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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

A Midwesterner In Harvard Yard

Brokaw Brings Graduates the Wisdom Of a World Traveler and the Common Man

By C.r. Mcfadden

When Tom Brokaw takes to the podium as the keynote speaker in this afternoon's Class Day festivities, the eyes of many current and future world leaders will be upon him.

He's used to that.

To millions of Americans, Brokaw is the beloved anchor and managing editor of "NBC Nightly News," one of the nation's top-rated broadcast news shows.

Brokaw, 56, has covered the events that have defined American life, and he has traveled to all four corners of the world.

In the meantime, he's never lost that common touch. To those who know him well, Brokaw is at once an athlete, an academic, a joker and a journalist.

Today, the South Dakota native stands before the Class of 1996, a midwesterner in Harvard Yard.

"Tom really is the quintessential Renaissance man," says Jeffrey A. Zucker '86, the producer of NBC's "Today Show" and a former Crimson president. "He's an incredibly intelligent, sophisticated person. But he's never forgotten his roots, where he came from, both the place and the people."

"That's what makes him great," Zucker says. "That's why people connect with him."

Many expect Brokaw, a 30-year veter an at NBC, to help seniors reflect upon their goals and ambitions as they shed the confines of the academy for life in the real world.

"Too many people come out of college and take pleasure off the high board," Brokaw says in a telephone interview from the NBC studios in New York.

"They don't have the opportunity to stop and reflect about what they really want from life," he says. "You should try to develop a long-curve attitude about what really matters to you."

Midwestern Work Ethic

Brokaw grew up in a modest two-story home in Yankton, Souh Dakota, a farming community of 13,000 along the Missouri River.

With its small downtown, two main streets and local high school, Yankton is a typical Midwestern village. By sunrise, most of the residents are either at work on the farm or heading towards the factory.

Brokaw is the oldest of three sons in an Irish, working-class family. His father, "Red" Brokaw, built dams along the Missouri River for the Army Corps of Engineers and stressed the importance of a strong work ethic.

"Both sides of my family went through terrible times during the Depression. Dad felt you would do well if you worked hard," Brokaw recalls. "But they did all the right things and kept their values intact.... A life that was lived well was a reward in itself."

Although Brokaw has moved far from his boyhood home, the town has left indelible traces on his soul. Brokaw's keen judge of character, flair for common sense and no-nonsense attitude originated in Yankton, he says.

"In the Midwest, they don't kowtow to people who would be big shots," Brokaw says. "If you began to outgrow your britches, my father would be the first to know. And if he didn't know, the people on Main Street would."

All-American Boy

Like many kids coming of age in the 1950s, Brokaw spent his free time hunting and fishing, hanging around the local pool hall and splitting time among football, basketball and track.

He was the backup to star quarter back Bill A. Whisler, whose 6'3" 210 pound frame led Yankton High School to consecutive conference championships.

"Tom was a team player," says Whisler, who went on to play in the Canadian Football League. "I think he played some odd positions, and when we got ahead, he went in and did the cleanup stuff."

Brokaw got more playing time in basketball, where he was a starting guard. The future anchor's weakness, Whisler says, was his speed.

"I think they needed a calendar to time him [during track season]," Whisler says.

Brokaw took a college-prep curriculum, served as student council president and was elected homecoming king.

He also appeared alongside Joe Foss on the television program "I Have a Secret." Their secret? Both were elected governors--Foss of South Dakota and Brokaw of the 1957 Boys' State convention.

Brokaw's variety of interests earned him the respect of most peers, according to classmate Duane R. Pokorney, who now manages the liquor department at a Yankton grocery store.

"He was a red-blooded American boy," Pokorney says. "He mixed real well with everybody and could cross lines with various kids. He was very well liked."

Because of Brokaw's interest in government, many expected he would enter law or politics.

But he began eyeing a journalism career after enrolling at the University of South Dakota at Vermillion (USD) in 1958.

"It offered a chance to see a wider world," Brokaw says. "It combined all my interests in public policy, travel and advancement, an unconventional lifestyle and the opportunity to be in the middle of the events that shaped our time."

"And it paid well, too," he adds.

While at USD, Brokaw began dating Meridith Auld, a high school classmate who was the cheerleading captain and was selected Miss South Dakota in 1959.

Brokaw and Auld were married after graduation in 1962. They have three daughters: Jennifer, 30; Andrea, 28; and Sarah, 26.

