The late, great Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) spoke at my college graduation ceremony way back in the era of dinosaurs in 1977. Here’s what he taught me.
Upon learning the news that he’d be our commencement speaker, students phoned home and had their parents send all their old Dr. Seuss books for him to sign. I had a couple of his books memorized, but didn’t have any copies on my shelves at home.
The year before, Ben Bradlee, the formidable Washington Post editor-in-chief, spoke about the Watergate investigation. His address was entitled, especially chilling in the current political era, was “Lest We Forget.”
That was exciting, but Dr. Seuss was more my speed. I learned later that his commencement speech almost didn’t happen. Eugene Hotchkiss, the college president, later wrote,
Mr. Geisel called to say that there must have been a mistake. He thought he was being asked to receive a degree, not to talk. “I talk with people, not to people,” he declared, and if, he continued, I was proposing that he give an address, there had been a grave mistake. No, he reported just days before Commencement, he would not agree to speak.
It’s a fascinating story, and I’ll reprint it in full below, but first to deal with the the actual subject at hand: Dr. Seuss wrote in praise of having one’s writing pared down and sharpened, not simply because it makes your prose (or poetry) better, but because it’s kinder to your readers.
This poem appeared on the back cover of the first volume of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books:
A Short Condensed Poem in Praise of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books
It has often been said
there’s so much to be read,
you never can cram
all those words in your head.
So the writer who breeds
more words than he needs
is making a chore
for the reader who reads.
That’s why my belief is
the briefer the brief is,
the greater the sigh
of the reader’s relief is.
And that’s why your books
have such power and strength.
You publish with shorth!
(Shorth is better than length.)
Poem written for the back cover of
Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, Volume 1 (1980)
The book itself is nothing special; its sole value is that beautiful little poem on the back. But it’s cheap, so you may find it a worthy addition to your library.
What’s interesting is that this poem has something in common with Dr. Seuss’s commencement address. It turns out he wrote a similar poem of similar length, and that was his speech. Not another word more. It was the shortest commencement address in the college’s history. And we loved every word.
Here’s Dr. Hotchkiss’s recollection of the day:
Dr. Seuss Keeps Me Guessing
A Commencement story by President Emeritus Eugene Hotchkiss III
As Theodor Geisel (a.k.a Dr. Seuss) stepped forward to join me at the podium on a bright spring day in 1977, I began nervously to read the citation accompanying the degree the College would be awarding him on this occasion. Although he was listed in the program as the Commencement speaker, I was uncertain if he would accept his degree with anything more than a thank you. And thereby hangs a tale.
The search for a Commencement speaker that year had been unusually frustrating and unsuccessful; one after another of those recommended by the seniors declined. I recall to this day the visit from a reporter of the Stentor, who was preparing copy for the final issue of the year. He pled unsuccessfully with me to give him the name of the individual who would address the graduating class. Alas, at that late hour not even I knew who he or she might be. Suddenly I recalled that a trustee of the College, Kenneth Montgomery, had once told me that should I ever need a speaker he would be willing to approach his good friend Ted Geisel and invite him to the campus. “Green eggs and ham,” thought I. “Why not?”
A phone contact was made by Trustee Montgomery, who told me that Mr. Geisel would be pleased to be honored at the Commencement ceremony. I quickly informed the Stentor [the school newspaper], and the word was out: Dr. Seuss would be the Commencement speaker. The seniors were elated, but I was told that some faculty expressed the opinion that my choice just proved that the Seuss books were likely the last ones I had ever read!
Still, I relaxed…until, responding to a formal invitation I had written describing the nature of Commencement and his talk, Mr. Geisel called to say that there must have been a mistake. He thought he was being asked to receive a degree, not to talk. “I talk with people, not to people,” he declared, and if, he continued, I was proposing that he give an address, there had been a grave mistake. No, he reported just days before Commencement, he would not agree to speak.
As I pondered my choices I grasped onto his statement to me, and I urged him to arrive early Friday afternoon so that he might talk with the graduates at the senior reception. And then, talking with him in person, I would attempt to persuade him to talk to the graduates, albeit if only briefly. He agreed to come to the campus as early has he could on Friday, although because he lived in California and would be flying against the clock, the odds of a timely arrival were slim indeed.
The events on the day preceding Commencement were several, and each was surreptitiously extended so that the reception would be delayed, anticipating Mr. Geisel’s late arrival. Happily, shortly after the now-delayed reception began, he joined my wife, Sue, and me in the receiving line and did indeed talk with the graduates and many others, even autographing some well-loved Dr. Seuss books. Still, I wondered, would he be willing to say anything from the podium the next day?
Both before and after dinner that Friday evening, I talked with him informally, hoping the influence of good wine might soften his resolve as it strengthened mine. I urged him to respond following the awarding of his degree, but he did not waiver. Perhaps the best that could be made of a desperate situation, thought I, was to announce at the Commencement that, as he requested, he had indeed talked with the graduates on Friday and to thank him for his cordiality. The evening came to an end—well, almost, for I did not sleep well that night, and I could hear the seniors partying and, undoubtedly, discussing the talk their much-liked Dr. Seuss would give.
On Commencement morning, as the honored guests robed in their academic regalia, I again asked Mr. Geisel if he would be willing to say but a few words, acknowledging his degree. Still his silence was penetrating. Finally the time came to read his citation. As I reached its end and as Faculty Marshals Rosemary Cowler and Franz Schulze stepped forth to place the hood over his head, I spoke these penultimate words, for which I must credit my wife, Sue: “We proclaim you not the ‘Cat in the Hat’ but the ‘Seuss in the Noose’.” And then I awarded him the College’s degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.
At that moment, fearing his response, I shook his hand in a whisper and asked him if he would be willing to say a few words. He reached under his academic gown, announcing loudly for all to hear that it was “a bathrobe,” pulled out a piece of paper from his shirt pocket and turned to the microphone. And the rest, as they say, is history.
On Dr. Seuss’s piece of paper were these words:
My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers
My uncle ordered popovers
from the restaurant’s bill of fare.
And, when they were served,
he regarded them
with a penetrating stare…
Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom
as he sat there on that chair:
“To eat these things,”
said my uncle,
“you must exercise great care.
You may swallow down what’s solid…
you must spit out the air!”
as you partake of the world’s bill of fare,
that’s darned good advice to follow.
Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.
And be careful what you swallow.
An original poem composed for the 99th Commencement of Lake Forest College by Theodor Seuss Geisel, June 4, 1977. Eugene Hotchkiss III was president of Lake Forest College from 1970 to 1993.