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Vonnegut to speak at commencement

Photograph (C) 1982 Jill Krementz.

Kurt Vonnegut, the iconoclastic author who gained worldwide fame in the 1960s with such novels as Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five, will address the 1,200 graduates of Lehigh University’s Class of 2004.

Lehigh's 136th commencement ceremony will take place at 10 a.m. Monday, May 24, in Lehigh’s Goodman Stadium.

"The remarkable mix of wit and perspective on the universe that Vonnegut offers in his literature challenges the idea of causality and correlation," says Michael R. Schaefer, Lehigh senior class president. "Vonnegut is a wise man, and one who intellectually stimulates with his insight. Lehigh has had some amazing speakers in the past and Vonnegut’s selection continues that tradition. I am thrilled to have him addressing the Class of 2004. "

Schaefer and his fellow class officers Christina Accardo, vice president, Melissa I. Klein, treasurer, Marshal Dee, secretary, and Jessica McCarthy, class gift chair, polled the senior class and had many discussions with classmates before bringing a list of possible candidates to the selection committee.

The committee, consisting of the senior class officers and a group of eight faculty and staff, narrowed the list down to 10 candidates. From there, Vonnegut was selected.

"I am very excited to meet him and I am very interested to see what he has to say, considering just how interesting his life has been," Schaefer says. "I read Slaughterhouse Five in high school and loved it, and I can’t wait to meet the man behind the masterpiece."

’Poisoning minds with humanity’

"Kurt Vonnegut is a literary icon who has influenced generations of great writers, thinkers, and doers," says Gregory Farrington, president of Lehigh. "In the half century since the publication of his first novel, he has probed the foibles of humanity with a laser focus. His candid views on the issues of contemporary society are sure to get the Class of 2004 thinking as they head out into their future.”

Vonnegut's concern for the effects of technology on humanity has led some critics to consider him a science fiction writer, but the author himself has rejected this label. During his lectures and speeches, Vonnegut has been known to discuss his own work in a whimsical manner, touch on current events, and offer his philosophy on everything from the state of the family and relationships to war, censorship, and thoughts about the future.

Slaughterhouse Five , which became a best seller and was made into a film, made Vonnegut a literary celebrity. Several of his novels are now required reading at a number of universities. Cat's Cradle and The Sirens of Titan have sold nearly two hundred thousand copies each.

Very much in demand as a lecturer, Vonnegut has also established himself in the movie industry with his company, Sourdough Productions. He has mischievously described himself as "over six feet tall, rumpled and shaggy … [a] fourth generation German-American with a drooping moustache, a brow chevroned like a sergeant major's sleeve, and the eyes of a sacrificial altar-bound virgin caught in mid-shrug."

Vonnegut concedes that he has "worried some about why I write books when presidents and generals do not read them."

He concludes that the trick is to catch them at school, "before they become generals and senators and presidents and poison their minds with humanity." When asked what sort of writer he would most like to be known as, Vonnegut replies, "George Orwell."

`We grew up reading his books’

Schaefer believes the senior class is ready for Vonnegut.

"Judging from the polling of the class and talking to a lot of individuals, there was not an interest in having a politician. They were more interested in finding an individual who they could connect with," he says. "I feel that Kurt Vonnegut is a perfect match because we all grew up reading his books. I feel the class will like this commencement speaker selection and will truly be interested in what he has to say and appreciate any advice he can give on life."

Born of years of experience, Vonnegut's engaging insights, candid points of view, and provocative opinions will surely leave the Class of 2004 graduates, parents, families, and friends with a commencement address to remember.

The selection committee worked hard to come up with a list of speakers that they felt represented what it is to be connected to Lehigh.

"We were looking for people who excel in their fields of work. We looked for people committed to bettering the world," Schaefer says. "Whether it was through their actions, speech, or work, we looked for candidates who represented hope and dedication to others. When looking for a commencement speaker it was also very important for us to look at our generation and our past. Mr. Vonnegut is fully worthy of the distinguished honor of speaking at our university’s commencement ceremony."


The works of Kurt Vonnegut

Player Piano (1951)
Sirens of Titan (1959)
Canary in a Cathouse (1961)
Mother Night (1962)
Cat's Cradle (1963)
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)
Welcome to the Monkey House (1968)
Slaughterhouse Five (1969)
Happy Birthday Wanda June (1970)
Breakfast of Champions (1973)
Slapstick, or Lonesome No More (1976)
Deadeye Dick (1982)
Galapagos (1985)
Bluebeard (1987)
Hocus Pocus (1990)
Fates Worse Than Death (1991)
Timequake (1997)


--Andrew Stanten

Posted on Friday, March 05, 2004

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