Commencement Address

Conferring of Degree, honoris causa

Mr.  Bryant C. Gumbel
TV Host and Anchor
"The Early Show," CBS-TV News
Doctor of Humane Letters

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 • Biography

Trustee Dennis Hightower, please present Mr. Bryant Charles Gumbel.

Mr. President, I have the high honor and the distinct privilege and pleasure to present Mr. Bryant Charles Gumbel to receive at your hand the honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters.

Bryant Charles Gumbel, elegant, dashing, and engaged exemplar of superior broadcast journalism, you bring instant credibility and clout to your incomparable interviews and news reports. You have been the world-class versatile anchor on the early show of CBS News since 1999.

Joining CBS News in March 1997, you have produced your own prime time magazine, Public Eye with Bryant Gumbel, from 1997 to 1998, and received two Peabody awards, an Overseas Press Club award, and two Emmy awards.

Your remarkable broadcast career began in October 1972, when you were named a sportscaster for KNBC-TV in Los Angeles, California. You became the prominent interviewer of superpower leaders, covering foreign wars, presidential elections, international summits, and presidential inaugurations.

Your performance with NBC for nearly 25 years before joining CBS in 1997 was unsurpassed in the annals of broadcast journalism. For 15 years you anchored the "Today Show" on NBC TV as the first and only black host in its 50-year history.

Finally, leaving nothing out of bounds, you won eight Emmy awards for your sensational show "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel." For your stellar and unique reporting in the area of foreign affairs, you were awarded the Edward R. Murrow Award for outstanding foreign affairs work from the Overseas Press Club for your probing interview of top Kremlin officials in September 1984.

You also received an Edward Weintal Award prize for diplomatic reporting and a George Foster Peabody Award for your reporting efforts in Vietnam.

As the recipient of an impressively diverse array of credits and honors, you have received the highest honor of the United Negro College Fund; the Frederick D. Patterson Award; as well as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Award from the Congress of Racial Equality; three, three NAAACP Image Awards; the International Journalism Award from TransAfrica; Africa's Future Award from the U.S. Committee for UNICEF; the Leadership Award from the African-American Institute; Best Morning TV News Interviewer, the Washington Journal Review 1986; the Trumpet Award of the Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., and numerous other awards and citations.

You have raised, as well, nearly $8 million for the United Negro College Fund through the annual Bryant Gumbel Walt Disney World Celebrity Golf Tournament.

Each year, this money is used to provide scholarships to outstanding young men and women, enabling them to pursue their academic dreams at colleges and universities affiliated with UNCF. You also serve unselfishly as a board member for the United Negro College Fund, the United Way of New York City, and your alma mater, Bates College.

Bryant Charles Gumbel, your many extraordinary achievements as a professional broadcast journalist exemplify the supreme core value of Howard University, excellence. On the occasion of its 133rd Commencement Convocation, Howard University is indeed proud to confer upon you the degree Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, and admit you to all the rights and privileges, pertaining thereto.

I now direct that you be invested with the hood appropriate to this high degree and present you with this diploma. Congratulations, Dr. Gumbel.

Our 2001 Convocation Orator, Dr. Bryant Gumbel.


President Swygert,
Chairman Savage and members of the Board of Trustees,
Distinguished faculty and alumni,
My fellow honorees, parents, friends, well-wishers and graduates of the class of 2001,

I am humbled by the chance to come before you this morning. To deliver the commencement at Howard University is a responsibility I do not take lightly. I thank you for the opportunity. So let me begin with the 3 word promise that is nearest and dearest to the hearts of all graduates each spring…and that is that I’ll be brief.

I’ll be brief because I think it’s unfair of me to ask you to sit in the sun while I stand in the shade.

I’ll be brief because I know you’re anxious to get your degree and according to the schedule, I’m the last thing standing between you and it.

I’ll be brief because I’ve never known a soul who could recall the words of their commencement speaker beyond a few short years of their graduation.

