CINCINNATI -- May 31st, 1987 was a seminal date on my splotchy academic resume. That was the night I delivered the commencement address at Elder High School’s graduation ceremony.
Gathered on a rooftop lounge at what is now the Duke Energy Center, I saw many old friends. Teachers and former classmates who comprised the faculty at the eminent Westside seat of education. Among them was English instructor John Ploehs— long one of the school’s most revered teachers. John was a member of our self-proclaimed Great 1968 graduating class. Ranked in the top five in academic standing, as I recall, when we strode the stage at Music Hall June 3, 1968. He is possessed of a wickedly dry sense of humor, which was sharp as I prepared to deliver the keynote.
“Denny, I can’t tell you how proud I am to think that a member of our class has been selected to speak tonight."
Then a perfect comic pause before concluding: “Though I didn’t think it would be you.'
The comments brought down the house of those gathered around us, who were privy to my less than stunning GPA.
John spoke the truth.
I was among the least likely to be selected the high honor of commencement speaker, not that I was under federal indictment mind you but rather because of my checkered learning arc. My lone educational claim to fame was perfect attendance for four years. And one lone demerit. I was a good kid, who always showed up. Not much else.
Back in 1968, State Rep.Norman Murdock addressed the 388 members of my graduating class. I don’t particularly recall any of his address but I knew and respected Mr. Murdock, whose small law office was on Glenway Avenue, where I’d once delivered the Price Hill News.
So What To Say?
I was stuck for a commencement subject of my own so I reverted to what I knew best: Growing up with the world's meanest mother. Cecelia Emmett Janson was loving, caring, smart, intuitive but demanding as well.
Unreasonably so as I saw it. She and my dad by extension, demanded “Yes M’am" and "No Sir,” seemingly from the cradle. It became part of the Janson kids lexicon as easily intoned as please and thank-you. “What difference does it make?" I would think to myself, but went along. Compliance wasn’t voluntary.
Same for tight, buzz haircuts that would have done a Marine proud. Mostly inflicted by my Dad who’d been provided the ultimate assault weapon on cool in the early 1950’s; a Wahl electric hair clipper which he wielded with bi-weekly élan’. There would be no duck tails straddling the napes of Terry (my older brother by 3 years) and Denny Janson’s necks by golly.
Likewise there was an inflexible wardrobe standard that didn’t include denim pants of any color or make. Blue jeans, I was informed, were for “hoods." Which of course rendered metal heel plates the personification of Lucifer himself.
And there was no need to post notice about coarse or profane language. It only took one ill-advised minor league four letter expletive to realize it would earn the offender a bite of Ivory soap. Nasty stuff!
Church was a requisite family enterprise ingrained early on with daily morning mass. Again, attendance wasn’t optional.
“What was with this woman?” I wondered to the assembled multitude at Music Hall during my commencement speech.
It appears she wanted to mold me, shape me, bend me into a person who one day would ascend to a state worthy of being asked to address young men concluding their high school careers and whose background’s resembled mine.
Character issues thus addressed, life skills soon followed. The most important of which will seem pretty far afield to the uninformed.
My Mom insisted I learn how to type. Imagine, a self-sufficient dude like myself, employed at Ben’s department store learning about life while earning ‘pin’ money, having to surrender to the home-keys as directed by the Revs. Poppleman and Buening.
My mom had been a secretary after graduating from Mother of Mercy High School and knew valuable skills from past-times. Mom took in typing to help balance the family budget, thus aware of its inherent worth. Little did I suspect then that that simple skill would provide the basis of my career. I type for a living and have done so since getting a part-time job in the newsroom at WSAI-AM radio in 1967.
Of course there is the consideration of what to type, namely the words. Which ones to use and in what order. I’ve heard that the English vocabulary is a third larger than any language on earth. Meaning there is probably a word to fit every situation, emotion or action. Not just close, (synonyms) but precisely. That is the quest of anyone who has ever written anything to be read or heard by others. Just the right word.
That is the gift, typing is the delivery system. I couldn’t have done it without either one.
And while on that subject, a word about how to make even average words pack a punch.
Put them in writing. Cursive writing. Longhand as we used to call it. Or printing if that is how you feel most communicative. Just do it and do it on personalized stationery. That would be the one bit of advice I would offer to graduates of all levels. A written thank-you or acknowledgement leaves an impression on the addressee far beyond gigabytes of email.
One final note about that commencement address: At least once a year, I meet an Elder grad who heard my remarks that night. They unfailingly, ruefully recall: “My Mother loved your speech”.
As I knew she would, son.
As I knew she would.
Best of luck to the Class of 2014.