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THE IDLE AMERICAN
Wednesday, May 20, 2009 • Posted May 20, 2009

Murphy’s Law Looms…

Column #316 for Release Saturday, May 16, 2009

Years ago, a mayor scurried around the city, reaching hither and yon points with precision-like scheduling. An aura of a “man in charge” fairly glowed as he performed mayoral duties.

A morning ceremonial highlight seemed ever so simple. He was to press the button to activate the wrecking ball. It was a really big wrecking ball, suspended from a giant crane. It was to swing across the street and take out a sizeable hole in an old building destined for demolition to make space for the community’s first real sky-scraper….

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Such an easy chore, it seemed to “hizoner,” could as easily have been handled by a kindergartener.

His “I’m so glad to be here” smile changed quickly to draconian horror after he pressed the button. Somehow, the crane guy misunderstood the assignment, and the unstoppable wrecking ball was pointed toward the wrong building. The mayor’s button-pressing took out much of the third floor of what a few seconds earlier was the city’s nicest building.

Somewhere, Shakespeare—the guy who waxed with clarity about slips ‘tween cups and lips—was smiling. …

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This story comes to mind at graduation season, when school superintendents and college presidents pray diligently to be delivered from unforeseen predicaments that could blow cannon-sized holes through their “in charge” images.

Some are praying quietly for deliverance at this very moment, realizing that they are at the mercy of others—like the guy who set up the wrecking ball to take down the wrong building.

If commencement exercises are held indoors, there may not be enough seats, the air-conditioning may fail, stage curtains may fall at the wrong time, microphones may go silent, or the graduate who lives at the board president’s home winces as the name’s mispronounced. Ceremonies planned outdoors may be marred by the spring’s only measurable rain, and winds may drown out pithy comments delivered by speakers.

The list of calamity possibilities is much longer, but suffice it to say that Murphy’s Law will reign….

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I’ve been privileged to participate in a few hundred commencement exercises during the past half-century. Some have celebrated “graduation” from kindergarten to first grade, some have been in juvenile prisons and many have been for college graduates.

My first commencement address, around 1960, was for the three high school graduates of London, Texas.

One of them was valedictorian, another was salutatorian and the other didn’t have a speaking part. I hear that he bragged later about being “in the top three” of the class….

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One of the most unusual occurred in May of 1968, the opening year for Tarrant County Junior College in Fort Worth. It wasn’t even on the calendar!

College officials expected the first graduation exercises to be held a full year later. It had not occurred to them that transfers from other institutions might complete requirements in 1968. One young man did, and at mid-semester inquired about commencement details.

Dr. Joe B. Rushing, the school’s first Chancellor, quickly put together a make-shift commencement program. He donned academic regalia, and ordered a robe for the honoree. Pomp and Circumstance poured from the sound system, and the prospective graduate marched into the Student Center.

Dr. Rushing made brief remarks, presented the diploma and then joined the graduate for a soft drink as others played pool and ping pong nearby. All the while, newspaper, radio and TV folks gave wide coverage to the “commencement for one.”…

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At some commencement exercises of higher education institutions, honorary doctorates are conferred. Some of them are “hooks” to entice high-profile speakers for the events, and others recognize major donors and/or distinguished lives.

A few years ago, a friend who heads a large organization overheard some of his subordinates kidding an associate who was to receive an honorary doctorate.

“Hey, cut out the joking about the honorary doctorate,” my friend warned. “Almost anyone can get an earned one.”…

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I’ll make commencement remarks a few times this spring, and I’ve never felt less confident in making optimum use of my 20 minutes.

Maybe I’ll talk about optimists, who view glasses as being half full; or pessimists, who see them as being half empty, or realists, who contend that they are twice as big as they need to be.

Certainly I will mention the importance of learning from tomatoes, encouraging strongest consideration of green ones. “As long as they’re green, they grow; when they think they’re ripe, they start to get rotten,” I’ll suggest. Mostly, though, I will try to remember one teacher’s observation: “There’s no such thing as a bad short speech.”…

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Dr. Newbury is a speaker and writer in the Metroplex. Send inquiries and comments to: newbury@speakerdoc.com. Phone: 817-447-3872. Web site: www.speakerdoc.com

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