Springtime marks the season of Commencement and graduation speeches often laced with pithy witticisms and inspirational wisdom. I don’t remember much humor from the speakers during my college graduation, Wheaton 1973. Back in those days, Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts was an all-girls institution, and our speakers were women who had followed their own trailblazing paths. Patricia Neighbors was the first female Vice President of Avon Products, Inc. Nancy Ann Holman, a Wheaton graduate and trustee, was the first female Superior Court Judge in the State of Washington. I imagine that both speakers could have told some very amusing stories, but Ms. Neighbors in particular most likely edited out her wit in order to address protests surrounding her invitation.
Apparently, several classmates did not think that a businesswoman in the cosmetics industry was a suitable graduation speaker and petitioned instead for Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. At the time, I must admit that I really didn’t know what to make of this rather odd controversy. As a uniquely successful woman, Ms. Neighbors seemed like a good model for young women. On the other hand, I wondered what advice post-Chappaquiddick Kennedy would have for a 21-year old, single, jobless girl like me. I don’t know if our speakers knew about the request for Kennedy, but I suspect that Judge Holman and Ms. Neighbors had navigated plenty of storms whipped up by good ole boys – and girls.
I remember that Ms. Neighbors spoke directly to the issue: “I realize that some did not wish for me to speak here today, and I welcome your challenge” – or something to that effect. And then she offered counsel to us job interviewees: “Don’t tell them that you can type. If you can’t type, they’ll place you in management training. If they know that you can type, they’ll make you a secretary with no potential for growth.” Today, this advice might sound a bit quaint, but the wisdom shared that day was timeless. Walk in shoes with room to grow. Face the winds of change. Take the larger journey.
The Honorable Nancy Ann Holman died ten years ago, and last year, Patricia Neighbors Silverman, too. In their own ways, both women changed the world not by pursuing greatness but by being themselves. Their obituaries tell stories of interesting, non-linear, meaningful lives with admirable personal and professional legacies. To this day, I remember their beacons.
What do you remember from your commencement?