robertharper.net Robert Harper

May 19, 2007

Commencement Address for University College, Rutgers University; Delivered at the Louis Brown Arena, Piscataway, NJ

Filed under: Uncategorized — RobertHarper @ 10:29

Dean Dennis, Faculty Fellows, members of the Rutgers Community, parents and friends of the graduates, and most particularly, the 2007 Graduating Class of University College:

It’s an honor to be asked to address you. I join your families and friends in praising your praise-worthy accomplishment.

Starting next year, this very college will go the way of the planet Pluto. Douglass, Cook, Livingstone and University Colleges have all been plutoed! I know I join you in trusting that such a change in name does not translate in a change in mission.

Being around the campus these last few days has sparked the memory of my very first thought of Rutgers: I didn’t want to come here.

You see, I was one of 9 children – 8 boys with the girl the youngest – living in Monmouth County, New Jersey. Most of us had been born in Manhattan so I got used to sharing space, hand-me-downs, books, schools and bedrooms – with, between 1 and 5 brothers — depending on the year and where we were living at the time.

We apparently shared socks, shirts and underwear until my mother put her college degree in mathematics to ingenious use. She sewed each of our birth numbers in all the socks, tees and underwear. Henceforth, I was # 4.

I don’t know if my mother’s degree in math helped much with visiting hungry college students, but at one point, I can’t recall exactly when, she started wearing the key to our locked freezer around her neck! Even in bed. Years later, # 8 would have the experience of trying to slip it off her neck while she slept. Apparently a sharp, left jab caught him right at the moment of snatching it away!

However, to return to my first thought, # 3 was at Rutgers; and I’m # 4. I wanted my own college and was leaning towards either a small liberal arts school in upper New York, or not going to college at that time. One weekend, my father, asked me to come with him for day trip to New Brunswick.

Now my father was the product of a University College type-program at Fordham. He was employed full time as a Customs Inspector in NY and worked towards his degree at night and on Saturdays. So I have an idea of the kind of people who are able to do such things and I am honored to celebrate the virtue this class has earned by being “non-traditional” and “adult.” When my Dad graduated – and only God knows how he studied – my parents already had 3 kids. Eventually all 9 would earn college degrees which makes your kind invitation to speak particularly meaningful to me.

Back then, however, I wanted individuality and some elbow room. So my father and I met someone from the Dean’s office at Old Queens. We walked about. I spoke with some kids. I saw that it could be a big place and that it had a lot to offer; one could find variety here but still have a “small” college experience as well; besides, it was close to New York City.

During my visit, we ran into # 3 (a poli sci major) – who had pledged a fraternity and pledged not to bug me. Most vividly, I recall that my Dad gently guided me in the direction of trying out college first. “If you don’t like it, you can always quit.”

He emphasized one trait which I have forever associated with my time at Rutgers. He spoke of the confidence I would gain by mastering studies here. Now I don’t know if other brothers had similar father/son chats, but I would eventually share classes with # 5 (who was a Henry Rutgers scholar in political science), and teachers with # 7 (a fellow English major who studied in France his third year). “On the Banks” was sung in every key of drink around the Harper kitchen table during the 1970’s.

I imagine I share a few experiences with this year’s graduating Class.

After two years on campus, I was still curious about the “real world.” So I stopped out for a year. I found a job at a Fifth Avenue showroom for a Fortune 500 company and rented a room on the upper westside of Manhattan. I worked 9-5, got my first credit card, and took adult extension classes at NYU and the New School. I actually enjoyed taking classes for no credit: just for their own sake; one, a philosophy of art course, remains one of the more influential engagements of my student years.

I was grateful for my exposure to the “real world,” but I enthusiastically returned to New Brunswick for the world of “what if?” in theater arts; and the “what happened?” world of the liberal arts community. My 9-5 “job” became being a student and I liked that job a lot better!