And lastly I’ll be brief because graduations should be celebrations…and I don’t want to spoil yours.

Truth be known, I attended my very first graduation ceremony in this city 50 years ago. I was about 3 years old and my Daddy was graduating from Georgetown Law school. He was a poor, Black, southern, catholic guy who’d served 4 years in the Philippines in World War II. He’d come home to realize his dream…only to see his dream collide with the realities of the Jim Crow south. Denied admission to the law schools of his native Louisiana, he’d come north to raise a family, get a degree, and pursue his ambition. He did all that and more until he passed away …just 20 years after that graduation.

I was way too young to understand the word commencement then…but not too old to appreciate its meaning now. For every graduate it represents a new beginning…an entrée into a society that will demand a lot of you. For graduates of color particularly, collegiate commencements represent not just an achievement that is still all too rare among our people, but also a responsibility…a responsibility that comes with your newly earned status as one of our educated elite.

36 years ago, in times that were very different, yet still much the same, President Lyndon Baines Johnson stood before this institution’s graduating class of 1965, and speaking of what he then called the American Negro, noted that the “majority of them represented another nation.” He said that “much of the Negro community is buried under a blanket of history and circumstance”…and that “It is not a lasting solution to lift just one corner of that blanket. We must stand on all sides and we must raise the entire cover, if we are to liberate our fellow citizens.”

Together, we’ve all come a long ways since LBJ spoke here. Nominally, we’re no longer Negroes, now we’re Blacks and African-Americans…and more of us are learned and successful than ever before. Still, that so much of what LBJ said is still true today is a sad commentary on America, we know that. But however painful it may be to admit, today’s realities also speak volumes about what we as the privileged people of our race, the learned people of our race, the accomplished people of our race, have and have not done to change the plight of so many African-Americans, who remain distant, and disaffected, members of our society.

While we should never join the chorus of those who are quick to blame the victim, we should take a hard look at ourselves and ask aloud if we’re tolerating too much from our own…and asking too little. The realities of American life have made it easy and understandable for all of us to note the obstacles…bemoan the circumstances…despise the aggressors and debate the statistics. But at some point, we who are privileged to have an education and fortunate enough to know better, have to step forward and accept if not some blame for the plight of our own, than at least a modicum of responsibility. 

We’ve got to be able to ask ourselves not just why “Johnny can’t read.” But also why Johnny doesn’t think it’s cool to read. We’ve got to be able to question not just our unacceptable rates of unemployment…but also acknowledge that too many see no value in work. It’s not enough for us to cite the troubling numbers of Black folks in jail, but we’ve also got to confront and combat the reality that too many young people see jail time as some kind of badge of honor. And it’s not enough for us to applaud our athletes and entertainers, but also question why so many look to them, and only them, for answers.

I’m not suggesting that the responsibility for all that and more is yours…you’re entitled to live a rich life. Capitalism has its rewards…you should earn ‘em and you should enjoy ‘em. But if all you’re going to seek is a superficial Ebony magazine view of life…one that accentuates only your cars, and your clothes, than some guy’s going be standing here another 36 years from now once again bemoaning the plight of people of color in these United States of America.

You know, millions of Americans get caught up in the TV show Survivor these days, and I guess I’m one of ‘em. I’m a fan. I am despite the fact that every game has only two black players, who ALWAYS wind up on the same team and NEVER manage to make it to the finals. It’s said that the game replicates life. Well for African-Americans that is sadly true, because Black people in America “live” survivor every day. We endure, we commune, we compete…and more often than not we get voted out for the silliest of bogus reasons. If we fit in, we’re too white. If we don’t, we’re too ethnic. If we’re quiet, we’re too moody. And if we speak up, we’re too arrogant. It ain’t fair, but like that combative chick Gerri asked her survivor colleagues in the Outback, “…since when is this supposed to be fair?”

