Hosting her first graduation as principal of Rockville High School, Billie-Jean Bensen didn’t know what to expect when Lee Leipsner walked up to the podium at The Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda to give the commencement address to the Class of 2014.
Leipsner, a 1985 Rockville High graduate and the executive vice president of promotion at Columbia Records at the time, had agreed to speak at the invitation of paraeducator and longtime graduation adviser Farron Riggs, a close friend. Though Leipsner had shared a few ideas about what he might say, neither Riggs nor Bensen knew why he had requested a large screen.
As the seniors and their families watched, the screen lit up with video tributes to the class from some of music’s biggest stars—John Legend, Pharrell Williams, Foster the People, rapper J. Cole, girl group Little Mix, and One Direction’s Harry Styles and Niall Horan—and each of them mentioned the school. “You do know you are the future, right, Rockville High?” Williams said. “Somebody watching this is going to do something that’s going to change something one day.”
“To see people as famous as John Legend and One Direction—I couldn’t believe this was my graduation,” says Tara Whitney of Rockville, who still remembers what Williams said. “Everyone in that room was in awe and cheering in disbelief.”
During his speech, Leipsner told the class that he never imagined when he was attending Rockville High that he’d be invited back to speak. “I’m hoping my words today will not only interest you, but you can relate to me and my story. Why? Because I was once sitting where you are, and I know what you are thinking because I was thinking the same thing: So how long is his speech going to be? When can we leave for the beach?…And how did we get this guy?” Leipsner said.
Bensen says Leipsner “did all the right things” by connecting his own experiences at Rockville High with those of the seniors. He spoke of his passion for music and how it led to his career in the industry, beginning with his high school job at the local Waxie Maxie records store. “When people find out what I do for a living, they say, ‘Wow, you are so lucky.’ And I used to think about that word, luck,” Leipsner told the students. “Lucky is winning the lottery…lucky is acing the exam when you haven’t studied at all. People don’t achieve by luck. They achieve by passion, dedication, pride, transparency, failure, respect, fun and especially hard work.” He ended by announcing that a pair of tickets to an upcoming local concert by either One Direction or Beyoncé and Jay-Z was hidden under the seats of two graduates.
“We didn’t know what he was actually planning,” Riggs says. “I was in shock.”
The keynote graduation speech—often full of inspirational advice and platitudes about the future—is the hallmark of a high school commencement ceremony. While some schools choose teachers or even students to address the graduates, many others have often sought someone with star power.
Former Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School Principal Karen Lockard, who heard dozens of commencement speeches during her 30 years as an educator, says her favorite speaker was bestselling author David Simon, a 1978 B-CC graduate and creator of the hit HBO series The Wire, though some parents probably “found him a little hard to take.” According to his 2012 graduation remarks posted on his website, Simon told the class to never forget the advantages they were given because they grew up in the Bethesda area and attended Montgomery County public schools.
“You happened to fall out of the right womb, demographically and geographically,” Simon said. “…Your parents did a helluva lot right to get you to this part of the world, to secure for you the extraordinary jump start of a superior education, of a life of relative personal safety and suburban ease. And my guess is, they’re not done yet. They’re the kind of parents that are going to be there for you, conspiring for your future, for many years to come.”
“What I remember is his realism,” Lockard says. “He talked real to the kids.”
Simon was also a standout for former MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr, who attended many graduations during his nearly four-year tenure. “I might have also been a total fanboy because I just had started watching The Wire, and so then I’m sitting next to him and I’m like, ‘Oh man!’ ” says Starr, who lives in Bethesda. “I felt a little funny about that, but he was very good.”
Other big names who’ve spoken at local schools include first lady Hillary Clinton, U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Clarence Thomas, and even sitting President Gerald Ford, who gave the commencement address at Holton-Arms, a private girls school in Bethesda, in 1975. Among the other A listers: Comedian Bob Hope; All the President’s Men co-author Carl Bernstein; National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins; and several bestselling authors, including romance novelist Nora Roberts, sportswriter John Feinstein, and Tim Kurkjian, an ESPN baseball analyst who has spoken at two graduations at his alma mater, Walter Johnson High School.
Gold medal-winning Olympian Dominique Dawes, who graduated from Gaithersburg High School, has also served as a speaker, as have actors Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Danny Glover and Daniel Stern; jazz musician Wynton Marsalis; comedian Lewis Black; and Amy Dickinson, who writes the nationally syndicated advice column “Ask Amy.” In 2010, veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas was scheduled to speak at Walt Whitman High School’s graduation until then-Principal Alan Goodwin disinvited her about a week before the commencement. She’d drawn national attention for controversial remarks she made about Israel, and Goodwin said he didn’t want the controversy to mar the ceremony.
