May 21, 2017

Commencement Address by Roy Peter Clark ’70 & ’17Hon.

Dr. Roy Peter Clark ’70 receives an honorary degree from College President Rev. Brian J. Shanley, left, and his classmate, Very Rev. Kenneth Letoile, O.P. ’70, chairman of the PC Board of Trustees.

By Roy Peter Clark ’70 & ’17Hon.

Thank you, Father Shanley, for everything you have done for Providence College.  Father, we know you can’t be president of PC forever.  So we have an idea.  We think that somewhere down the line you should consider running for President of the United States.

And we think you should pick the great Doris Burke as your running mate.  A Providence College ticket!  You have all the qualifications. You know how to raise money. You play golf.  And no one has seen your tax returns.  I mean, come on, why not?

Thank you, Providence College, for this honor, which I treasure more than a Pulitzer Prize. And thank you, Class of 2017.   It is my turn to honor all of you.

I heard a rumor — I am not making this up — that I was NOT the first choice for speaker. It turns out that the college checked on the status of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the genius who created the musical Hamilton. Unfortunately, he is working on a remake with Disney of Mary Poppins and was unavailable.

I am cool with this.  My brother Vincent Clark, Class of 1974, is sitting right over there.  He is one of Washington D.C.’s most distinguished actors.  At this moment he is very jealous because his big brother — who has never even been in a play — stands before you right here, right now, as the understudy for the Hamilton guy.

And believe me when I say:  I am NOT throwin’ away my shot.

Do you know that the word “providence” appears in the first sentence of the musical Hamilton? Has anyone committed it to memory? Do any of you know it?

“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman,

 dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean

 by providence, impoverished, in squalor,

 grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”

I love the name Providence — and I love the initials PC.  I wanted to go to Princeton University, but I didn’t get in.  If I had gone to Princeton, I would have graduated from PU — not very pleasant initials.  Instead, I got to graduate from PC.  Aren’t you glad you graduated from Providence and not — BROWN?  It’s a great school, but who wants to graduate from a color?

Think about how prominent the initials PC have become in the last half century, signifying everything from Political Correctness to Personal Computers.  My name is Roy Peter Clark.  I am Roy  — PC.  I had no choice.

The word Providence is a powerful name in both the American and Catholic traditions.  It comes from the Latin, meaning “to see ahead, to provide for.”  Roger Williams founded Providence as a safe haven for religious dissenters, refugees from those witch hunters in Massachusetts, one of the first American expressions of diversity and tolerance.

And think of how much smaller we would be as a nation without clam cakes, chowdah, and quahogs. I hear that even Narragansett beer is making a comeback. I love returning to Rhode Island to hear my last name Clark pronounced like the timepiece, Clock.

Hickery, dickery, dock. My name is Roy Peter Clock.

From the Catholic perspective, Providence is the Christian expression of God’s grace and loving care for his children.  It is the antidote to the idea that everything in the universe happens by accident, that life is a series of random events.  I wouldn’t trade the name Providence for any other college name in the world. Ball State comes in second; I don’t know why.

I attended Providence College from 1966 to 1970, a pivotal moment in the history of the country and the college.  What an amazing time.  The war raged in Vietnam, thousands were dying in the jungles of Southeast Asia, and we were subject to the military draft.  The civil rights struggle was transforming America.  Human beings first set foot on the moon. Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King were assassinated.  During the Democratic National Convention in 1968, police and protestors rioted in the streets of Chicago. Richard Nixon was elected president.

One month before graduation in 1970, four students in Ohio were shot and killed by members of the National Guard on the Kent State University Campus.  In anticipation of student strikes, many colleges ended the school year abruptly.  In the 100-year history of Providence College, only one class did not complete its full four years — ours, the Class of 1970.

We were so conflicted about Providence College.  We loved the college, but because we loved it, we fought hard to make it better, and I know you have too.  Cheers to you for fighting for social justice, for diversity, for inclusion, for tolerance, for openness — for not being afraid to challenge accepted wisdom.  I think you woke up the college, and I do mean woke.  It’s a student’s responsibility to make a little trouble — as long as it is — in the words of the great civil rights leader John Lewis — good trouble.

That’s what we did.  By the time we departed PC in 1970, strict social rules had been relaxed, the corporation running the college was reformed, the curriculum was modernized, and most important  — the doors of the college were opened to women.

Men of Providence College, please stand for me.  I salute you as my brothers. You have worked hard and deserve today’s honors.  For 100 years the college has educated young men in the Catholic tradition, and I know you stand strong as the inheritors of that legacy.  Cheers to all of you.

As the father of three daughters, I cannot tell you how gratifying it is to see the great women of Providence College here today.  My sisters, please stand.  We are so proud of you. I want you to know that during my last semester at PC, I debated in public a member of the college administration.

He argued against co-education because, he said, “women lacked the intellectual rigor of men.”  I have a good memory.  And I like to keep score. So what a pleasure it is for me to look out on the class of 2017 and declare in a strong voice in front of these magnificent women that I was right and he was so so wrong.

(By the way, if you did not stand up as a man or woman because you identify in some other way, know that you are honored here, and we love you too.)

Clark had the audience singing and clapping during his Commencement Address.
Clark had the audience singing and clapping during his Commencement Address.

We had fun at PC.  I played the keyboard in the Rhode Island’s hottest rock band, Tuesday’s Children.

