Katie Couric joins U.Va.’s 2012 Graduates in a “Wahoowah!”

Katie Couric joins U.Va.’s 2012 Graduates in a “Wahoowah!”

October 15, 2019 8 By Stanley Isaacs


Thank you so much, Rector
Dragas, President Sullivan, faculty, distinguished
guests, friends and families, and most of all the
graduating class of 2012. Let me begin with a heartfelt
salutation that will bond us for all eternity, Wahoowah. And, yes, I was attempted to
sing the whole Good Old Song, but we’ll save that for later. Believe it or not, I have
spoken at 10 graduations. And with all due respect
to such fine institutions as Williams College, Case
Western Reserve, Boston University, and Princeton,
my safety school, this really is far and away the
most meaningful commencement address I’ve ever delivered. In fact, for the
last 33 years, I’ve waited and waited and
waited for the call. First, on a rotary phone. Then on a touch tone. Then a cordless. And, finally, an iPhone. But, year after year,
that call never came. In 1981, George Herbert
Walker Bush got the nod. He was only vice president
at the time, people. Two years later, it was
Senator Pete Domenici. Sure, he was New Mexico’s
longest serving senator, but, hello, this is Virginia. Do you know where I’m from? John Paul Stevens delivered
the commencement back in 1998. OK. A Supreme Court
justice, but, I mean, really, there are nine of them. Elizabeth Dole, well, at least,
she was a [? tri-Del. ?] And, in 2007, John
Grisham got tapped. So he sold 275 million
books worldwide. Whatever. But, finally, this year, the
call came from Terry Sullivan. I guess it took the first woman
to lead the university in 193 years to get the job done. Girl power, sister. Oh, yeah, this is going
to be heavy-duty feminist. Sorry about that guys. Given that Val
Ackerman, class of ’81, was the baccalaureate
speaker yesterday, and all of the presenters at the
center podium today are women, it is so refreshing
that more than half of the country’s population is
finally being represented here today by a 100% female lineup. It seems like yesterday
that I was walking down the lawn towards
Cabell Hall thrilled, and, yes, a bit melancholy, that
my four years at the University were over. It was quite a weekend. Right before my
parents arrived, I had so many dirty dishes stacked
up in the sink of my lawn room, I put them in the trunk
of my Toyota Corolla, which was then towed
because I kept parking in President Hereford’s parking
space behind Pavilion 6. Then I thought I wasn’t
graduating at all because I couldn’t find my
name in the program and was shocked that it was
under the heading with honors. In other words,
I was a hot mess. So if you don’t quite have your
act together yet, don’t worry. At 55, I’m still a
work in progress. But to be back here
in Charlottesville facing all of you,
the sea of faces, the rotunda glistening in front
of me in the late morning sun, well, this is pretty sweet. You don’t need me
to tell you that UVA is a very special place. I have such wonderful memories
of my college experience here, great professors, great
friends, great hikes along Skyline Drive, great
parties, and great football games, I can’t really
remember thanks to a great guy I got to know
named Jack Daniels. We’re not encouraging
alcohol consumption here. That was just a joke. Late night one-eyed
bacon cheeseburgers at the UD served by
the beloved Ethel, polished off with a grillswith. Yes, that Paula Dean approved
dessert comprised of two smashed fried glazed doughnuts
topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I credit such delicacies with
taking the edge off and putting the weight on, the freshman
10, I mean, the first year 20. Because I was an RA, I lived in
the dorms my first three years, but, by far, the best place
I lived was right here. Did I mention I
lived on the lawn? Of course, I would have
to do that walk of shame to the bathroom and
pass everyone headed to class wearing my pink
terrycloth bathrobe and clogs, carrying my yellow plastic
bucket filled with toiletries, my wet hair turning into
icicles in the winter. Is that the paparazzi? But that small cozy room and,
especially, the fireplace more than made up for it. And the 19th century
version of a man cave made me feel like a
20th century woman. The ultimate buzz
kill must have been getting a room on the lawn
this year and finding out you couldn’t use the fireplace. What a bummer. But, at least, this year’s
RA on the lawn, Reedy Swanson told me, it was a mild