When the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of traditional commencement ceremonies in the spring of 2020, MCPS produced a virtual ceremony that aired in early June and featured a keynote address by celebrity chef José Andrés, a Bethesda resident and founder of the nonprofit World Central Kitchen. Each high school offered its own virtual ceremony without a graduation speaker.
With plans for this spring still up in the air in late February, Riggs had been thinking about who could best address a class that has been through so much over the past year. “It’s just hard, especially at this time. It’s got to be the right person,” he said. “I’d love to be able to bring in some movie star just to lift the kids’ spirits, because that’s what we’re going to be trying to do.”
Speakers, even if they’re famous, have to find a way to connect to their audience—or they’re likely to be forgotten. When Bethesda Magazine asked members of the Facebook group “Bethesda Chevy Chase Back in the Day” about their high school graduation speakers, former classmates from as far back as the 1950s reminisced and quizzed each other about what they remember. “In ’84, my class speaker was the actor Daniel Stern. I felt like he was a lost stoner among us who gave us exactly zero inspirational messages,” one woman wrote.
Another alum had a different take on Stern, a B-CC graduate who starred in Home Alone and City Slickers: “To this day, I love that he spoke to following dreams, that not being a great student didn’t dictate the course of one’s life, and that he wore high-tops with his suit!!! It was refreshing,” she wrote.
Whitman graduate Molly White Moore recalled the words of Rene Carpenter, the former wife of astronaut Scott Carpenter, who spoke to her class in 1977. “He had divorced her, and I remember her saying to us young women—you better have a plan other than just getting married,” Moore wrote of Carpenter, whose kids attended Whitman. “It really stuck in my mind. She had to go be a bagger at the grocery store. She had no skills. No plan other than getting married. This pattern has come back to me several times with women I knew. Thank God I had [a] career.” Moore became a nurse and spent 21 years in the U.S. Navy. Rene Carpenter later became a syndicated newspaper columnist.
In 2009, the speaker at the B-CC graduation, Chet Culver, drew puzzled looks from students and families when he began by touting the benefits of living in Iowa, where he was governor at the time, according to Lockard. “We keep thinking he’s going to get to B-CC and our kids, and he talks about how many cows there are in Iowa…and what a great place it is to live and grow,” she says of the speaker, a B-CC graduate. “It was a chamber of commerce speech.”
An aide sitting in the audience signaled the governor to flip the pages of his prepared remarks, and he soon segued into a graduation speech with inspirational words about the future. “Most of us are convinced he read the wrong speech,” Lockard says. “It was awful.”
Riggs says Rockville High used to strive to draw a big name—U.S. Rep. Connie Morella of Maryland and Thomas Perez, an assistant attorney general at the time, are among past speakers—until the year one speaker (Riggs won’t say who) referred to the school as Richard Montgomery High School, its archrival, more than once during the speech. Now they focus on getting “somebody that is from the community, went here, knows what these kids have gone through, knows they go to the Rockville Civic Center and go sledding every winter when we get big snows, knows about playing basketball in the back of Flower Valley Elementary School, those kind of things,” Riggs says.
For Whitman graduate Maria Bonta de la Pezuela, the words of local ABC news anchor Renee Poussaint at her 1984 graduation still resonate. Bonta de la Pezuela, who was originally from Argentina and a self-proclaimed “arts” kid, says she was just going through the motions of graduation when Poussaint’s words suddenly struck her. “She was talking about big ideas—we’re gonna find the cure for cancer—and I’m thinking, this is irrelevant to us, this makes no sense, and then realizing by the end of her speech that yeah, it’s on us, we are the next generation,” says Bonta de la Pezuela, who pursued a career in the arts and is now the CEO of a gallery in New York City. “At that age, it makes an impact. I’m not the one that found the cure for cancer, but it’s just that clarity of purpose that we all strive for.”
More than 60 years later, Patricia Ides can easily recall who spoke at her 1959 graduation from B-CC, then known as Chevy Chase Senior High School. But don’t bother asking her what then-Sen. John F. Kennedy actually said, even though Ides, who sang with the school choir during the ceremony, sat behind Kennedy on the stage in the boys’ gymnasium.
“Unfortunately, I don’t remember anything other than the back of his head,” she says.