We played the music of the day:  Hendrix, the Doors, the Rascals, the Beatles, the Stones — all now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  I know you have great music of your generation. For just a moment, let me be the Ghost of Providence College Past and play for you one of my favorite party songs.  This is a party, after all.  If you know the words, please sing along.  I need your help! This is the biggest gig I’ve ever played!

[Editor’s note: Clark pauses to play “I Saw Her Standing There” on the keyboard.]

Before you step out the doors of the Dunk into the waiting arms of your loved ones, let me share just one idea with you, something that I have realized only lately, as I have reached my 69th birthday.

If you think of your life as the evening sky, you will look up now and see individual stars, representing the key moments of your existence so far.  I promise you that one night, sometime in the future, you will look up and see not just a bunch of stars, but a constellation, a narrative with a broader scope and a deeper meaning.

I was the first member of a big Italian/Jewish immigrant family from New York City to attend college.  Out of high school, I did NOT want to attend Providence College.  I had my eyes on the Ivy League.  Providence College offered me a full scholarship and entrance into the Arts Honors Program.  Princeton — my first choice — offered me a rejection letter.  I admit that I cried when I got the news.

I graduated from PC in 1970 as salutatorian, class orator, and the first student in the school’s then 50-year history nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship.  I wanted to go to Oxford.  I was a finalist, but did not win.  I wanted to go to Harvard or Yale for graduate school, but I did not get in.  I wound up back on Long Island at Stony Brook.

It was 1974, and I had a new Ph.D.  I wanted to teach at a good college in the Northeast.  I wound up at a branch campus of a public college set in a cotton field in Montgomery, Alabama, the only job offer I received.

I wanted to work in a big news media capital, and wound up teaching at a storefront journalism school in the then sleepy Gulf Coast town of St. Petersburg, Florida.  I taught writing there for 40 years.  I didn’t just make a living.  I made a mark.

I wound up living and working in four places I did NOT want to be.

I have learned a powerful lesson from these experiences.

Do not be afraid.

Remember my story if it helps you.  It turns out I was never, ever accepted to the place I thought I wanted to be, but in retrospect I ALWAYS wound up at the place I NEEDED to be.  Only looking over my shoulder could I see that pattern.  Time after time, what I had experienced as Disappointment became transformed into Opportunity.

I embrace one powerful religious idea with full faith and conviction.  It was an insight taught to me by a Franciscan brother, my 8th grade teacher Richard McCann.  He wrote it on the chalk board:

“God is the author of our lives, but He writes straight with crooked lines.”

“God writes straight with crooked lines.” That is my 6-word catechism.

Some of the mixed feelings you have today, no doubt, concern the future of the friendships you have established at Providence College.  Will you ever see your great teachers again?  Will you embrace your wonderful friends again?  Will you ever get to share life’s joys and sorrows together?  And not just on Facebook. Is there really a Forever in a BFF?

I bring you evidence that the answer is yes.  If I had wound up at Princeton, I would never have met my three PC roommates, the three musketeers of Joseph Hall, who have been like brothers to me. My parents loved them like sons.  Over four decades, they have been there for me in sickness and health, good times and bad, for the births of my children, for the deaths of my parents.

I love them as brothers, and I know that they love me too, now, here, today, at this moment 47 years after our own graduation.  Please greet them:  From Chicago, Bob Donovan ’70, from Washington D.C., Fred Day ’70, from New Jersey, Bob Frederick ’70.  May you all carry your PC friendships — and your relationships with your great teachers — with you through the rest of your days.

That leaves one last important piece of family business that I hope inspires you.   In 1970 on any given day there may have been 2,000 guys:  students, teachers, Dominicans strolling across the campus.  There were no women students yet.  No women teachers.

There were some older women who held office jobs, and a few younger ones who served as clerks, librarians, secretaries, and accountants.  There could not have been more than 20 of these.  2000 guys, 20 women.

One of them became something of a legend on campus.  She had long straight golden hair and blue eyes.  She wore the fashionable miniskirts of the day — shorter than a Hemingway sentence. From a working-class Rhode Island family, she sewed her own clothes.  She had a great sense of humor.

When a famously grumpy priest — Treasurer of the College — suggested that her skirt was too short, she earned applause from the other women in the office when she responded, “Father, if you would pay us more money, I could afford more fabric, and I could make longer skirts.”

This young woman worked in the Alumni Development office, and I was fortunate enough to have a student job in that same space.  You should have seen me.  I looked like a clarinet wearing Coke bottle glasses.

But I wrote this woman a clever note, and she accepted my invitation for a date.   Sometimes it helps to be an English major

We were married the year after graduation in Guzman Chapel, Father John Cunningham presiding.  August 7 will mark our 46th anniversary. If I had gone to Princeton, there would not be these three amazing and spectacularly complicated young women — Alison, Emily, Lauren — who are our daughters.

I would ask her to please stand: Karen Lorraine Major Clark:

Whereas you have been a loyal partner

Whereas you have been a wonderful mother to our three daughters

Whereas you have been pretty damn hot in the romance department

Whereas you have not only survived breast cancer — but you have kicked its ass

By the power invested in me by the guys in the Class of 1970, I bestow upon you an honorary degree:  Doctor of Marriage and Enduring Love.  Class of 2017, I want you to believe in the possibility of enduring love.

I will say it again.  “God writes straight with crooked lines.”  There is a word for that isn’t there.  It’s on the tip of my tongue.  And it’s on the front of my hat.  And it will be on your diplomas for the rest of your lives.


[Editor’s note: Clark plays and leads the singing of “Twist and Shout.”]

Thank you, Providence College. God bless you.