winter, so it wasn’t that bad. History and tradition
run deep here and so does a legacy of excellence. In the nearly two centuries
since it was established in 1819, the University
has produced a president, 12 U.S. Senators, 5
Olympic medalists, the first African-American Chief
Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, and Tina Fey, who
was almost vice president. Guys, you’re ruining my joke. And Tina Fey who was almost vice
president until that crushing Amy Poehler interview. A UVA degree has paved the
way for leaders in government, business, media, science,
medicine, education, law, and public service. Thomas Jefferson, the
ultimate renaissance man, would be proud. After all, he was a politician,
a writer, a diplomat, a scientist, a farmer, an
architect, an inventor, the architecture school,
and an oenophile, which, of course, is a lover
or a connoisseur of wine. Jon Meacham, a friend
and brilliant writer, has just finished a new book
about Thomas Jefferson that will be published in November. It contains some surprising,
but, somehow, appropriate revelations about our
favorite founding father. Although, most historians
claim Jefferson’s final letter was written to commemorate
the 50th anniversary of the Declaration
of Independence. In reality, his last
and final correspondence was to his wine
dealer in Baltimore to make sure his delivery
would be on time. So, perhaps, the
perfect UVA graduate knows about the rights of man,
but also knows the right way to party. Even though Thomas
Jefferson died 186 years ago on the 4th of July, his
spirit lives on here among the serpentine walls and
the neoclassical buildings. And the example he set
is still relevant today. He faced intense
partisanship in Washington, threats from abroad,
a hostile press, and times of great
economic challenge. Gee, sound familiar? But he weathered
the tough times, endured the hate and the
heat, and remained unwavering in his vision of
a better tomorrow. He had faith that the
power and potential of every single person
could change the world. You see Thomas Jefferson
was the ultimate optimist. You all are graduating
at a time when it might be tough to
put on a happy face or really have
faith in the future. Many of you were coming
of age when 9/11 occurred. It was not only the end
of innocence for you, it was the end of
innocence for our country. The undergraduates
here today were just starting college when the
most devastating recession in decades began. Some of you may feel
like you’re drowning in a sea of college debt, which
has actually surpassed credit card debt in our country. You’ve witnessed a decade of
war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Faith in institutions like
Congress, the media, and banks has hit rock bottom as our
national and personal debt has skyrocketed. The American dream
though still attainable, somehow feels more elusive. These days I think
the world seems like a pretty scary and, at
times, overwhelming place. So given all these
challenges, WWTJD, what would Thomas Jefferson do? He’d persevere. He would prevail. And you’ll do the same. By now, thanks to many
years of education, you’ve mastered the three
R’s as in reading, writing, and arithmetic, which is
actually just one R, not three. But there are three
other R’s that are essential for success,
not just in your career, but in your life. Risk, rejection, and resilience. In my book, The
Best Advice I Ever Got, which is a collection of
essays by some of the world’s most successful people. One of my all time favorite
authors Anna Quindlen wrote, “Carry your courage in an
easily accessible place the way you do your cell
phone or your wallet. Courage is the
ultimate career move.” Some may call it courage. Others call it chutzpah. My late father, who was
such an inspiration to me, and one of my personal
heroes, called it moxie. Whatever you call
it, it’s the ability to leap before you
look, to know you may be better sorry
than safe, and to go for it with no guarantees. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “Only those
who will risk going too far can possibly find out
how far one can go.” If I had never given
it the old college try, I wouldn’t be here speaking at
my Alma Mater’s commencement. My career began back in 1979. That was the year
of Rod Stewart’s Do You Think I’m Sexy, and
Gloria Gaynor’s disco anthem, I will Survive. I think my personal
soundtrack is much more the latter than the former. I knew I wanted
a job in TV news. And after suffering one
