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Commencement Address by Donald Newhouse
The following is a transcript from the Commencement Address by Donald Newhouse ’51 at the Carrier Dome on Sunday, May 15.
I am proud that a Newhouse graduate was selected student speaker, but Kaitlyn, you sure are a hard act to follow.
Thank you, Chancellor Syverud, for your kind words, but I need to correct one thing. A giant I am not.
Good morning, trustees, deans, members of the faculty, families of the graduates, and an especially good morning to graduates.
I grew up in the newspaper business.
One of the greats of my newspaper world, the late ‘Punch’ Sulzberger of the New York Times once told me a universal truth which I am happy to share with you today, and I quote, “There is no such thing as a too short speech.”
Happily for you I’ve taken that dictum to heart. But this occasion, which I know has special meaning for you, has great meaning for me too.
I arrived at Syracuse as a freshman in 1947. And while I did not achieve what you have (it took me 69 years to get a degree), I am extremely moved to be here alongside you today and if you will indulge me, I’d like to tell you something about good fortune and its opposite, something about love and loss, and what it has taught me.
I was not an especially self-confident young man. I came to Syracuse largely because my visionary and highly creative brother, Si, my lifelong partner and closest friend, came a couple of years before.
My father, who started life in a tenement on the Lower East Side of New York, did not emphasize scholarship in quite the same way he might have in a later generation. He was one of those young people, a son of an immigrant from a large struggling family, who through brilliance and drive, hard work, luck and a keen eye for opportunity, went from being an apprentice lawyer to a successful publisher of newspapers. From Staten Island to Long Island, Newark to Syracuse, he began buying newspapers in a pre-digital era when newspapers were the core of a community.
Both my brother and I were eager to go to work in his fascinating newspaper world.
When I arrived at Syracuse, it was the post-war years. Like so many universities, Syracuse expanded to accommodate thousands of returning veterans. The campus was filled with Quonset huts acting as dormitories and classrooms.
In my freshman year I was assigned a bunk in the hay loft in a barn on the grounds of the State Fair, five miles from campus.
I was a shy teenager and I wasn’t exactly proving myself a great scholar. I was also impatient to begin work in my father’s world. Too impatient to make my way to Commencement. I left Syracuse after my sophomore year.
And so I went to work for a paper on Long Island called the Press.
I learned the business side of newspapering, a world that is now as dated as Gutenberg himself: the art of typesetting, the mechanics of the presses, lead plates, acid-etched photos, barrels of black ink, tons of newsprint. Every day the production cycle began at 4 a.m. and that’s when I began work.
And I loved it!
To this day I still can’t help but get to the office by 5, just about when you all will be getting home after tonight’s celebration, I would guess.
My uncle Teddy was my coach, my mentor. He taught me the business. He was rock hard and fierce and decisive.
Not long after I started working for him, he went on a brief vacation. When he came back he said to me these never-to-be-forgotten words, “Donald, I have met this girl and you are going to marry her.”
I said, “Yes, Teddy.” With that, my life changed.
Susan Marley was her name and our first date lasted as long as I could stretch it. From a dinner at a New York restaurant to two nightclubs, I was absolutely taken with her, instantly. Suzy had a dazzling smile and was charming and alive, intellectual and boundlessly kind. And she was a Syracuse girl.
At evening’s end I asked her for another date the next night, but I was broke. So on a beautiful, starlit, moon-bright summer night, we rode the Staten Island ferry, which was free. And with my uncle’s instructions in mind and my desires, I asked my Suzy to marry me.
Suzy said, “You must be crazy!” And she added, “I’m 18 and not going to marry until I graduate Wellesley.” Not-so-crazy me, five days after she graduated we were married.
Which brings me back to Syracuse University, after my premature exit in 1950.
My Suzy’s parents, Lillian and Harry Marley, were Syracusans who graduated Syracuse University in the 1920s. Harry was president of Syracuse’s board of education and had close ties with the University. Lillian and Harry’s blood ran Orange.