Another experience you and I might share involves money. Last week I read a CNN report titled “college crunch felt worldwide.” Quote: with the world’s most expensive higher education system, America asks students to pay an average of $5800. a year in tuition to attend a four year public university. End quote. The article also described programs in Britain, Australia and New Zealand, that offer “income-contingent” loans, which recognizes the debt pressures of the lower paid professions. Believe me, I wish there was something like that around years ago! My first theater job paid $100 a week. On a few, all I got was carfare.

Anyway, the article reminded me of a letter I received 13 years after graduating from Rutgers. It was from the NJ Department of Higher Education and it informed me that I had finally fulfilled my student loan obligation. It was a great feeling. Now if you go at my rate, you will be “free and clear” in the year 2020.

Was it worth it? Was it ever.

At Rutgers I had teachers who inspired and encouraged me. Their names are as familiar to me as the young men named Kurdyla and Runfolo who came to the Middletown high school I attended and forever altered the direction of my life by “putting on a show.” The names Bettenbender, Van Laan, Comtois and Wilhelm have frequently been recalled through the years, particularly at those times when I needed some confidence.

As a professional artist, I have learned that I could live without money or love or a fixed place to call home for long stretches. I also learned I could not persevere if I ever lost the confidence that what I performed, mattered, or that how I performed it, was authentic.

At Rutgers, I was exposed to English studies at an Honors level on the College Avenue Campus, and exposed to Theater Arts at a professional level on the Douglass Campus. I studied Shakespeare and Miller and Ibsen in Murray and Scott Halls during the day, and rehearsed and performed in plays by them at the Little Theater at Douglass at night. I did this for all 4 years. In the Spring of my senior year, for instance, I was writing my thesis on Othello over at College Avenue between classes, and was performing as Iago over on Nicholl Avenue when nighttime fell. Also that Spring, we performed a new play which won the American College Theater Festival Award we performed to two sold out audiences at The Kennedy Center in Washington! This was the NCAA Finals of the theater arts world!

Was it worth it?

Without Rutgers, ladies and gentlemen, my education would have been poorer, my interests would never have been addressed, and my life would have been infinitely less interesting.

Just a few short years after studying and performing Arthur Miller on campus, I was working with Miller himself – arguing about a scene, discussing the Depression and preparing his play, The American Clock, for Broadway!

Who could have imagined such an opportunity?

Soon I was learning about how strange Hollywood can be: one time I was flown from Manhattan where I was living, across the Atlantic to Rome, to play a scene which takes place in Manhattan, with Robert DeNiro and James Woods! Another time, I was flown from Los Angeles where I was living, across the Pacific to Sydney, to play a scene with Donna Mills that takes place in Los Angeles!

I’ve smoked cigars with Bill Cosby during down time in New York, and spent time in Montana with Gregory Peck, discussing John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, during the time we were filming an anti-nuclear picture. I’ve had the pleasure of psychoanalyzing Woody Allen on film, and was a fellow shrink with Richard Gere in another – off set, we swapped tales of our each playing the King in the King and I in high school.

I would not have dreamed this stuff.

In high school I went into Manhattan to see James Earl Jones in The Great White Hope. I went backstage afterwards to try and get him to sign my program. But there were muscled union members around to keep the line moving, so I didn’t get an autograph. Twenty-four years later, I’m performing opposite him – playing by the way, a mental patient who thinks he’s a psychiatrist – in Gabriel’s Fire.

This time I got him to sign my twenty-four year old program.

During the ’70’s, while still a student, similarily muscled union members let me work amongst them parttime in the film industry. One day I spent the morning vacuuming the carpet of the Godfather‘s office on the set in Queens; and later that day, kept the Chinese food warm that was eaten at the table when the plan is hatched to get Michael Corleone a gun. One might imagine me poking around to watch the young Al Pacino perform – I certainly did that. But what was harder for me to imagine then, was that twenty seven years later, I would share a scene with him in the film The Insider.

