History Department
History Department

History Commencement Ceremony 2008

Thu, May 22, 2008

Schwartz graduated from The University of Texas in 1979 with a Bachelor of Arts with Special Honors in Plan II and specialized in History. In 1984, he earned his Doctor of Jurisprudence from the university’s law school.

Chair Alan Tully recognized the graduates for their accomplishments and the faculty that had received several teaching excellence awards this year. Prof. David Oshinsky, who had suggested Schwartz for the commencement speech, introduced him to the graduates and their families and friends who had gathered at the Recreational Sports Center at the university. More than 150 of the 250 graduating students participated in the commencement ceremony on May 16, 2008.

Schwartz immediately expressed his hope that they wouldn’t regret inviting him. Both his parents were in attendance, and he admitted to the audience that his mom had thought about bringing a sign saying, “Applaud.” Schwartz said he hoped that wouldn’t be necessary, but to make sure the audience did applaud, he raised his arms and flapped them as if preparing for flight, commanding everyone to “applaud wildly and with genuine enthusiasm each time I do this.” It worked, and he was off to a good start.

“He intentionally ordered an over-sized graduation gown, because that's going be part of his speech,” explained his father backstage. His father and mother surveyed the various faculty putting on their robes as they prepared for the ceremony--some well over 6-foot and broad shouldered. His dad commented to his wife, “He’d probably have preferred that size, or even his,” pointing to one of the tallest faculty members. His wife readily agreed. (One could only wonder how this was to play out.)

Schwartz told the crowd that he was a liberal arts graduate of The University of Texas. “And I have a job!” he cheered to resounding applause.

And the purpose of the oversized graduation gown--he acknowledged that the department had probably “expected someone of more…impressive stature.” (Let’s just say, physically speaking, Schwartz is less than the average height of the American male, which is 5’10”; "I'm 5'3" and some change, if you want to get specific.") In further explanation, he told a story about meeting a colleague for the first time in person a few years ago.

“John!” his colleague said, “I had a completely different mental image of you!” He stopped himself from going any further, but they both knew what he was referring to.

“I know,” Schwartz said, “I write taller.” The crowd loved it, and erupted in laughter.

He continued by congratulating them for their accomplishment, telling them that the university is a whole lot harder to get into today than it was when he was an undergraduate. Schwartz said he’d chosen a liberal arts major over a more trade-oriented degree because he wanted an education and to learn “how to learn.” He’s realized over and over again that that’s really a lifelong process and that his liberal arts education really had prepared him for this.

A liberal arts degree makes a person more adaptable and flexible and “you can fake anything. Because—this is important life wisdom here—you will always feel like a fraud,” Schwartz emphatically said.

A case in point: he was trying to land his first national journalism job at Newsweek after doing freelance work for them. The editor had told him he was on his list of people to hire, but the job offer hadn’t happened. So Schwartz called, and informed the editor that he was moving to New York, and asked if would like to hire him. The editor said, “Yes.” He later found out that that same week, the editor’s best writer had quit. Take note: don’t be afraid to ask, just get your foot in the door any way you can.

A year into his job at Newsweek, the business editor of the magazine offered him a promotion, and he accepted. But he thought he should honestly tell him that he didn’t really know anything about business, to which the editor replied, “Read a book.”

Again more applause and laughter, but seriously, “that’s what Liberal Arts students do!” he emphasized.

So how did this liberal arts major end up as a science reporter for The New York Times? You guessed it: he faked it--well, sort of.

The Washington Post needed a science writer. He convinced them that since he would be covering the Food and Drug Administration, he was amply qualified, since the job was primarily about law, regulation, and business, and he’d learn the science part by reading a book. They went for it, and he got the job.

Now, as the science reporter for The New York Times, he covers such space-age agencies as NASA. He shared another piece of wisdom that the seasoned astronauts told him they tell the rookie astronauts before going on their first mission, “Don’t forget to look out the window.”

Schwartz added, “You can get so caught up in everything you have to do, fulfilling every objective, hitting those marks, that you lose sight of what a tremendous adventure you're on.”

Some final career and life tips:
“Read a newspaper every day--I have to say that, because I work for The New York Times, but it's really true. It makes you smarter.
Call your mom and dad for no reason!!
And finally, write taller!”

His wonderful sense of humor, wit, and self-effacing demeanor won the crowd over, so that by the end of his speech, he didn’t just get applause, he got a standing ovation. Now that’s one tall Texan!

By Martha-Gail Moore

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