They turned my dad’s and my blood Orange.
And in Harry’s and my dad’s spirit, let me here offer my hearty congratulations to the Orange women’s and men’s basketball teams and to coaches Q and Jim Boeheim for making it to the Final Four this year!
Syracuse University, as you know, has many great schools, all represented here by you. But you will forgive me if I speak of one that has a special place in my heart.
It started with a 20-minute post-breakfast meeting at the Hotel Syracuse in the late 1950s with then-Chancellor William Tolley and my dad and me, at which an agreement was reached to establish the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
And it runs through the dedication of Newhouse 1 by Lyndon Johnson at which the president made the historic Gulf of Tonkin Speech; the dedication of Newhouse 2 by CBS’s William Paley; Newhouse 3 by Chief Justice John Roberts; and the rededication of Newhouse 2 by Oprah. And continues today with my friendship with the school’s two great deans, David Rubin and Lorraine Branham, who deserve full credit for Newhouse being the great school it is today.
My marriage to Suzy—with my marriage to Suzy, I began a half century that was cloudless and happy in more ways than I can recount. But because life is never cloudless, even for the very lucky, this happy story takes a turn.
In 2003, my beautiful Suzy was diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia, a dementia that gradually robbed her of speech and eventually the ability to understand speech.
From 2003 to 2010, the downhill slope was gradual but unmistakable. And then in 2010, she became incapable of taking care of herself.
When you are fortunate enough to be in love for so long, to enjoy your family and work for so long, there is a feeling of power, of control. I confess to having that feeling, and I lost it.
Before her dementia, my Suzy and I were as one. As the disease progressed, Suzy would change and plateau, change and plateau, and with each change our worlds diverged a little more. I found myself running to catch up with her and this was not a race I could possibly win.
My life’s focus changed. It had to. I could hardly spend the time I once did on work. What was now required of me was something intensely personal but absolutely essential.
I had to make a single-minded effort to learn what I needed to know to make my wife’s life bearable. That required my immersing myself in the literature about the disease and extensive work with caregivers and professionals. Like so many who face the loss of a loved one to a physical or mental condition, I had so much to learn in order to do right by my Suzy at the very moment when she needed me the most.
When Suzy’s disease reached its ultimate stage, when she was no longer able to care for herself or to communicate with the outside world, I came to the conclusion that what she would want me to do was to play some role in finding a treatment for this horrendous dementia.
And so with the same determination I once reserved for my life in the publishing business, I began an illuminating education in what was possible. I did so with the help of a profoundly effective organization, the Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration. They have helped me learn a great deal about Suzy’s dementia and they have pointed me to a road that hopefully might lead to a treatment for it.
From the vantage point of 86 years old, I can say with some degree of confidence that many of you sooner or later will face the seemingly unexpected, the mysterious, serious events and moments in time that you hadn’t figured into your plans. And when that time comes, you will have had one advantage that I did not.
By finishing your education here, you’ve had a prolonged experience that exposed you to complex philosophical ideas, to scientific methods, to a sense of history, to views of the human experience that only great writers and artists can provide.
That education, of course, is only a start.
Your education here and the education that I hope will be a continuing process in your lives is an essential part of the equipment you will need both to contribute as professionals to the greater community and also to help you live your lives, your personal lives, in a thoughtful, productive and decent way.
And finally, I would add a personal wish.
I would hope some of you who studied in the fields of humanities and in the sciences, young as you are, will think of careers that touch on the aged, the demented, and will work to find treatments for these diseases. Or to find ways of supporting the millions upon millions of families in the United States that have been financially and psychologically devastated by the burdens placed on them by the need to care for their loved ones.
Class of 2016, I salute you! I am proud to have received my Syracuse University degree alongside of you and I wish you great success in your pursuit of happiness.
Note: This is a rush transcript