Universities come up with some surprising speakers for their graduations, but Gomez Addams and Thing? That’s who opened the 144th Commencement Ceremony of the Johns Hopkins University, during which 9055 students received degrees on Thursday.
The proceedings started on an empty stage at Shriver Hall, with the Hopkins seal against a blue velvet curtain, and a familiar, slightly befuddled-sounding voice making an announcement from behind the curtain.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Your attention please. The Johns Hopkins University 144th Commencement Ceremony is about to begin. Please take your seats and silence your cell phones. Oh no, no, wait, wait a minute.”
(Cue the Addams Family music and finger snapping. Thing, a disembodied hand, skitters across the stage, one digit at a time, and yanks on a tasseled cord to pull back the curtain.)
“Don’t silence your cell phones,” the voice continues. “We’ll make an exception…Just this year…I hope.”
(Thing has opened the curtain to reveal the smiling and sheepish-looking face of John Astin, Hopkins Class of ’52 and now Homewood Professor of the Arts, in a yellow plaid shirt, tan jacket and very busy Baltimore-themed tie.)
“Don’t you always wonder who the person behind the voiceover is? Today, it is I, John Astin.“
(It quickly becomes clear that Astin’s role is to set a light-hearted tone and underscore the bizarre nature of Hopkins’ first-ever virtual graduation-in-a-pandemic.)
“After my graduation from Johns Hopkins, I ventured to Hollywood and became part of the Addams Family,” a 1960s-era TV series inspired by the macabre cartoons of Charles Addams, with Astin playing hot-blooded Latin patriarch Gomez Addams. “So speaking as a connoisseur of the odd and unusual, I’d like to offer you a warm welcome to these very, shall we say, different proceedings.“
(Astin reminds the soon-to-be graduates of the sacrifices they went through in recent months, to finish their courses under a statewide lockdown to fight COVID-19.)
“You’ve been doing a lot of things differently this year — virtual learning, virtual game night, and now virtual commencement,” he said. “Thank you and your families and friends for joining us on this momentous occasion, as we sit back, relax and recognize your academic achievements. President Daniels, over to you.”
With that bit of levity over, Hopkins dove into another hour of still more levity and surprises, before getting to the serious part of conferring degrees. For nearly 90 minutes after the speakers logged off, the names scrolled on the screen to recognize students from nine different divisions, receiving bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees and certificates, virtually.
Along the way, there were predictable jokes about Zoom meetings, speakers appearing on camera with no pants on, and viewers watching at home in their pajamas and mortarboards. At one point, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs Sunil Kumar rose from his seat to reveal that he was wearing nothing but boxer shorts under his blue commencement gown.
There were appearances by a dozen well-known figures from the arts, political and business worlds, just a fraction of Hopkins’ 230,000 alumni. The list included singer Tori Amos; former U. S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; author, veteran and social entrepreneur Wes Moore; businessman Michael Bloomberg; Illinois Congresswoman Lauren Underwood; American Red Cross President and CEO Gail McGovern; Nobel Laureate Peter Agre; NBC News Chief White House Correspondent Hallie Jackson, and Jeffrey Raider, the founder of Warby Parker and Harry’s. Maestra Marin Alsop conducted the Peabody Orchestra as it played The Star Spangled Banner.
The montage of A-list well-wishers showed that one upside to virtual commencements is that universities can have more speakers than they do with an in-person ceremony since they don’t actually have to come to town.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and recipient of an honorary degree from Hopkins in 2015, took a break from his day job to echo Astin’s sentiments about what surreal times students have been living through. Disappointingly, he didn’t say when these times will end, or if these are the end times.
“We are currently confronting an unprecedented global pandemic, and I am profoundly aware that celebrating your graduation virtually is extremely disappointing at best,” Fauci said. “However, we must adapt to this extraordinary situation, as you have done so well, and unite in overcoming the challenges we face because of COVID-19. We need your talent, your energy, your resolve and your character to get through this difficult time.“
Introduced by Hopkins board of trustees chair Louis Forster as “one of our most treasured honorary alums and one of my favorite scientists,” Fauci said he has no doubt Hopkins graduates are prepared for whatever the future holds.
“In the next phase of your lives, whatever professional path you choose, all of you, directly or indirectly, will be doing your part, together with the rest of us, to come out from under the shadow of this pandemic,” he said.
“Hopkins has a rich tradition of nurturing scholars who excel in their fields of study and, by extension, enhance the global society in which we live. I have no doubt that you will become leaders in your respective fields and help respond to the many public health and other challenges to come. So congratulations on your graduation, keep well, and I wish you all the best in your future endeavors.”
The main speaker, 37-year-old Reddit co-founder resident Alexis Ohanian told graduates the key to success is to be adaptable, especially when their dreams are ruined, and then bragged about what’s it’s like to roll over and wake up next to his wife, tennis superstar Serena Williams.
Ohanian, who lives in Florida with Williams and their two and a half-year-old daughter, said he never expected to be at a Hopkins graduation, even though he went to high school less than an hour away. “I grew up in Columbia, Maryland, but I knew better than even to consider applying when I was going to college.“
He also thanked Hopkins Hospital for the care it gave his mother Anke, who passed away in 2008 after battling brain cancer.
“You know, the hospital here actually spent a lot of time treating my mom when she was diagnosed…and I know that she got extra months if not years of her life because of the work of doctors, nurses, health workers in your hospital system,” Ohanian said. “I will always, always be grateful for that and frankly, it’s the reason why I was so humbled and excited to be here for this.”
Hopkins president Ronald Daniels, speaking before cameras in an empty Shriver Hall, brought it back to reality.
“We’re not together in the way that we hoped we would be,” he lamented. “So please, if you remember just one thing from this day, remember this: Your professors and I are bereft without you, and have been since we went virtual. It is a void that no amount of Zooming can possibly fill.”
Daniels, Hopkins’ 14th president, brought up a Yiddish aphorism his father shared with him about the capriciousness of life: Man plans and God laughs.
“It is a particularly poignant sentiment right now,” he said. “I have to confess, when we went online in March, it was hard for me to imagine that we wouldn’t be back in short order. Man plans and God laughs.”
The COVID pandemic may be different from other “fraught, uncertain moments” such as 9/11 and the Cold War, he said, “but there is no doubt that we are confronting a significant human tragedy and a convulsive societal shock whose ending is as yet largely unknown. We find ourselves asking, will this be a discreet event or is it the beginning of an extended era of our lives?”
Daniels answered his own question, saying he believes it can be argued that “this moment is not the prelude to the next chapter of our lives. It is the next chapter of our lives.”
He compared the plight of today’s graduates with that of Sisyphus, the Greek mythological figure who was condemned for eternity to push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back every time it neared the top, forcing him to start all over the next day.
Today’s graduates are like Sisyphus, Daniels said, in that they won’t have it easy either, as shown by how hard it has been to upend their routines and adjust to life in the pandemic. But because they have done what is required to graduate, he said, they have demonstrated their ability to lead the way out.
“In the last three months and the years leading up to them, you pushed yourself to ever greater heights in your academic endeavors and lives with grace and persistence that would make Sisyphus himself cheer. You’ve already begun to answer the call,” he said.
“I know that you will emerge from this moment stronger and more directed for having shouldered the weight of this time,” he said. “Head up the hill, and show us the way forward.”