rejection after another, I decided to be proactive. I donned my best dress
for success outfit, which back then
basically means you look like a flight attendant. My mother gave me a ride in
our cream colored Buick station wagon from our house
in Arlington, Virginia to the ABC Bureau in Washington
D.C. When I got there, I asked an imposing and
intimidating security guard if I could see Kevin Delany, the
deputy bureau chief in charge of hiring new employees. After he stopped
laughing, I asked him if I could make a phone
call from the lobby. So I called Davey Newman, who
was executive producer of World News Tonight. Here’s how it went. Hello, Davey, you don’t know
me but your twin brothers Steve and Eddie went to high
school with my sister Kiki, and I lived down the street
from your cousin Julie. Can I come up and say hello? Cut to me in the ABC newsroom
being personally delivered to Kevin Delaney’s store. Better yet, cut to me with
my first job in television. I made coffee. I made xeroxes. I also made friends with a lot
of people I still know today. On my first day, Sam
Donaldson, then the White House correspondent,
leapt onto my desk and sang at the top of
his lungs, Ka-Ka-Ka Katie in front of the entire newsroom. It was a little embarrassing
yet strangely exciting. Imagine if I had not had the
moxie to call Davey Newman, but there’s another lesson
in that story as well. Don’t look for jobs,
look for people. The good news for
the class of 2012 is the job market has
improved slightly, and employers say
they’ll be hiring more recent grads this
year than they did in 2011. But the outlook
is far from rosy. And it takes a lot more
than a profile on LinkedIn to get hooked up in the old
fashioned sense of the term. In fact, sometimes you can
feel lost in cyberspace, like your resume has
been swallowed up in some big black hole. Despite all the
online job boards and Monster.com’s of
the world, most jobs are still found the old
fashioned way by meeting people and building relationships. So followup with a phone call,
ask if you can come in even for an informational interview. Do your homework. Find out the name of
an actual live person who makes hiring decisions
and email him or her. Do you risk looking
like a stalker? Perhaps. But when you’re competing
against hundreds, even thousands, doing nothing
will get you, well, nothing. But here’s another thing
you need to know about risk, the end result
may not be pretty. As Mick Jagger sang, “You can’t
always get what you want.” That’s where the next R
word comes in rejection. There will be times
in life when people are, how can I say this,
just not that into you. About a year into
my first gig, I decided to leave ABC and head
to a fledgling startup known as CNN. Or, as my snobby
network news colleagues called it chicken noodle news. There I would work as a
producer and get my first crack at reporting at the White
House no less because that’s a perfect beat for someone
with absolutely no experience. I stayed up all night practicing
in front of the mirror, speaking slowly and
deliberately into my hair brush. It was very Jan Brady. My assignment was to preview
the president’s schedule for the day. In the commercial
break before I went on, I could hear the two anchors,
and they were talking about me. “Who is that ” one asked. “I don’t know, but she looks
like she’s 16 years old.” I sounded even younger
as I squeaked out, “President Reagan
is beginning his day with a meeting in
the Oval Office with National Security
Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.” The president of CNN
called after I appeared. He called the
assignment desk and said he never wanted to see
me on the air again. Wa-wa. Needless to say,
I was devastated and thank God for Haagen-Dazs Bill Cosby offered
his own version of an early career nightmare
in an essay for my book. It was the ’60s, and he was
performing in a Chicago comedy club. He walked out on stage and
delivered a 25 minute routine in exactly 12 minutes
because nobody laughed. Convinced he would be fired,
he faced the club manager. “I want you to go back to your
hotel room,” the manager said, “And send Bill Cosby here
to do the second show.” Meanwhile, Kathryn
Stockett, who wrote a pretty successful little
book called The Help, got 60 rejection letters, that’s
right 6-0, before an agent finally said yes. Rejection can be the
ultimate reality check. It makes you work
harder and get better. My boss at CNN
wasn’t being mean. He was actually right. I stunk. Bill Cosby’s club
