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Filmmaker Ken Burns to speak at commencement

Ken Burns at Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, in 1996.

Ken Burns, who has directed and produced some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries ever made, will address the more than 1,200 graduates at Lehigh’s 138th commencement ceremony at 10 a.m. Monday, May 22, in Goodman Stadium.

Burns is world renowned for his style in documentary filmmaking, in which he makes use of period photographs and blends them with film, music, authentic sound effects, remarks by historians and other scholars, and narration. Some of his most popular documentaries include Jazz, Baseball, The Civil War and Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery.

“I am pleased that Ken Burns will address our graduates and guests at what’s my final commencement as president of Lehigh,” says Gregory Farrington, Lehigh president. “His work closely parallels what we, as an institution, are doing to achieve a knowledgeable and diverse community on our campus.

“Academic excellence requires a learning community in which people of different backgrounds and perspectives join in the pursuit of knowledge and truth, and through his filmmaking, Burns encourages dialogue and the examination of the core issues of our society and our history. At Lehigh, we encourage that same dialogue and thoughtful examination of our history and community.”

Burns’ work has brought into the spotlight of American popular culture the lives and struggles of all Americans. Burns’ most recent film, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, tells the story of the first African-American boxer to win the most* coveted title in all of sports—the heavyweight championship—and his struggle, in and out of the ring, to live his life as a free man. His 1999 film, Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, tells the dramatic story of the two women who spearheaded the women’s rights movement in America.

“Through his unique style and selection of subjects, Ken Burns is helping to bring greater focus on America’s diverse and rich past,” Farrington says. “His recognition of the power of understanding our past to change the future will resonate strongly with graduates, parents, families, and friends.”

Jazz, a 10-part, 19-hour film, explores in detail the birth of jazz music from its origins in blues and ragtime through swing, bebop, and fusion. John Carmen of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “Jazz informs, astonishes, and entertains. It invites joy, tears, toe-tapping, pride and shame and maybe an occasional goose bump.”

Of all of his films, Burns is probably best known for his work on the hallmark PBS documentary The Civil War. Fifteen years after its premiere, the film is still the highest rated series in the history of PBS. It captured more than 40 major film and television awards, including two Emmy Awards and two Grammy Awards.

Burns will likely address the lessons learned from history in his commencement address. That’s because much of his work has focused on American history and important Americans such as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Charles Lindbergh, in addition to Anthony and Stanton, Jack Johnson, and jazz greats Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, among many others.

A committee composed of the senior class officers and a group of eight faculty and staff members met several times throughout the year to discuss potential speakers. Ultimately, Farrington selected Burns from a broad list of recommended speakers that included public officials, entertainers, academics, and others.

A multiple Emmy Award winner, Burns has been making films for more than 30 years. Since the Academy Award-nominated Brooklyn Bridge in 1981, Burns has gone on to produce some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries ever made and has been recognized with the most important awards and honors in his field. His many accomplishments have made him a quite popular commencement speaker in recent years.

--Bill Doherty

Photo by Lisa Berg, General Motors/courtesy Florentine Films

Posted on Sunday, April 23, 2006

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