Plus other stuff our Hon Docs said
By Neale McDevitt
In many ways, it wasn’t your typical address by an honorary degree recipient. Then again, there isn’t much about William Shatner that is typical.
Addressing a full tent at yesterday’s Faculty of Arts and Faculty of Religious Studies Convocation ceremony, Shatner spent much of his time outlining his struggles in the classroom – missing his own Convocation ceremony in 1952 because of a failed math course.
“I did get my education – complete, whole and useful – at McGill,” said Shatner, who reminded people that his academic travails were balanced by his burgeoning love of acting that led, of course, to a wildly successful career that has spanned more than five decades. “I got it my own way and I urge you all to get it your way.
“The road to life isn’t linear. It isn’t Sherbrooke Street. It’s more like Côte-des-Neiges. It’s a country route, dusty and dirty, with soft shoulders and high banks,” he continued. “Don’t be afraid of taking chances – of striking out on paths that are untrod. Don’t be afraid of failing. Don’t be afraid of making an ass of yourself. I do it all the time and look what I got,” he said, holding up his DLitt to the applause of the crowd.
But while Shatner created the biggest buzz, he wasn’t the only luminary in one of the most star-studded Hon Doc lineups in recent history.
Less than two years after winning a Nobel Prize for Medicine, Jack Szostak kicked off Convocation events at the downtown campus by returning to his alma mater to address graduates from the Faculty of Science.
Szostak told graduates that the dual Nobels by McGill alumni in 2009 (the late Willard Boyle won a Nobel Prize in Physics the same year) was proof of the University’s excellence. “This double dose of glory for McGill does say something about this great university.” He said. “The teaching, training and all the fantastic opportunities for undergraduates to be involved in research and science, do really provide amazing preparation.”
Divergent messages, styles
Fittingly, for a group that represented such widely divergent fields as medicine, politics, arts, philanthropy and entertainment, the 2011 Hon Docs delivered a wide array of messages each in their own distinctive style.
Some played it straight, like Aboriginal leader Roberta Jamieson who used the opportunity to outline the historic inequities suffered by Aboriginals in Canada, and the obstacles she faced as a 17-year-old undergrad at McGill. “I had, and still have, what some people call an ‘attitude problem,’” she said. “But I just couldn’t accept it when I was told a particular job was man’s work or that as an Indian or a woman I was not entitled to aim high in my aspirations.” She went on to become the first Aboriginal woman ever to earn a law degree in Canada.
Jamieson also provided one of the week’s more poignant moments as she fought back tears when introducing her mother Phyllis sitting in the audience and thanking her “for teaching me the value of determination and unwavering strength.”
Others, like Norman R. Augustine, retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp, injected a little humour in the proceedings. “As I prepared my remarks I asked my wife, the love of my life for over 50 years, what she thought I should say? After a moment’s thought she counseled, ‘Well, whatever you do, don’t try to sound intellectual or clever or charming. Just be yourself.’ ”
Give back, wash your hands
As per tradition, the honorary degree recipients dispensed any manner of advice to the Class of 2011. Most of it came from the heart, based upon experience and lives well lived.
Much of it was profound – even poetic, as in the case of Herménégilde Chiasson, a leading Acadian educator and former Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick. Chiasson counseled new grads from the School of Continuing Studies that the best way to combat “the inertia of cynicism” was through walking (“When we walk we stand up for something, we are going somewhere, we are moving ahead and we believe that we will get there”) and giving something back to the world (“giving is the most rewarding and central activity that we can achieve as human beings”).
It came as no surprise that giving was at the front and centre of the message delivered by noted philanthropist Morris Goodman. “Without loving kindness for our fellow men and women, where would this University be? … Would there be a McGill if the donors over the years did not contribute to the building and growth of this institution?” asked Goodman, who was conferred an Honorary Degree along with his wife, Rosalind.
“This is true for all philanthropy… We know there will always be poverty in the world but we must not accept this fact. We know that there will always be disease in the world but we must never accept this fact. Philanthropy is one of the tools that can help alleviate some of our most devastating problems.”
But, perhaps the last, and most pragmatic, bit of advice belongs to microbiologist Julian Davies, the first Hon Doc to speak at this year’s Convocation ceremonies at Mac campus. “My final message to you all is don’t forget to wash your hands. Wash your hands under hot running water with soap… and then you’ll be OK.”