manager wasn’t a jerk. Bill just wasn’t
funny that night. As for Kathryn
Stockett, I really don’t have an
explanation for that one. But, after five years of writing
and three and a half years of rejection, she had plenty
of time to polish her prose. Rejection can be humbling. And speaking of
humility, class of 2012, it’s time for the tough
love portion of the program. I tend to hate it when
cultural observers make rash generalizations
about entire generations, but here’s the rap on yours. By the way, this may be more
about your parents than you. And since I’m their
generation, let me preface this with
guilty as charged. They say you have been over
coddled, over parented, you haven’t learned to deal
with disappointment or setbacks or rejection because you
haven’t really had to. After all, everyone made
the soccer team and everyone got a trophy, right? A recent article in
the Atlantic entitled, How to Land Your Kid in
Therapy, asked this question. “Could it be that by protecting
our kids from unhappiness as children, we’re depriving
them of happiness as adults?” In fact, some college
students today are so overprotected
and fragile, they’re known by
administrators on campuses across the country as teacups. Sometimes this spills into the
workplace when young entitled employees think they don’t
have to pay their dues, and they want to
start at the top. But as Queen Rania
of Jordan once said, “If you’re too big
for the small jobs, you’re too small
for the big ones.” And if you’re going on
interviews remember this, nothing is a bigger
turnoff than a 22-year-old who asks how a job will affect
his or her work-life balance. In fact, one young
woman was trying to land a position on
my new syndicated show, and she asked how the hours
would impact her weekends. Our answer was, “Not at
all because you’re not getting the job.” And, speaking of teacups,
according to a very reliable source, one student from
Darden went on a job interview and brought his mother. Seriously. Is that you over there? Hey, I’m speaking the
truth here, people. So whatever you do, do not bring
your mother to an interview, and do not use her
as her reference. Don’t be a teacup. Be a travel mug, sturdy
and ultimately unbreakable. Go the extra mile. Volunteer for that
extra assignment. As my mom told all
four Couric kids, “Let them know you’re there.” Thanks, Mom. You may have to work
late, work weekends, or as Mike Bloomberg
did, show up early. When he was in
business school, he worked at a real estate
office renting apartments. He had more customers
than the four full-time professional
brokers because he got there before they did,
answered the phone, and he got all their business. The last time I
checked, Mike Bloomberg was doing pretty
well for himself. So, very simply, there is
no substitute for hard work and doing everything you
can to get the job done. And then there’s the whole
notion of finding your passion. I’m a firm believer that
if you do what you love, you’ll love what you do. That said, in order
to find yourself, you need to actually be
looking and trying new things, not just thinking about
it or talking about it. In other words, get a job. It might not be as
easy as it used to be and you may have to
hustle a little bit more, but it is still doable. Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist
here at the University, writes in her new book
about your 20s called, The Defining Decade, that 80% of
life’s most defining decisions are made by the age of 35. Salaries peak and
plateau in our 40s. People who start too
late, never catch up. Just something to
think about when you’re booking that Eurail Pass. This concludes the tough
love portion of the program. Everyone’s like, oh, man. OK. Now, back to me. After CNN, I worked in local
news in Miami and Washington D.C. My big break came when
my dear friend and mentor, the late Tim Russert,
told me I had spunk. And, unlike Lou Grant,
Tim liked spunk. So he offered me a job
as the deputy pentagon correspondent for NBC. By 1991, I was the
co-anchor of The Today Show where I spent 15
fantastic years. I covered triumphs at the
Olympics and tragedies here at home, like Columbine,
the bombing in Oklahoma City, and 9/11, which
I believe was one of the most important
assignments of my career. And there was endless variety. Where else could you interview
Yasser Arafat, Howard Stern, and Miss Piggy in the same week? It was such a privilege
to anchor the Today Show. But, after one too many
