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Spinney highlights Villanova's graduation ceremony

Courtesy of the Philadelphia Daily News
May 17, 2004

Villanova's standing-room only stadium fell silent as university officials presented honorary degrees to a journalist, an investment company executive and insurance group president during yesterday's commencement ceremony.

But as soon as Caroll Spinney, aka Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, walked to the podium to receive his honorary degree, the Class of 2004 erupted with whoops and cheers - and the traditional bouncing of a beach ball.

With his first word as commencement speaker, the white-haired, bearded New Englander instantly charmed the crowd.

"Hello," he said with a wide grin.

The high-pitched, nasal voice was unmistakeable.

It was Big Bird.

"I'm your first teacher," Spinney said, still in the voice of beloved "Sesame Street" character.

The jokes and rancor that swirled in recent weeks over Villanova's choice of Big Bird as commencement speaker were forgotten as Spinney told the crowd how he dreamed big as a child and realized those dreams through the wildly popular children's show. The yellow-feathered character didn't show, but Oscar the Grouch did.

In the middle of his speech, Spinney reached into a large satchel and brought out the green hand-puppet.

Spinney asked Oscar to describe his dream.

"I try to start out each day with a smile. That way I can get it over with," the television character responded.

"What I love is trash. I love trash. Anything dirty or dingy or dusty."

Spinney, who was recently designated a "Living Legend" by the Library of Congress for his three decades on "Sesame Street," called himself one of the most famous people nobody knows. He described how he used puppetry to overcome the difficulties of being the smallest boy in his elementary school class.

His message was simple: pursue your dreams and use your success to help others.

"You have to believe in your dreams. That's the only way they will come true."

"Imagine the world the way you want it to be" and try to find a way to make it that way, Spinney said.

Near the end of his speech, Spinney again brought out Oscar, who said the audience won't remember Spinney decades from now.

"But you will remember that Oscar the Grouch was your commencement speaker," the puppet said, drawing another roar of applause and laughter.

When he finished, the more than 4,000 graduates and at least half of the relatives in the bleachers gave a standing ovation.

While some parents wished for a speaker with a more sophisticated background and message, the celebratory atmosphere kept people positive.

"A little bit of humor is great for the kids," said Michael English, who came from Clifton Heights to see his nephew graduate. "He was direct. He was to the point. That's who he is as a person."

But some students were not impressed.

"I think it's a joke because you have a puppet speaking at graduation," said Chris, a junior from Orange County, Calif., who did not want to give his last name. "I would like someone that's a bigger dog, someone that's more important."

Like many other students, Chris brought up with envy the speaker at today's University of Pennsylvania graduation - Bono, the lead singer of the rock group U2.

Sue Darr, of Churchville, Bucks County, said her daughter was initially appalled by the choice of Spinney as speaker. But Darr approved of the selection and liked his speech.

"The reality is he is someone they all identified with," Darr said. "He was much more relevant than some newscaster or some politician."

Darr called Spinney's speech "down to earth" and said it was "meaningful."

"As a person he is somebody who's done an incredible job of teaching children around the world," Darr said. Choosing Spinney as commencement speaker "is absolutely fine by me."

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"I Am Big Bird" Caroll Spinney documentary in development


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