It’s not fair. But you and I both know that much is asked of those to whom much is given. And if you want all the plaudits and acclaim that comes with your cap and gown, then you’ve got to expect to pay the fiddler. None of us who salute you today ask or expect you to upend your life for the sake of society or the betterment of others. NO. What we DO expect and what it’s way past time for ALL of us to do is very simple….and that is to have the courage of your convictions….and not trade that for acceptance in the name of community. 

The activist and actor Ossie Davis says “you should never sell more of yourself in one day than you can buy back at midnight.” I like that. It suggests that loyalty is a good and wonderful thing, but that it needn’t and shouldn’t involve a diminution of your standards for the sake of fitting in. Hanging with your boys and “keepin’ it real” certainly have their place; but it’s better for you and all concerned that you lead rather than follow…and that you be willing to do so even at the risk of being ostracized. If all any of us are going to do is “graduate” in name only, “graduate” only in an educational sense, we’re going to continue to fail all our people who cling to the lower rungs of our society. That so many still do is the end result of many factors…but it’s time we admitted that one of those factors is a sad lack of true leadership… and an unwillingness to police our own.

What’s that means is that you don’t accept less and excuse it in the name of color. That you not condone wrong in the name of race. That you not oblige ignorance for the sake of camaraderie. That you not applaud a lack of civility for fear it’s uncool. That you regard women as friends and mothers and accord them the dignity they deserve. That you not only talk about respect but also recognize it as a 2-way street…and that you actually use your intelligence and exercise your education even when it means risking being “different.” If ever there were a time for tough love among our own, now would be a good time to start…because in today’s world if you ain’t the lead dog, the view never changes…and even the most valid complaints become excuses in time.

This morning as you close out your college life and look towards your future, you may well be wondering what kind of a future you face…what your place in it will be…and what kind of success you’ll find. The dream is I’m sure complete with all the amenities of a well-heeled life…a giant home, a German car, a bank account with several commas. I hope it’s all you want it to be and more than you expect. But I’d ask that you go forward today prepared to define success on your own terms.

A good friend of mine named David Brown was asked about that recently. A celebrated movie producer with Oscars and accolades in his past David is today 84 years young and embracing life with an enthusiasm unmatched by men half his age. When asked his definition of success recently he shunned the standard trappings…and said that for him success is having the love and trust of a woman, a job one likes and an abiding sense of humor. He added that success is a man who dies at his home, in his sleep, after a good life. Of such complex and simple joys are successful lives made.

So as I close today I wish for you not just millions and fame…a lot of miserable and truly unsuccessful people have both of those. No, I hope you’ll come to enjoy the simpler things that’ll dominate your lives. I hope they’ll get your order straight at the drive-thru. I hope you’ll find the items you want when they’re on sale. I hope you’re in the right checkout line when the supermarket’s jammed…and never in the wrong place at the wrong time. I hope you’ll enjoy some good books, taste some fine wines, and see some 
fun movies. I hope you’ll enjoy some breath-taking views and travel a world that is still amazing. I hope you’ll keep your spirits up and your blood pressure down. I hope you’ll learn that falling in love and bouncing back are parts of the same equation…and that there’s no such thing as a ”normal” life…there’s just life.

I wish for you a fun job that fulfills you in ways you can’t imagine. I wish for you close friends who’ll fill your days with laughter and your nights with excitement. I wish for you home cooking and great take-out. I wish for you an imagination that knows no bounds but an ego that’s under control. I wish for you enough success to keep you proud and enough failure to keep you humble. I wish for you a home of which you can be proud, and maybe even a pet who’ll ignore your faults. I wish for you long walks with someone you love, and short trips on planes you’ll hate. I wish for you the unconditional love of a child and the unmatched pride of a parent. I wish for you the strength to show weakness and the wisdom to show common sense. And I wish for you a life with as little pain as possible.

Orson Welles once noted that “happiness isn’t a rite…it’s an achievement.” You realize one magnificent goal today…but your greatest ACHIEVEMENTS are still before you. Along with your parents and teachers I congratulate you and wish you all the best as you embark on your journey of a lifetime. May God be with you.