5:00 a.m. wake-up calls, I was ready for a new chapter. The opportunity to become
the first solo female anchor of a network evening newscast
was hard to turn down. Afterall, when I started
in TV news back in 1979, there were still
plenty of guys who wanted to keep the broads
out of broadcasting. Back then, [? har-ass ?] was
considered two words, not one. That always takes a
minute, so one, two, three. The chance to show
that a woman on her own could handle the job with
intelligence and competence seemed worth the risk. But I quickly learned
that getting out of your comfort
zone can sometimes be, well, uncomfortable. And one of the problems
with being a trailblazer is sometimes you get burned. In those first
few months at CBS, TV critics wrote about my
clothes, my hair, my makeup, even the way I held my hands. Some said I lacked gravitas,
which I’ve since decided is Latin for testicles. It was a rocky start. But I remembered a note a
former colleague had written to me as I was leaving NBC. “Boats are always
safe in the harbor, but that’s not what
boats are built for.” I was determined to
ride out the storm. I focused on the news, not
the noise, and it got better. Five years at the
CBS Evening News filled me with immense pride
and a sense of accomplishment from covering the historic
2008 presidential election to an award winning
series on children and the recession to
standing in Tahrir Square as the people of Egypt
said no more to oppression. We were one of the
first American teams on the ground in
Haiti just hours after that devastating
earthquake in January of 2010. I learned more about people,
perspective, and myself in those five years than
I had in the previous 49. My story may have played
out in the public eye, but it’s by no means unique. Every one of you
will, at some point, be confronted by
naysayers and learn that life isn’t always fair. You’ll feel cheated. You’ll be mistreated. You’ll wonder when
will I be loved. Oh my god, I’ve begun to
channel Linda Ronstadt. That’s when the third
R, resilience comes in. The ability to as
they said in the 70s, “Keep on keeping on,”
even when you’d rather pull the covers over your head,
to muster up your strength and forge ahead even if
you feel like a failure. But the greatest test of my
resilience wasn’t professional. It was intensely personal. In 1997, I had a
fantastic career, a wonderful,
intelligent husband, and two healthy daughters, who
were one and five at the time. I felt happy and complete. Then, in an instant,
everything changed. In April of that year,
Jay Monahan, my husband, was diagnosed with
stage four colon cancer. My life as I imagined it was
crumbling before my eyes. But, every day during
his nine month battle, I was in awe of his
extraordinary courage and grace. And, every day,
I felt like there was a vice around my heart. On January 24, 1998, Jay
collapsed in the bathroom and died on the way
to the hospital. Suddenly, I was a single
mom and a member of a club I never in a million years
anticipated joining, certainly not at that age. I was a widow. It felt so weird to
even say the word. In the months after
Jay’s death, I was inundated with books about
grief and how to deal with it. But I derived the most
strength from a simple quote by none other than
Thomas Jefferson who said, “The earth
belongs to the living.” And I had to go on living. I had to for my daughters. And, thankfully,
I had a job that enabled me to turn my
grief into advocacy. At The Today Show, I had
a built-in bully pulpit, which allowed me to educate
the public about colon cancer and try to prevent other
families from enduring the heartache ours had. I wanted, no needed,
to share what I have learned that
colorectal cancer is the second leading
cancer killer of men and women in this country,
but with early detection, it has a better
than 90% cure rate. My on-air colonoscopy
brought whole new meaning to that expression up
close and personal. As a result though, there was
a 20% increase in the procedure and that meant hundreds,
perhaps, thousands of lives saved. Researchers at the
University of Michigan called it the
Couric effect, but I call it the Jay Monahan effect. Nearly four years
after Jay died, I lost my sister Emily
to pancreatic cancer. As some of you might know,
she was a state senator representing
Charlottesville and many predicted she would one day
be the first female governor of Virginia. I can tell you
honestly that she was the real star of our family. Emily cared deeply about