Raising Small Children

During the tumultuous 1960s, Brokaw covered California politics and the civil rights movement for NBC's Los Angeles television affiliate. He was frequently bounced from one time zone to the next.

By the 1970s, he was covering the White House at the height of the Watergate scandal, reporting on the quadrennial presidential elections and anchoring the morning "Today Show" from 1976-81. In 1983, he became anchor of the "Nightly News" show.

Last month, Brokaw celebrated his 30th anniversary with NBC.

Brokaw says he found that balancing his career ambitions with the rigors of parenting was a tricky task. Yet he says he always tried to blend his personal and professional life.

He remembers bringing his daughters to the NBC studios when he was interviewing "Star Wars" superstars Billy Dee Williams and Harrison Ford.

"They couldn't get up for the 8 a.m. school bus, but they could get [to NBC] in time for that," he says.

Day in the Life

A hectic day is the norm for the NBC news anchor, as roughly 12 hours are invested in producing the 22-minute segments which millions of Americans watch each night.

With characteristic modesty, Brokaw describes his work as "not too tough."

"I show up, put on makeup and read out loud," he jokes.

In reality, Brokaw's workday begins when he crawls out of bed between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. From his home in New York, he logs onto the NBC computer system, which provides him instant access to wire reports and news dispatches from around the world.

After skimming several newspapers and checking his e-mail, Brokaw runs a 4-mile loop around Central Park with his yellow Labrador, Sage the Wonderdog.

The news anchor then travels to the NBC building in Rockefeller Center, where he chairs a 9:30 a.m. meeting, assigns stories and approves an outline for that night's broadcast.

The remainder of the day is spent researching, dealing with breaking news events and preparing his news script.

Brokaw splits up the day with a second workout, at 4 p.m. in the NBC gymnasium, where he lifts weights or rides a stationary bicycle.

"[Exercise] makes the day worthwhile," he says. "I couldn't keep this schedule if I weren't fit."

When he vacations, Brokaw often adjourns to his ranch in Montana, where he returns to his boyhood pastimes of hunting and fishing.

More Than a Pretty Face

With his baritone voice, trim physique and stylish wardrobe, Brokaw is a perfect fit for the small screen--and an easy target for print journalists.

Adam Clymer '58, the chief congressional correspondent for The New York Times, recalls speaking with Brokaw after Brokaw wrote "a good story" in 1973 about the Nixon White House.

"I said, 'Yeah, Tom, if you ever suffer a facial disfigurement, I could get you a job [in print journalism],'" says Clymer, a former Crimson president.

Competition for television viewers is keen, and anchors must balance their reporter's instinct with the need to entertain viewers.

Some have criticized television for sensationalism or distorting facts in the quest for higher ratings. But Brokaw bristles at such suggestions.

"People will not watch me or Peter Jennings or Dan Rather for our charm or our personality or our wink or our sweater unless they believe that they're being well informed," he said in a previous interview with People magazine.

A Life in Journalism

Brokaw has won numerous accolades for his reporting, including the 1989 Peabody Award and the 1992 Emmy Award.

He has reported live from the White House lawn, rooftops in Beirut, the Great Wall of China and the streets of Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm.

He conducted the first exclusive interviews with former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev and the Dalai Lama of Tibet, among others.

But Brokaw says it's all in a day's work.

"You very quickly learn they're made up of flesh and blood, and they have their own flaws as well," Brokaw says. "I remember seeing Dwight Eisenhower--this great icon of American life--and he looked like my grandfather."

In addition to Brokaw's nightly broadcasts, he has covered every presidential election for more than 30 years, and he anchors "The Brokaw Report," a series examining pressing issues confronting America.

Marvin Kalb, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, calls Brokaw "one of the most respected news anchormen in the business."

More Than Meets the Eye

When the tape is rolling and the lights are beating down upon him, Brokaw exemplifies the consummate professional journalist, offering an objective, understandable analysis of complex, heated issues.

But once the cameras stop rolling, Brokaw's congeniality and sense of humor mix with his sophistication and intellect.

Brokaw is a frequent guest on "The Late Show with David Letterman," where he often fills in after last-minute cancellations.

During screenings, Brokaw often seems bemused, poking fun at the events which he covered with stonyfaced seriousness earlier in the day. But viewers should not be surprised by his turnaround, he says.

