Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Sunny Side of the Speech

The SJ-R goes light-hearted with an entertaining editorial today. The paean to summer reads similar to a commencement speech in that it advises us to take advantage of the many wonderful opportunities that await while taking care to avoid potential regrets. That is how I was able to predict, after reading the first couple of paragraphs of today’s editorial, the reference to sunscreen that was forthcoming. For sunscreen and light-hearted commencement speeches are forever linked in pop culture.

The SJ-R bows to habitual letter-to-the-editor contributor Milford Franks for championing the use of sun protective ointments. I must point out, however, that the dispensing of practical advice under the guise of profundity as it relates to sunscreen clearly belongs to Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich.

Schmich penned a column in 1997 that addressed graduating seniors at a fictional commencement exercise. Her first bit of advice: wear sunscreen. The column went on to serve up other nuggets based on her earned experiences - some perfunctory, some profound. But it was her strong and unexpected endorsement of sunscreen that gave the column life far beyond her regular readership.

The column eventually went into wide distribution throughout the Internet where it was often attributed to author Kurt Vonnegut in a speech he supposedly, but didn’t, deliver to MIT grads. An Australian actor recorded the words over a techno beat and it received extensive radio play Down Under and here in the States. And an unknown number of commencement speakers borrowed the sunscreen phrase to inject a bit of humor into their own addresses. Just this year, a particularly uninspired high school principal in Florida read the entire speech almost word-for-word to her graduating seniors. Unfortunately, she didn’t acknowledge that the words were someone else’s, a little thing that people in her field often refer to as plagiarism and often respond to with strict punition. Throughout it all, Schmich has remained pretty much unknown as its author.

I’m not suggesting that the SJ-R is guilty of plagiarism for delivering sunscreen advice in the same spirit with which Schmich did. Nor am I discrediting Franks’ fine work in the area of skin care. It's just that Schmich has for too long remained submerged in the pool of anonymity while others have taken to the highest deck chair and delivered her signature sentiment to those about to face life’s harmful rays.

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