Yes, Oprah is the most powerful woman in show business, but he was the leader of the free world. If we were able to be sitting in a bar in Kalamazoo, this would be a fun argument to have over a cold pop.

Numerous big, as in "A:-List" celebrities are stepping up and delivering virtual commencement addresses, especially this weekend, to fill the gap of not being to have actual ceremonies due to the pandemic. "Former Chicago resident" (if  you've been watching The Last Dance", you get the joke) Oprah Winfrey's is giving one today on Facebook Watch. (She's also doing a separate address for the Chicago schools.) LeBron James is behind an event on Saturday, that will air on all the major television networks.

But any discussion, I believe, begins and ends with Kalamazoo Central's 2010 graduation. The efforts of a group of students won them the President of the United States to speak at their graduation.

If you weren't around here at the time, here's the quick backstory: (check out ABC's Diane Sawyer's opening remark and Von Washington's understatement at the front in this piece.) Early in 2010, the White House announced a contest to win the President coming to your town to give the commencement speech.  Schools had to prepare a video and submit it. As I remember it, there were several rounds leading up to the final winner announcement. Then the news came out that Kalamazoo had won Barack Obama to speak at their graduation. Pride and pandemonium.

Logistics: Keep in mind, as lovely as the KC auditorium is, that, nor the field house, is going to fit everyone in for a ceremony of this magnitude, and, of course, the Secret Service has their requirements. Looking back at it, and having known several local police officers, there is an impressive, almost a military, precision that goes into this or any event involving the President.

University Arena at WMU was chosen for the event; Monday, June 7th. Tickets, obviously, were hard to come by.

Graduation Day finally arrived.

(Dave Benson personal collection)
(Dave Benson personal collection)

For the grads themselves it was a much longer than usual day, as they were sequestered together several hours before the actual graduation ceremony for the rehearsal, but with that, a surprise "meet and greet" with Obama, privately.

As seven o'clock approached, family members and spectators filled the arena. The graduates marched in. The President was introduced and the event began.

(The Obama White House via YouTube)

President Obama spoke about personal responsibility, praised the school's efforts to achieve higher standards, shared stories from his own youth, and challenged the graduates to take the opportunity they were given and build on that, as the school's motto says, 'on the shoulders of Giants'.

Then, the stuff, memories are really made of: getting your diploma, walking across the stage, and shaking hands with the President of the United States, and next to him, Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

And, just as quickly, after the procession ended, and Obama and Duncan had left, the arena had emptied, and the lights were turned off, the Class of 2010 became a part of history.

Enter your number to get our free mobile app

A Nearly Empty Kalamazoo


More From WKFR