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Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, taking a break from their monkeying in 1925. It has nothing to do with the story below. But it's a wonderful picture.

Speech Season
Clarence Darrow’s Commencement

Interesting commencement addresses are few and very far between—Emerson at Harvard in 1838, John Kennedy at American University in 1963, the darling dour Solzhenitsyn at Harvard in June 1978. But the season of commencements is oncoming, making this the time for unearthing good old speeches to ward off against the gangrenous effects of newer ones. This one, by the great lawyer Clarence Darrow, isn’t ever talked about that I know of. Irving Stone transcribed it (from the transcription by one of Darrow’s students at the time of the address) in his biography, “Clarence Darrow for the Defense” (1941). In 1918, Darrow’s fame well established, he was invited to speak to the graduating class of the Nicholas Senn High School in Chicago. Here’s how the student remembered the occasion:

“Our glassy-eyed, pompous principal had us five hundred graduates thoroughly numbed and awed by the recital of our great responsibilities. Darrow patiently sat it out, playing with a watch chain and looking up at the ceiling as he sprawled in his dinky folding chair. Finally he was lavishly introduced with the usual long hot-air harangue if noble phraseology. Darrow ambled over to the big rostrum and leaned against it comfortably in that stooping way he had. He looked like a big easygoing janitor in the wrong place with all of those ramrod stuffed shirts around. He looked us over, turning his head in dead silence, and finally he began to chuckle.

“ ‘Look-let’s you fellows down there relax now. That was as fine a lot of bunk as I ever heard in my life, and I know darned well you youngsters didn’t believe a word of it. You’re no more fit to “go forth and serve” than the man in the moon. You’re just a bunch of ignorant kids full of the devil, and you’ve learned practically nothing to show for the four years you spent here. You can’t fool me, because I once spent four years in such a place!’ “

“The parents were shocked; the faculty was purple with rage, but naturally we students were ecstatic. I t was the only good sense we had heard in months.”

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