education, about the under served. And when she was
diagnosed with cancer, she began in typical
fashion to think of ways she could help other
people fighting this disease. The Emily Couric Clinical Cancer
Center here at the University is a beautiful and
bittersweet tribute to someone else who had so much
left to do and so much more to give. Life can deal you
some crushing blows. And we all need a deep reserve
of resilience to survive. Losing someone is
also a reminder that life is short and fragile. We are all terminal
and that’s why we have to be grateful
for the time we have and savor the joy
that comes our way. I swear I don’t have a
girl crush on Anna Quindlen but something she wrote in A
Short Guide to a Happy Life really resonated with me. She said, “Life is
made up of moments. Small pieces of glittering
mica in a long stretch of gray cement. It would be wonderful
if they would come to us unsummoned, but,
particularly in lives as busy as the lives most of us
lead now, that won’t happen. We have to teach ourselves
how to make room for them, to love them, and to
live, really live.” I agree with Morrie
Schwartz of Tuesdays with Morrie fame
who said, “Giving makes me feel like I’m living.” The work I’ve done with stand
up to cancer and colon cancer awareness has meant
far more to me than interviewing
presidents, prime ministers, even Prince William. Although, I have
to tell you he is really cute and nice and funny. OK. Sorry I digress. You all have had the
privilege of getting a first-rate education
and, of course, that comes with some responsibility. I know you’re up to the job. And there will be so many
ways to make a difference, as many ways as there
are graduates here today, 6,411 to be exact. I was reminded of the
caliber of student here when I recently spent
time with a fourth year student named Lynette Jones, an
extraordinary young woman, who loves dance, alpha kappa
alpha, Toni Morrison, and the University of Virginia. I visited Lynette at Fox Chase
Cancer Center in Philadelphia where she’s being treated and
is in the fight of her life. Lynette completely blew me away
with her courage, maturity, and deep faith. I watched her grill a
doctor about an upcoming procedure like David Frost
grilled Richard Nixon. No surprise, Lynette is
an aspiring journalist. And I was so flattered
when we Skyped, and she told me I was
her Michael Jackson. Something I have never
been called before. Despite the pain,
fatigue, and fear that I know comes
with her diagnosis, Lynette has been powering
through writing papers from her hospital bed and
focusing on the future. She told me she
would try her hardest to come to her graduation
and she’s here. Lynette, you are my
new profile in courage. If you’re not an
example of resilience, I don’t know what is. Finally, let me leave you all
with some lessons that I think have served me well
through the years. Don’t tolerate intolerance. Stick up for the little guy. Play fair. Help someone in need. Have good manners. Tip generously. Believe in yourself. Call your mother. Be skeptical, not cynical. Trashing other people
often says more about you than it says about them. Have a purpose. Have a higher purpose. Don’t give up. Give back. Stay connected, and
not just on Facebook. There is no substitute
for real FaceTime. And, seriously, folks,
step away from the iPhone. One day when Jay was very
sick, he turned to me and said, “You know,
nothing really matters, except your friends
and your family. It is the people in
your lives and the love you share that will truly be
the measure of your success.” On a very famous
tombstone at Monticello, you’ll find these
words, “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author
of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of
Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the
University of Virginia.” Building this
university was one of his proudest accomplishments. Graduating from it will always
be one of yours and mine. This day was 33 years
in the making for me. And I have to tell you, it
was well worth the wait. So let’s leave on a
positive note, an up note. If you’ll indulge
me, please join in. I know we’re singing
it in its entirety at the end of the
ceremony, but can we do the cheer at the end of
The Good Old Song together. All right. Well, stand up, really. Don’t leave me hanging, people. Ready? Wahoowa, Wahoowa, Uni-V,
Vir-gin-i-a Hoo-rah-ray, Hoo-rah-ray. Hey, hey, UVA. Thanks so much for
inviting me here today, and congratulations
class of 2012.