Though the Massachusetts Democrat didn’t officially announce he was running for president until January 1960, he had been delivering speeches throughout the country as he prepared for his upcoming campaign, according to published reports. In a speech peppered with the words of noted political leaders throughout history and directed mostly at the boys, he urged students to consider entering politics “not as a path to glory, fame or fortune,” but as “a means of solving the great problems of our times,” according to a transcript of the speech posted on the website of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. “What we need are men who can ride easily over broad fields of knowledge,” Kennedy said.
B-CC graduates Peter Bergman and Emily Loesche, who are married and now live in Chicago, say they were too young at the time to appreciate how lucky they were to have Ruth Bader Ginsburg at their 2001 graduation. “We were high school kids,” Bergman says. “We definitely knew it was special that a Supreme Court justice was speaking to us, but this was all before RBG became such a big part of the culture, so I feel like, yeah, nowadays I’d love to hear the speech.”
Loesche says it wasn’t until she went to college that she fully appreciated the experience. “People would talk about their high school graduation speakers and that’s when I kind of realized, oh, that is pretty cool,” she says.
Ginsburg spoke of the evolution of the constitutional concept of “We the People” over the years to include African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants and women. “The challenge is to make or keep our communities places where we can understand, accommodate, even celebrate our differences, while pulling together for the common good,” she told the class, according to a copy of her remarks.
B-CC graduate Jared Joiner says Ginsburg’s focus in her speech on issues including civic participation, trust in institutions and racial equity proved to be “timeless.” The year “2001 was a long time ago, and I would have not thought that her comments would be so prescient,” he says. “I think it’s really powerful that even if we’re not as cognizant of their speeches at the time, these folks are sharing really powerful words with us that can have meaning decades later.”
Clarence Thomas’ appearance at the 2009 Quince Orchard High School graduation made national news—not for his words, but because he was invited by two students who shared a plane ride with him. Graduate Michelle Katz, who was a friend of one of the students, recalls that the two seniors were star football players returning from a recruiting trip to the University of Nebraska. Thomas, an avid Nebraska football fan who was seated next to them, recognized the two young prospects. “He had heard of them, which they thought was so cool because they were high school football players, and they got into a really lengthy conversation with him and then they realized, oh my gosh, this is Clarence Thomas,” Katz says. “So they ended up inviting him to come speak without consulting the principal first.”
Katz, who now teaches art at Gaithersburg High School, says many students were excited that Thomas would be speaking, but “some of my close friends were really unhappy because of the controversy surrounding Anita Hill,” who testified during Thomas’ 1991 Supreme Court nomination hearings that he had sexually harassed her. Katz’s friends were considering a protest, including standing up and turning their backs during his speech, but school administrators quashed their plans. “What I remember is that school officials were not pleased, [saying] we should be grateful that he’s coming—it’s really unlikely for us to get somebody like him,” Katz says. “They were saying, ‘It’s your First Amendment right to protest. However, it’s our right to hold your diploma or not allow you to walk.’ ”
No one protested during the ceremony, but “there was a lot of rough feelings” between students and school officials at the time, Katz says. She has no memory of what Thomas spoke about. “I was worried about tripping in my shoes and my gown,” she says.
Silver Spring resident and bestselling author George Pelecanos focused on one message when he spoke to his daughter Rosa’s graduating class at Montgomery Blair High School in 2015. “What I wanted to tell all the kids was that they had already succeeded at something by graduating from high school, and that not all of [them] are gonna go to college,” says Pelecanos, 64, who was a producer and writer for The Wire and an executive producer and writer for David Simon’s HBO series Treme. “America needs doctors and lawyers, and America also needs people who work in hair salons, and landscapers, and heating and air-conditioning technicians.”
Pelecanos says he thought that was an important message for the students who attend Blair, a high school with a lower percentage of college-bound graduates than some of the schools in the county’s wealthier communities. “Everything that happens in high school sets you up for how you relate to people the rest of your lives,” he says. He’d deliver the same message if he were speaking to graduates this spring, but says he also would tell them to “go out and get a job,” even if it’s low-level or not the ideal job, and to treat the work “with respect, because it’s indicative of how you’ll perform” in more important future positions.
“When I look back on life with some experience, it’s when you least expect it on a job that you meet somebody who influences you in a positive way that’s going to be beneficial to you in life,” says Pelecanos, who worked as a line cook, dishwasher, bartender, and woman’s shoe salesman before becoming a published author in 1992. Pelecanos is currently working with Simon on an HBO miniseries about police corruption in Baltimore.
“It’s really important that you don’t let this [pandemic] knock you down,” he says he’d tell this year’s graduates. “Keep going to work, keep your head down and good things will happen.”
Contributing editor Julie Rasicot lives in Silver Spring.