When Oprah Winfrey speaks to Skidmore College’s Class of 2017, she’ll be speaking to a graduate of the school she built in South Africa, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls.
“It’s something that she very much wanted to do,” Skidmore spokeswoman Debra Townsend said.
And yet, securing the cultural icon’s spot at commencement, slated for May 20 at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, wasn’t a given for college officials. They needed to reach Winfrey. Enter college trustee Nancy Hamilton, a 1977 graduate and attorney who was on the legal team that represented Oprah when she fended off a hefty lawsuit from the beef industry.
“It was mostly making a connection with her [Winfrey], and we have a board member who knows her fairly well,” said Townsend, referring to Hamilton. “Some calls were made, and she agreed — and she was very delighted to do it.”
A group of Texas cattle ranchers brought the suit after Winfrey, at the apex of the mad-cow scare in 1996, had a cattle rancher-turned-vegetarian on her show. After hearing about controversial industry practices like rendering, the since-banned process of turning cow organs into feed for other cattle, Winfrey exclaimed that she would never eat another hamburger again, and beef prices plunged to a 10-year low.
The lawsuit, which Winfrey won with Hamilton's help in 1998, points to the strength of her influence, which has only grown since and is not lost on Skidmore senior class president Madison Plummer.
“I’ve always been a fan of hers. She’s always been someone who I have looked up to because she is such an influential person,” said Plummer, 21, who will stand behind the same podium as Winfrey and address her graduating classmates that day. “I feel like Oprah can connect with so many people, regardless of where they're from.”
Plummer, a South Shore, Massachusetts, native who will graduate with a bachelor’s in studio art and minors in dance and film and media studies, wants to work in the film industry after school.
“It definitely is very exciting being next to someone so, I guess, just amazing in general,” she said, thinking ahead to the ceremony.
Skidmore officials announced the Oprah coup on Thursday morning, saying she will be one of three speakers to receive honorary degrees. The others are Ann Tisch, founder and president of the Young Women's Leadership Network, and Wes Moore, a decorated Army combat veteran, youth advocate, entrepreneur, best-selling author and founder of BridgeEdU, a program for first-year college students that combines academic courses, internships and service experiences with coaching to help students succeed.
“We are honored to have three extremely passionate and exemplary advocates for education speaking at our commencement ceremony this spring,” college President Philip A. Glotzbach said in a prepared statement. “We believe the unified messages shared by Ms. Winfrey, Ms. Tisch and Mr. Moore will be a powerful reinforcement of our commitment to providing broad access to an outstanding liberal arts educational experience.”
Moore has a connection to Winfrey as host of Beyond Belief on the Oprah Winfrey Network. He also wrote the New York Times best-seller The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, which the Class of 2017 was assigned to read as freshmen.
“They’re over the moon with Oprah, but they're really excited about him [Moore] and Ann Tisch, too, so it’s just going to be an extravaganza,” Townsend said.
Winfrey will be recognized for her career in television and media as well as her vision, leadership and commitment to education through her leadership academy, officials said. She opened the South Africa school in 2007, making good on a promise she made to the nation’s former president, Nelson Mandela, six years prior.
The Skidmore graduating senior who Winfrey will be there to support is one of three students who attended the school in South Africa and is now enrolled at the college. The senior, whose name was not released by the college, will be the first of Winfrey’s students to graduate from Skidmore since the relationship between the two learning institutions formed four years ago, Townsend said.
Skidmore, as a liberal arts college that fosters creativity, met much of the criteria Winfrey sought for her students, she said.
“As you know, Oprah is very high on creative thought, as are we,” she said.
Plummer, as senior class president, has known about Winfrey speaking at commencement for a few months, but she wasn’t allowed to tell her classmates. They found out Thursday when the college made the announcement after securing Winfrey in early fall. Townsend said the news was kept quiet until Thursday at Winfrey’s request.
“Everyone is coming into classes talking about it — they’re all really excited,” Plummer said. “We’ve only gotten extremely positive responses, which makes sense. Everyone is really looking forward to commencement — as a bittersweet moment, of course.”
Winfrey joins a long list of TV and media personalities, famous authors and other celebrities to have received honorary degrees and spoken at Skidmore commencements over the years. The list includes Tim Russert, the longest-serving moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, who died of a heart attack at age 58 in 2008, three years after speaking to Skidmore graduates at the 2005 commencement. His surprising death was announced on air by Tom Brokaw, the former NBC Nightly News anchor who spoke at Skidmore's 2007 commencement ceremony.
“We’ve had, over the years, some pretty big names, but how do you top Oprah?” Townsend asked.
College officials will be meeting next week to prepare for Winfrey’s presence. The school has never had a problem seating everyone at SPAC, which holds 25,000, but this year could be different, Townsend said.
“It fills up, for sure, it has people on the lawn, but in this case we may have to discuss ticketing for student families first,” she said. “I’m sure we’ll have increased security and all that, but we don’t’ really get into those details until next week.”
Last year, Skidmore graduates heard from Grammy-winning classical pianist Emanuel Ax and Bernice Johnson Reagon, an activist, musician and cultural scholar. The college’s first commencement speaker, in 1937, was Henry T. Moore, Skidmore’s second president.
A look at TV and media personalities, famous authors and other celebrities to have spoken at Skidmore graduation over the years:
2010—Gwen Ifill. Journalist, television newscaster and author, managing editor and moderator for Washington Week and senior correspondent for NewsHour.
2007—Tom Brokaw. NBC News special correspondent and former anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News.
2005—Tim Russert. Former NBC Bureau chief and moderator of Meet the Press, political analyst.
2002—Ken Burns. Documentary filmmaker and historian.
2001—Frank McCourt. Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angela's Ashes.
1999—David Hyde Pierce. Actor and Saratoga Springs native who played Dr. Niles Crane on the NBC sitcom Frasier.
1993—Maya Angelou. Poet, author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Civil-rights activist.
1988—Arthur Miller. Playwright who penned Death of a Salesman and The Crucible.