"There's more parts to me than what I show on television for an hour each night," Brokaw says. "I'm not Johnny One-Note."

Headin' Home

Brokaw sheds his Midwestern loyalties during basketball season to root for the New York Knicks. He was distraught by their elimination by the Chicago Bulls in this year's playoffs, he says.

But Brokaw still sneaks back to Yankton every few years.

Yankton City Councillor David Hosmer says he was sitting in Gipper's, a local restaurant and bar, when he noticed that pictures of Yankton High School football players graced the walls of the building.

Conspicuously absent, however, was any tribute to the "Nightly News" anchor.

"We've never done a thing for Tom," says Hosmer, 30. "No signs, nothing. There's a lot of people here who knew him, and lots more who like him."

And so the Yankton City Council voted 6-2 on May 14 to designate the town's major artery, U.S. Highway 81, as the honorary "Tom Brokaw Boulevard."

Brokaw has agreed to attend a ceremony this August, when the street will officially be renamed in his honor, Hosmer says.

Brokaw says he was "flattered" by the award, which will immortalize his name in the town where he met his wife and buried his father.

"I've always had attachments to [Yankton]," he says.

But, he says with tongue in cheek, "I did suggest there was a speed bump in front of a beer joint that might have been more appropriate."

Midwesterner in Harvard Yard

This summer will be a busy one for Brokaw.

As in years past, he will make two commencement addresses, this year at the University of Pennsylvania and at Connecticut College.

He recently signed a contract to author a book about life in America, from her forgotten towns to her bustling cities and all in between.

He says he plans to anchor the "Nightly News" on location from Atlanta, the site of the 1996 Olympic Games. And he is covering his eighth straight presidential campaign, from the primary to the conventions to the November 5 election.

But this afternoon, Brokaw will stop at Harvard to reflect upon the past and look into the future with the Class of 1996.

He has some stories, some advice and some words of inspiration.

"The competition [in the workplace] is much keener today then ever before," Brokaw says. "But at the same time, there are more opportunities."

"That Harvard degree still carries a lot of weight across the country," he says. "It's an honor and an achievement, and I wish you well."

Brokaw should know. He's seen it all.

--Alison D. Overholt contributed to the reporting of this story.Photo courtesy of NBCTOM BROKAW

By the 1970s, he was covering the White House at the height of the Watergate scandal, reporting on the quadrennial presidential elections and anchoring the morning "Today Show" from 1976-81. In 1983, he became anchor of the "Nightly News" show.

Last month, Brokaw celebrated his 30th anniversary with NBC.

Brokaw says he found that balancing his career ambitions with the rigors of parenting was a tricky task. Yet he says he always tried to blend his personal and professional life.

He remembers bringing his daughters to the NBC studios when he was interviewing "Star Wars" superstars Billy Dee Williams and Harrison Ford.

"They couldn't get up for the 8 a.m. school bus, but they could get [to NBC] in time for that," he says.

Day in the Life

A hectic day is the norm for the NBC news anchor, as roughly 12 hours are invested in producing the 22-minute segments which millions of Americans watch each night.

With characteristic modesty, Brokaw describes his work as "not too tough."

"I show up, put on makeup and read out loud," he jokes.

In reality, Brokaw's workday begins when he crawls out of bed between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. From his home in New York, he logs onto the NBC computer system, which provides him instant access to wire reports and news dispatches from around the world.

After skimming several newspapers and checking his e-mail, Brokaw runs a 4-mile loop around Central Park with his yellow Labrador, Sage the Wonderdog.

The news anchor then travels to the NBC building in Rockefeller Center, where he chairs a 9:30 a.m. meeting, assigns stories and approves an outline for that night's broadcast.

The remainder of the day is spent researching, dealing with breaking news events and preparing his news script.

Brokaw splits up the day with a second workout, at 4 p.m. in the NBC gymnasium, where he lifts weights or rides a stationary bicycle.

"[Exercise] makes the day worthwhile," he says. "I couldn't keep this schedule if I weren't fit."

When he vacations, Brokaw often adjourns to his ranch in Montana, where he returns to his boyhood pastimes of hunting and fishing.

More Than a Pretty Face

With his baritone voice, trim physique and stylish wardrobe, Brokaw is a perfect fit for the small screen--and an easy target for print journalists.

