By Robert C. Jones Jr.
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (May 8, 2015) — When Jimmy Buffett received a letter from University of Miami President Donna E. Shalala inviting him to be one of UM’s spring commencement speakers, the famed singer-songwriter asked himself what he could possibly have to say to graduates.
“It’s not in my nature to do speeches,” Buffett said Friday at UM’s midday commencement, where the Grammy-nominated artist, best known for his music that portrays an “island escapism” lifestyle, received an honorary doctor of music degree.
But then one day, as Buffett traveled through Key West listening to Radio Margaritaville on his way to a rehearsal, singer Alan Jackson’s voice gave him the answer he was looking for: “What would Jimmy Buffett do?” Jackson asks in the song “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.”
As Buffett drove down Duval Street, he answered back, “I’ll make them a checklist.”
So on Friday, Buffett, decked out in sandals given to him by his daughter and wearing commencement regalia he described as “kind of a like a Mardi Gras costume with a purpose,” delivered his four-point checklist to students in the storytelling style for which he is famous.
The ceremony honored graduates from the School of Architecture, School of Communication, School of Education and Human Development, School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, Frost School of Music, and School of Nursing and Health Studies.
“All things in moderation,” Buffett said. “The road to success is a long winding road littered with the wreckage of promising careers that have crashed and burned. In my early days I was riding that magic bus and making up for lost time, having spent the majority of my teenage years in strict parochial schools in Mobile, Alabama. That ride lasted until the time I hit 40. I was still feeling pretty bulletproof, but I noticed that hangovers were starting to feel like surgical recovery.”
The first such hangover Buffett experienced occurred at a show outside Denver, when he drank too much the night before. Somehow, he made it through the performance, but he was angry at himself for not giving the audience their money’s worth.
“Nobody in the crowd knew, but I sure did,” Buffett said. “It’s not a pretty thing to see talent wasted; it’s an even sadder thing to waste it yourself.”
So Buffett reorganized his priorities and reminded himself how lucky he was to call what he does for a living a job. “It took a little while, but I got my act together and sailed out of those troubled waters,” he said.
With graduates listening on, Buffett, who has recorded hit songs such as “Margaritaville” and “Come Monday,” gave them his second piece of advice: “If you can make your avocation your vocation, your life will be blissful.” He stressed to the students that there are four things they need to be successful in any endeavor—talent, love, work ethic, and passion, the last of which he said is the most important. “There are no shortcuts to success, but to me passion is the rudder that steers your quest for success,” Buffett said.
Buffett next urged students to “see the world.”
“We can’t keep time from melting off the clock, so all I can say is use your time well.” He told students that in May of 1969, when he graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi, his “future was just as elusive” as theirs. He was broke, had to pay $300 in parking fines just to get his degree, and his draft lottery number was 8.
But one thing he always knew was that stories told by his grandfather, a ship captain, ignited his curiosity for the world. “We now live on a very active big, round ball. The planet’s never been more connected. That is the world into which you’re going…You now have a degree. It’s not going anywhere. Hang it on a wall and do some traveling.”
And lastly, he told them to “be Santa Claus when you can,” reminding them of how fortunate they are to have graduated from UM.
During the ceremony, it was as if Buffett converted students to his devoted fan base known as “Parrotheads.” He regaled them with stories, such as how South Florida has been on his song list ever since his mother brought him and his sisters to the area from south Alabama. He saw Flipper perform at the Miami Seaquarium, and dreamed of becoming a dolphin trainer, and he wanted to major in marine biology at UM and become a “Jacques Cousteau with a Southern accent.”
“But that didn’t work out,” Buffett said.
The closest he ever got to becoming a Miami Hurricane, he said, was the time he performed in the winter of 1971 at an establishment that would eventually become the Titanic eatery on Ponce de Leon Boulevard often frequented by students.
“I started out as a bar singer in Coral Gables, and now I’ve got a doctorate degree,” Buffett joked. “You have to love that kind of evolutionary process.”
Buffett’s advice resonated with deep meaning for Lauren Washington, who earned a bachelor’s degree in the School of Nursing’s accelerated B.S.N. program. Two years ago, she felt she was stuck in a dead-end job as an accountant and realized she needed a new career more compatible with her values and beliefs in the importance of caring for others.
“Today is a testament to my faith, hard work, and dedication,” said Washington.
But it would not have happened if it weren’t for her mother, a longtime nurse Washington would often shadow during clinical rounds at Jackson Memorial and South Miami hospitals. “I saw the admiration people had for her, and I saw her leadership,” said Washington, a single mother. “With this degree, I know I’m going places.”
Two other commencement exercises were held Friday, before and after Buffett’s appearance. At the largest of the day, when 815 students from the College of Arts and Sciences and the Division of Continuing and International Education crossed the stage, speaker Ana Mari Cauce, the Cuban-born interim president of the University of Washington, who received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, was “incredibly humbled” to be back in the city where she grew up and the university from which she earned her undergraduate degree in English and psychology in 1977. “I’m really lucky that I applied about 40 years ago, because I am not sure I’d get in today,” she joked.
Quoting the journalist, scholar, and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, “the mentor of my mentor,” the clinical psychologist urged students to think beyond “making a living” and concentrate “on earning a life.” Drawing a distinction between fleeting pleasure and true happiness, she said the latter comes not from such things as a new car, but from “cherished experiences with people you care about” and being “dedicated to a course greater than oneself.’’
“It is not all about sunshine and butterflies and often includes sacrifices and some moments of deep sorrow and pain,” she said. “As research shows, it is experiences, especially those that are shared with people who are important to us, that build sustained happiness–as when Humphrey Bogart says to Ingmar Bergman in Casablanca, ‘We’ll always have Paris.’’’
In the final undergraduate ceremony on Friday, another distinguished alumnus, UM Trustee Carlos M. de la Cruz, Sr., shared some very modern-day advice from his decades of acquiring and operating very successful businesses. He told students graduating from the School of Business Administration and College of Engineering that in the age of the Internet, where “facts” are easily published but not easily verified, they must rely on their deductive reasoning as much as their scientific training.
“What does this mean? It means that you must temper scientific recommendations with what you learned in your liberal arts courses,” de la Cruz said. “As Aristotle said, ‘It is the mark of an educated man to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it’…Candidly, in deciding whether to invest in companies, complicated equipment, and consumer brands, I use a two-step process: look at the numbers first and then critically question whether they make sense.”
For complete coverage, view the Special Report: Commencement 2015.