A Century of Commencement Speakers
March 19, 2019
By Michael Motta
Over the past century, Farmingdale State College graduates have been regaled and inspired by numerous commencement speakers. The list of notable guests includes senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton; president of the NAACP Hazel N. Dukes; legislators and judges; and accomplished business executives. Let's highlight a few.
Otis G. Pike, in his second of nine terms as a Democratic member of the US Congress, spoke at the 44th commencement ceremony. A Long Island native and World War II fighter pilot, Pike was motivated to enter public service when he learned of a family that "had nothing for Sunday dinner but boiled potatoes."
Courtesy: Collection of the US House of Representatives
Known for his oversight of the CIA and military — and for his bow ties — Congressman Pike was an influential member of Congress before retiring in 1979. While the words of his commencement speech are not recorded, another of his speeches lives in infamy. As the New York Timesrecounts:
The bill would have awarded $14 million in flight pay to admirals and generals who spent their time not in cockpits but sitting at desks... Standing up on the House floor to criticize the legislation, Mr. Pike spoke with his arms spread and swaying like the wings of a plane, as if he were flying. He brought up the worrisome perils of an admiral spinning in his chair and soaring out a window of the Pentagon into air-traffic patterns. The speech drew laughter and applause. The bill was defeated.
One of the great journalists of our time spoke at the 49th commencement: Bill Moyers. At the time, he was just beginning his career in journalism. After serving in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (including a two-year stint as Press Secretary), Moyers was publisher of Long Island's Newsday newspaper. Under his direction, the newspaper criticized US involvement in Vietnam, publicly splitting from his former boss in the White House (Dobbs 1999, pg. 223).
Later, Moyers moved from the publisher's office to the press room, and is perhaps best-known for his long-time involvement in public television and documentary-style journalism. (Students in Politics courses are likely well-versed in Moyers' excellent documentary, In Search of the Constitution.)
His accomplishments and accolades are too many to list... and they are still growing. Bill Moyers is still active as a journalist.
A couple years later, a New York political luminary spoke at commencement. At the time, Nelson Rockefeller was in his third term as governor of New York and months from being elected for a fourth time. Prior to his time as governor, Rockefeller served as a high-ranking official in the presidential administrations of Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower. And, in 1974, Nelson Rockefeller became vice president of the United States.
Rockefeller, a Republican, was more pragmatist than partisan. Many of his accomplishments in New York are with us today. Most relevant to Farmingdale State College is probably Rockefeller's push for development and expansion of the State University of New York. Over his time in office, SUNY's campuses doubled, making SUNY the largest state system of higher education in the US (which it continues to be today.) Prior to Rockefeller's tenure, SUNY had about 40,000 students. After Rockefeller's tenure, that number was more than 230,000.
And, today, that number is 1.3 million.
Ten years later, one of the other faces from New York's Mount Rushmore spoke: Mario Cuomo. At the time, Cuomo was lieutenant governor. Two years later, Cuomo would be governor of the state, a post he would hold for 12 years.
Photo: Kenneth C. Zirkel
Mario Cuomo is, of course, the father of the current governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, who has himself been on campus several times. (Perhaps he will return for a commencement speech?)
As accomplished as the above are, Farmingdale State College's best "get" is probably Katherine Johnson. Johnson, an African-American, grew up in the segregated south. (Indeed, her graduate schooling and early career were deeply affected by segregationist policies.) In spite of the numerous obstacles, Johnson became one of American history's great mathematicians.
After being hired by NASA's predecessor agency in 1953:
[Johnson] worked in a pool of women performing math calculations... Their main job was to read the data from the black boxes of planes and carry out other precise mathematical tasks. Then one day, [she was] temporarily assigned to help the all-male flight research term. [Johnson's] knowledge of analytic geometry helped make quick allies of male bosses and colleagues to the extent that, 'they forgot to return me to the pool'. (National Visionary Leadership Project)
Although she was proving her immense value, that was not the end of the discrimination. As Johnson detailed:
In the early days of NASA women were not allowed to put their name on the reports — no women in my division had her name on a report... [O]ur supervisor — he was not a fan of women — kept pushing [her male colleague] to finish the report we were working on. Finally, [her male colleague] told him, '[She] should finish the report, she's done most of the work anyway'... I finished the report and my name went on it, and that was the first time a woman in our division had her name on something. (University of St. Andrews)
In a testament to her abilities, John Glenn refused to orbit the earth unless Johnson was double-checking the computer's numbers. Johnson did so. By hand. She did the same for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight which landed the first humans on the moon. And she did the same for the 1970 Apollo 13 flight, ensuring that the astronauts safely returned home after technical failures scrubbed the mission.
In addition to the above, Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and authored more papers than nearly every Farmingdale State College professor ever will (including this one).
This fall, as she nears her 101st birthday, she will be publishing another work: an autobiography that seeks to inspire a new generation of young women interested in science, technology, and mathematics.
Dobbs, Michael. Madeleine Albright: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey. 1999.