Adam Clymer '58, the chief congressional correspondent for The New York Times, recalls speaking with Brokaw after Brokaw wrote "a good story" in 1973 about the Nixon White House.

"I said, 'Yeah, Tom, if you ever suffer a facial disfigurement, I could get you a job [in print journalism],'" says Clymer, a former Crimson president.

Competition for television viewers is keen, and anchors must balance their reporter's instinct with the need to entertain viewers.

Some have criticized television for sensationalism or distorting facts in the quest for higher ratings. But Brokaw bristles at such suggestions.

"People will not watch me or Peter Jennings or Dan Rather for our charm or our personality or our wink or our sweater unless they believe that they're being well informed," he said in a previous interview with People magazine.

A Life in Journalism

Brokaw has won numerous accolades for his reporting, including the 1989 Peabody Award and the 1992 Emmy Award.

He has reported live from the White House lawn, rooftops in Beirut, the Great Wall of China and the streets of Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm.

He conducted the first exclusive interviews with former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev and the Dalai Lama of Tibet, among others.

But Brokaw says it's all in a day's work.

"You very quickly learn they're made up of flesh and blood, and they have their own flaws as well," Brokaw says. "I remember seeing Dwight Eisenhower--this great icon of American life--and he looked like my grandfather."

In addition to Brokaw's nightly broadcasts, he has covered every presidential election for more than 30 years, and he anchors "The Brokaw Report," a series examining pressing issues confronting America.

Marvin Kalb, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, calls Brokaw "one of the most respected news anchormen in the business."

More Than Meets the Eye

When the tape is rolling and the lights are beating down upon him, Brokaw exemplifies the consummate professional journalist, offering an objective, understandable analysis of complex, heated issues.

But once the cameras stop rolling, Brokaw's congeniality and sense of humor mix with his sophistication and intellect.

Brokaw is a frequent guest on "The Late Show with David Letterman," where he often fills in after last-minute cancellations.

During screenings, Brokaw often seems bemused, poking fun at the events which he covered with stonyfaced seriousness earlier in the day. But viewers should not be surprised by his turnaround, he says.

"There's more parts to me than what I show on television for an hour each night," Brokaw says. "I'm not Johnny One-Note."

Headin' Home

Brokaw sheds his Midwestern loyalties during basketball season to root for the New York Knicks. He was distraught by their elimination by the Chicago Bulls in this year's playoffs, he says.

But Brokaw still sneaks back to Yankton every few years.

Yankton City Councillor David Hosmer says he was sitting in Gipper's, a local restaurant and bar, when he noticed that pictures of Yankton High School football players graced the walls of the building.

Conspicuously absent, however, was any tribute to the "Nightly News" anchor.

"We've never done a thing for Tom," says Hosmer, 30. "No signs, nothing. There's a lot of people here who knew him, and lots more who like him."

And so the Yankton City Council voted 6-2 on May 14 to designate the town's major artery, U.S. Highway 81, as the honorary "Tom Brokaw Boulevard."

Brokaw has agreed to attend a ceremony this August, when the street will officially be renamed in his honor, Hosmer says.

Brokaw says he was "flattered" by the award, which will immortalize his name in the town where he met his wife and buried his father.

"I've always had attachments to [Yankton]," he says.

But, he says with tongue in cheek, "I did suggest there was a speed bump in front of a beer joint that might have been more appropriate."

Midwesterner in Harvard Yard

This summer will be a busy one for Brokaw.

As in years past, he will make two commencement addresses, this year at the University of Pennsylvania and at Connecticut College.

He recently signed a contract to author a book about life in America, from her forgotten towns to her bustling cities and all in between.

He says he plans to anchor the "Nightly News" on location from Atlanta, the site of the 1996 Olympic Games. And he is covering his eighth straight presidential campaign, from the primary to the conventions to the November 5 election.

But this afternoon, Brokaw will stop at Harvard to reflect upon the past and look into the future with the Class of 1996.

He has some stories, some advice and some words of inspiration.

"The competition [in the workplace] is much keener today then ever before," Brokaw says. "But at the same time, there are more opportunities."

"That Harvard degree still carries a lot of weight across the country," he says. "It's an honor and an achievement, and I wish you well."

Brokaw should know. He's seen it all.

--Alison D. Overholt contributed to the reporting of this story.Photo courtesy of NBCTOM BROKAW

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