Without Rutgers, none of this was possible.

Twenty years ago, this place prepared me to create a role in the much honored series Frank’s Place. I spent a month reading Tennessee Williams and Walker Percy, walked the streets and talked to folks, took a class or two at Tulane and attended Criminal Court. As an alumnus from the same Alma Mater as Paul Robeson, how satisfying it became to be a part of what Henry Louis Gates Jr. called “the most authentic depiction of African American life” he had ever seen on television.

Rutgers helped me define “excellence.” Twenty years after graduating, I was accepted in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for “excellence in the art of the motion picture.” This kid from Jersey who hadn’t even dreamed he’d ever be near the Oscars, now votes for them.

Of course, I would be less than forthright if I told you its all been roses. There are times when confidence feels like hiding.

During the week of my first professional engagement in Washington, I suddenly developed a case of hemorrhoids. A nervous stomach wasn’t enough I guess; I had to really be made aware of my anxieties. My various unrehearsed shifting-abouts raised more than one eyebrow from the veterans on stage. Let’s say that I got through the run of the play with the help of modern medicine.

Less than a year later, during a Broadway tryout of a production that would fail, I spent the first act vomiting when I was offstage, and then during Act 2, had to deal with a sudden – and unstoppable – nosebleed.

Fortunately, I was portraying a street vagabond so I stuffed my nose with paper towel – some of which hung out – and got through Act 2. It’s at moments like these when I would need the reassurance of my Rutgers degree. I’d say to myself: look, don’t let it get to you. You’re not a loser; you’ve got a Rutgers degree!

Most artists, whether they perform or not, learn to get used to rejection. The twinge is particularly acute however, when one feels that the person judging you has not earned the right to do so. At such times, I’d reach for the confidence I earned at Rutgers: what do they know? They didn’t graduate from Rutgers!

My last body “message” came shortly after the out-of-town debacle in Boston. This time I was in New York, auditioning for the Shakespeare Festival, a place I held in high regard. There again… about 30 seconds into my bit… I was hoping for a runny nose but… no. Wouldn’t stop. No provocation, nobody bumped me. Just blood.

We had to stop of course, and I wasn’t hired, but that was the last time the body erupted on me. A time in the wilderness of trying to be heard, of picking oneself after falling, of learning to define – and thus deflate – pressures, was needed. By age 26, no more sudden bloody noses; No more hemorrhoids. And I was on to Broadway and Hollywood.

It is somethimes said that a University has no heart; but that is a mistake. They are all heart. Their being consists of the controlling principles on which they were founded. Those principles – learning and character formation – remain elevating, exalting and essential.

The dictionary defines the heart as a body organ between the lungs; it also describes it as the “center of the personality” and “the capacity for sympathy, for affection, for feeling.” In his Autobiography, Augustine uses the word over 150 times. He writes of the sweetness in an upright heart, of a heart saddened by sorrow, agitated by guilt and tickled by laughter. God was in an inmost heart and the law was written on men’s hearts.

This is the heart at the center of Rutgers. The students are the lifeblood – at any given time – that flows through the pumping heart that has been entrusted to those officials, teachers and staff, you are now leaving.

Embrace what Rutgers gave you: help someone else who needs a little push; your enlightened invisible hand will guide that person to a sense of earned confidence, and you will be rewarded many times over. The heart of Rutgers also beats in the breast of those who have studied here. You are now one of us. The torch has passed to a new class and now you’re the ones who have to suffer hemorrhoids and bloody noses for awhile.

I’ll leave you with words offered at the 100th Birthday celebration of Rutgers, by US Supreme Court Justice Bradley:

My brethren, alumni of Rutgers…
Rest not on the glories of the past for they have served their end.
Wait not for the developments of the future, they will be needed in their time.
But gird yourselves to the demands of the present, which always confers the only true badge of nobleness.

Noble graduates, congratulations.

© Robert Harper, 2007

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