ll give an interesting speech – commencement addresses are a notoriously difficult balance.

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#1 Comment By JeffZ On March 18, 2009 @ 6:04 pm

Great news. I have long been a broken record on Ephblog calling for selecting Williams alums as commencement speakers in the absense of someone at the level of a U.S. President or something. I predict that Otis will give the best-received commencement speech in years. Why? He is an impressive guy with an interesting story to tell, like all such speakers, but in his case, the Williams experience plays an integral role in that experience. His speech won’t be canned or recycled from other addresses. Rather it will be uniquely tailored to his audience and, as such, that more more powerful and meaningful. Kudos to the committee on this selection. And a pretty cool slate of honorary degree recipients to boot.

#2 Comment By Anon ’13 On March 18, 2009 @ 6:09 pm

John Glenn ^^

#3 Comment By Will Slack ’11 On March 18, 2009 @ 6:14 pm

Welcome Anon ’13. This is about the time I started commenting here. My e-mail is searchable in the Williams directory if you want to know more about Ephblog or anything else. :D

On the topic of the thread, they all sound interesting, and I agree with the idea of having alums speak at least one commencement ceremony. The headliner doesn’t have to be an alum, but I wouldn’t ever want a recycled speech either.

#4 Comment By PTC On March 18, 2009 @ 7:23 pm

What is the criteria to get an honorary degree from Williams?

#5 Comment By Jonathan ’05 On March 18, 2009 @ 7:39 pm

James Taylor! Everyone who doesn’t already know them should look up the awesome lyrics to “Sweet Baby James” for his reference to the area.

Now the first of December was covered with snow
And so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston.
Lord, the Berkshires seemed dream-like on account of that frosting
With ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go . . .

Super bonus trivia: What recent event in a city named above links James to another Centennial Medal recipient.

#6 Comment By Parent ’12 On March 18, 2009 @ 7:43 pm

Related to PTC @ 4, who’s on the selection committee?

And, I believe James Taylor has been hiring interns from Williams.

#7 Comment By jeffz On March 18, 2009 @ 7:47 pm

James Taylor has interns? What does an internship with James Taylor entail? And what are the requirements? Being mellow, I guess? I think I could dig that internship.

#8 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On March 18, 2009 @ 8:59 pm

I think that’s a great group. Nice and eclectic.

For those of you who haven’t read Tracy Kidder’s “The Soul of a New Machine,” you should. It’s thriller–literally–about designing and building a computer (a Data General minicomputer, actually). At the time the book came out I was doing the same thing at an archrival (I was Product Manager of Operating Systems at Wang Laboratories) and I remember thinking Kidder had been looking over my shoulder for the past 18 months. The book is absolutely accurate in capturing the technology, the process, and the nerve-wracking tension. Kidder has gone on to write other great books, but that launched his career and a genre. Out of the 3,000 books I have in my house, that’s in the top ten.

#9 Comment By PTC On March 18, 2009 @ 9:00 pm

Parent- All these people are obviously talented… but so are thousands of others… so why James Taylor and not Jimmi Buffet? Do they have a criteria for nomination and award… or is it purely political?

#10 Comment By Jonathan ’05 On March 18, 2009 @ 9:30 pm

PTC, lighten up this time. You are smart enough to know that this is not the kind of thing that will have meaningfully specific, informative “criteria.” There is no set of criteria anyone could draw up that would explain why five people are the best suited in one particular year out of the tens of thousands of eminently noble individuals out there.

It is obviously somewhat “political.” It’s pretty obviously not “purely political.” It’s not as though politicking is totally inappropriate here though: what is politics but the effort to direct and respond to the major flows of the world? It’s pretty reasonable to hold up as models for new graduates people who have shaped or are somehow importantly a part of that flow.

Ephblog writers have nitpicked a lot in the past about the recipients; this is the first year I’ve seen general approval, and I agree. I expect big things from the Darden leader and am glad the College included an alum this year. That company is a beast, with successes and failures aplenty to talk about. I hope Otis gets specific, resists any temptation to be purely general in a commencement speech.

#11 Comment By nuts On March 18, 2009 @ 10:06 pm

Guy, if I’m not mistaken, the protagonist is an Amherst grad who was involuntarily given a year off from college by qualifying for the underachiever program. True? I read it when I was working at Digital as a programmer in the VAX/VMS and high level language group. It is a great read that chronicles the birth of the 32 bit virtual memory system mini-computer at Data General, the Eagle I think, which competed with the VAX and everyone else’s 32 bit VM system.

#12 Comment By Ben Fleming On March 18, 2009 @ 10:31 pm

What does an internship with James Taylor entail? And what are the requirements? Being mellow, I guess?

Listen, Aldrin, I’m not as laid back as people think. Now here’s the deal. I’m going to play, and you’re going to float there and like it.

#13 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On March 19, 2009 @ 7:45 am


You’re absolutely correct. Tom West was an Amherst grad who was an “underachiever” at college, although Kidder doesn’t mention that in the book. Kidder is a Harvard grad who served in Vietnam.

In the 1980’s (a less tech-savvy time), people would ask me what I did for a living and I’d say, “I’m a product manager of operating systems, the software that makes the computer run,” and their eyes would glaze over. I’d then tell them, “If you want to know what I do, read the ‘Soul of a New Machine.'”

