Big Bird to speak at Commencement

Jill Brower

Caroll Spinney, the man behind Sesame Street’s legendary characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, will deliver the Commencement address to the Class of 2004 at the ceremony on Sunday, May 16.

Spinney remains an original member of the Sesame Street cast since it first aired on PBS in 1969. He was named a “Living Legend” in 2000 by the Library of Congress for his 30-plus years of playing both characters.

In 2003, Spinney published a book titled “The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch): Lessons from a Life in Feathers,” describing the life lessons he has taught, as well as learned, throughout his career.

“Big Bird has opened up new worlds to me,” he wrote.

Dr. Sally Scholz of the philosophy department nominated Spinney “because he perfectly embodies the mission of this University,” according to her nomination letter addressed to University President Rev. Edmund Dobbin, O.S.A.

Sesame Street was founded as a way to prepare inner-city children who were unable to attend pre-school for kindergarten. The show has been one of the most popular and respected children’s programs on television.

“[Spinney] has helped more than 120 million children learn their numbers and ABCs, practice openness and charity, and enjoy each sunny day,” Scholz wrote. “No single individual has done more to educate children all over the world.”

Scholz emphasized Spinney’s educational mission. “His career speaks worlds about what we do here at Villanova,” Scholz said. “We send students into the world to try to serve, and Sesame Street is a good model for that service.”

Although Spinney himself is not as recognizable as his feathered counterpart, Scholz and Dobbin feel that he has a powerful message to offer.

“Everyone knows Big Bird, but they don’t know there’s a human face with it,” Dobbin said. “This man is a world-class educator.”

The Commencement committee, which is made up of Dobbin, University vice presidents, faculty and the SGA president, considered around 40 nominees for honorary degrees and 10 for speakers.

Dobbin noted that the main objective in choosing a speaker is pleasing members of the student body, faculty and parents.

“We try to keep it from being controversial,” Dobbin said. “We want someone with a relevant message for the issues of the time.”

Scholz felt that this year’s 35th anniversary of Sesame Street made Spinney an appropriate choice.

In addition, Spinney’s international relevance also made him a strong candidate.

Dr. Moeness Amin, director of the Center for Advanced Communication, has seen firsthand the international importance of Sesame Street through his own young children, who have watched the show both in English and Arabic. He noticed not only that the show’s message translated well, but also that Big Bird’s character stood out in particular.

“The way Big Bird moves and talks is not that much different from English to Arabic,” Amin said. “The Arabic version preserves all of the dimensions of his character.”

Spinney’s speech also holds significance due to the current international situation.

“For people who keep stressing barriers between different cultures, Sesame Street comes in to cohere the world,” Amin said. “Love is love no matter where, and the show is stressing those things in all languages.”

Spinney is expected to have a profound impact on graduating seniors. “Being a puppeteer and an educator were his life’s dream,” Scholz said. “He is in a job that he loves – how many of us do that?”

SGA President Nestor Fernandez represented the student body’s voice in the selection process by being a part of the committee. “Sesame Street is a program that has been fundamental in most of our lives by teaching us all the principles that Villanova is based on: truth, love and unity,” he said.

“Spinney is an amazing choice for the Commencement speaker because he is a true Villanovan at heart. He is a perfect fit to give the last part of the senior class’ education here.”

Although Dobbin noted that his own education preceded the children’s show, he identifies with Spinney’s impact on the Class of 2004.

“It’s almost like having a great grade school teacher come and speak at your graduation,” he said.