Daniel L. Feldman

Graduation speeches and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Citizenship Award

In New York State Politics on December 2, 2011 at 1:29 pm

Chuck Schumer had taught me that most constituents never attend any community or civic meetings. They may drive to work, or work at home, so you might not see them at subway stops either. They may never show up at any other public gathering, but they attend their child’s graduation from school. Therefore, if they see you and hear you speak at that graduation, they may well feel kindly toward you.

Including public and religious elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools, I could attend more than three dozen graduations in my district each year. Several obstacles stood in my way. I had to get invited. Schools held graduation ceremonies in late June, when negotiations on all legislation had to come to a close, so legislators like myself were under the greatest pressure to win such legislative victories as we could manage, usually requiring our presence in Albany. Also, we generally went into session at least five days a week at that time of year, and those sessions often went late at night. Finally, schools did not always bother to schedule their graduations at different times, so many overlapped or were simultaneous.

Of my political colleagues who made the graduation rounds, most gave awards – the Senator Markowitz award, the Borough President’s award, and so forth. I had won the John F. Kennedy Memorial Citizenship Award when I graduated from high school. Still a Kennedy loyalist, and not comfortable with the idea of putting my own name on an award, I decided to ask each bank in my district to underwrite enough savings bonds for me to present one to each student selected by his or her school to be the recipient of that year’s JFK Memorial Citizenship Award. My staff member, Naomi Broadwin, who herself had been the president of the Parents’ Association in P.S. 197, one of our public elementary schools, succeeded in recruiting the banks, so that elementary school winners would get $25 bonds, middle school winners $50 bonds, and high school winners (we only had a few high schools) $100 bonds. With the incentive of another award with which to recognize deserving students, all the schools eventually offered me invitations to speak.

Naomi also had the challenging task of scheduling me. Scheduling the graduation speeches proved especially challenging, but she did it. Sometimes session would end at midnight, but Naomi would have me on a seven a.m. flight out of Albany airport, arriving at JFK at eight. She would pick me up at the airport, and drive me to each of four or five schools in a morning. By eleven a.m. we would have finished, and she’d get me back to the airport for a noon return flight to Albany.

It was not easy to find something different and entertaining to say to the graduates, sandwiched, as I usually was, between other elected officials making their graduation speeches. Most of those officials were city council members, who only had to commute from Manhattan, or Democratic state senators, for whom attendance at session, in those years, was usually far less pressing, since they were in the minority. Schumer, of course, continued to speak at an amazing number of graduations when he was in Congress. Even as a U.S. Senator he hits graduations quite a bit, although in that role he gets to address college graduations with tremendous audiences.

One such day in my second or third year, I sat next to José Serrano on one of my return plane trips to Albany. Joe chaired the Consumer Affairs committee in the Assembly at that time. He later chaired Education, and after that got elected to Congress. He volunteered the anecdote he habitually used at the graduations in his Bronx district, which he said he had inherited from Stanley Simon, who had been a Bronx Borough President. It went like this:

The fellow’s mother shook him awake. “Get up! You’re late! You have to get to school!” Sleepily, he complained: “I don’t want to go to school! The teachers hate me. The kids throw spitballs at me. Give me three reasons why I have to go!” She answered, “Number one, you’re late. Number two, you’re forty-three years old. Number three, you’re the principal.”

I now had my standard joke, which I used most of the time for the next decade and a half, switching to some inferior alternative only when I could see that the real principals and teachers could not stand to hear it another year in a row.

The schedule I had to keep in those graduation weeks, though, was brutal. And in those days the Mohawk and Allegheny flights each way sometimes shook us passengers like a milkshake, broiled us, or just plain nauseated us. One year I decided that so long as I was torturing myself anyway – pounding away every day at my committee chairs and the Assembly staff and the Senate to get my legislation through, finishing session so late I couldn’t get to bed until midnight or one a.m., getting up at five to make seven a.m. flights each morning – I might as well do my subway stops too. Perhaps I found a five a.m. flight, or a 10 p.m. flight at night if session ended early enough, but somehow I added to my schedule, managing to be at my subway entrances from 6:30 to 8:30 each morning, before starting my graduation rounds. After a week or so of this, I was making my way to my seat in the Chamber at about one in the afternoon, a little late, having come straight from the airport. Helene Weinstein, who represented the district just due east of mine but who attended graduations only on a more reasonable schedule, occupied the seat just to my right at this time. She took one look at me and said with serious concern, “You should check into a hospital.”

I thanked her for caring, but assured her that I felt better than I looked, although I suppose that wasn’t saying very much. Anyway, I survived.

[Thank you to Erica Sherman,  who corrected a mis-statement, and to Jerry Skurnik, who spotted a somewhat misleading statement, in an earlier version of this post.]

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  1. Minor correction. Jose Serrano did not succeed Stanley Simon in Assembly. Simon was City Councilman from Riverdale before becoming Borough President. Serrano did run against Simon in a Primary for Borough President.

    • Jerry — I guess I should have said “Stanley Simon, a former Bronx Borough President.” I did not mean to imply that Serrano succeeded Simon. Thanks. Dan

  2. You are too kind. I feel like I’m pushing my luck now, and not that it matters so much, but it’s actually “Erica Sherman.” 🙂

    • You know, fifteen minutes after I posted the correction and the credit, it occurred to me that I might have misplaced the “a.” I will make the correction. Thanks again. Dan

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