Given that Williams didn’t have a computer major when I attended (I majored in History), it’s interesting that a bunch of us wandered into programming. It was a wild and woolly ride, and I loved it. Wang was growing at 100% a year in the early 80’s, the chaos was overwhelming, but I got responsibilities way beyond my years.

At age 27 I designed Wang’s high bay warehousing system from scratch (knowing nothing about warehousing beforehand) and although we didn’t get much sleep, we had it up and running in four months (we had to, because that was how fast the physical warehouse was built). Every week or so, Dr. Wang would wander into my cubicle and say, “You do realize that if this system isn’t delivered on time that the company will lose a $1 million a day in revenue, right?” “I’d swallow hard and say, “Yes, sir, I do.” After doing that project, there isn’t a lot in life that scares me.

#14 Comment By emily ’04 On March 21, 2009 @ 7:10 pm

for what it’s worth, james taylor also worked (I’ve heard) on one of the ships currently at mystic seaport, home of williams-mystic. (also, I had no idea I was a james taylor geek until RIGHT NOW.)

#15 Comment By Jonathan ’05 On March 21, 2009 @ 8:11 pm

I’m very disappointed no one has answered my challenge. Should I post the answer?

Great to hear from you Emily! It’s been a long time :)

#16 Comment By kthomas On March 22, 2009 @ 2:51 am


On that note, you may appeciate an anecdote told me by Roger Gregory, some years ago–

In late ’81 or so, Xanadu Operating Corporation (XOC) received funding from AutoDesk to purchase a Sun machine– which was eagerly awaited– both for UNIX, and because the SmallTalk group promised to release a copy of their work to Xanadu as soon as possible.

Roger transferred the funds to Sun’s accounts in mid-January– and waited.

By May or so– tension and anticipation had risen fairly high. Of course there were delays, but…

Roger picked up the phone in the offices in Palo Alto, and called Berkeley.

Bill Joy answered the phone. At this point, Sun was still four people and some hangers-on, still operating– actually, out of some rented space in a fraternity. They were trying rather hard to appear as if a larger company.

Roger explained the situation, and Bill said, of all things, “let me transfer you to purchasing.”

At this point, Sun has one phone line. Bill places the phone receiver in an offline acoustic coupler, in the hope of masking the further “noise.” He then turns across the small room to “Purchasing and Accounting,” which rummages through invoices and printouts for some moments.

Vinod Khosla, who is handling accounting, receiving, fulfillment, compiler design, etc., picks up the phone after some minutes. “Um, hello? I can’t find your order… give me a little while.” Bill and Vinod rummage around the files for ten minutes or so more; they forget to put the phone in the coupler, so Roger hears the interaction.

Vinod comes back on the line. “I’m sorry, I’ve found it, it’s right here. You’re in Palo Alto? We can have someone deliver it next week.”

It bears saying that, up to this point in its history, Sun Microsystems had never made a private sale– it had only dealt with purchase orders from governmental, mostly military, entities.

“I’m very sorry for the mix-up,” Vinod goes on. “We didn’t have it marked as paid. Though– I had been wondering where that quarter-million dollars in our account came from.”

At this point– Bill is about to have a long week putting the machine together.

We still have the machine in the basement, off of Taraval– it still boots– we’ve never gotten the Ethernet interface to work, though we once hoped for a simple webserver– Bill has offered more than the purchase price, to take it back.

#17 Comment By jeffz On March 22, 2009 @ 7:29 am

Yes Jonathan. Our trivia skills have clearly rusted considerably since our undergrad days …

#18 Comment By PTC On March 22, 2009 @ 8:30 am

Jonathan- I am not trying to be “heavy”. I am relaxed. My question is if there is any format used to “grade” for this. If someone has information on how these people are picked… through grading or a vote, or some other method, that would be good information to have. What I have seen here on ephblog in the past is people who complain about these kinds of awards without any understanding of or pointing to the process. That is why I ask. I am trying to understand this process.

How are these people picked? Simple vote? (by whom and how is that weighed?) Graded sheet? (What is the criteria?) etc.

#19 Comment By PTC On March 22, 2009 @ 8:35 am

My experience with being a board member for major awards and recognition is that normally there is a nomination, a grading criteria, and then a vote to pick the recipient(s).

Is there a limit on how many of these the college gives out annually?

#20 Comment By Jonathan ’05 On March 22, 2009 @ 10:37 am

Alright . . . did y’all know that Yo-Yo Ma is a prior speaker?

James performed with him on a Band of Legends tour to Tanglewood last July 4th.

#21 Comment By PTC On March 22, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

Jonathan- Cool. Here is some video of that…


I saw a special on his trip to appalachia…
An amazing way to learn about life.


#22 Comment By Larry George On March 23, 2009 @ 7:23 am

James Taylor was chosen for his Berkshire connections, probably, in answer to someone’s question. He grew up in North Carolina, where his father was the dean of the medical school and his house was an amazing headquarters for interesting and creative people, but he has long lived in the Berkshires. In recent years, he’s developed a wonderful recording studio at his place that has been used increasingly by other musicians. He and Yo-Yo Ma are buddies and Ma has recorded there himself as well as with Taylor. I notice many stories that indicate Taylor (Ma as well) does a lot, quietly, for Berkshire County. And he plays Tanglewood every year; it will be at the end of August this year.

He does hire at least one Wiliams intern in the summer. I think it is in marketing, booking, and making tour arrangements, rather than on the musical side.