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Which US presidents went back to high school ... for commencement?

The Councilman? OK. The Mayor? Not bad. The President? Now that's a high school commencement speech.

By Staff writer / May 15, 2010



At many high school graduations this spring, principals will stand on stage, look upon the proud/eager/bored faces of students and parents, and think the same thing.

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“Why couldn’t we get President Obama to talk,” they’ll fume, as some hapless LIP (Local Important Person) puts the audience to sleep.

Yes, Kalamazoo Central High School landed Mr. Obama as its commencement speaker this year. It won an academic self-promotion contest run by the Department of Education.

The administration says this will be an annual thing, so there’s always next year for you runners-up. But in general, presidents give graduation talks at high schools about as often as they sign bipartisan social legislation into law. Which is to say, rarely.

Colleges? That’s another story. Typically, presidents will address the graduating class of a military service academy, plus one or two others. Notre Dame alone has had six US presidents as speakers, including Obama on May 17 last year.

Even First Ladies get in on the action. Michelle Obama delivers the commencement address at George Washington University Sunday.

But six is about the total number of modern presidential high school commencement speeches, according to records of the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Some presidents have addressed teenagers due to a personal connection. Bill Clinton, for one, spoke at his daughter Chelsea’s 1997 graduation from Washington’s Sidwell Friends School. He told the crowd he’d asked Chelsea what to say.

“Her reply was, ‘Dad, I want you to be wise, briefly,’ ” said Mr. Clinton.

Other presidents sought to highlight some aspect of a school. George H.W. Bush in 1991 spoke to graduates of the James H. Groves High School in Seaford, Del., then one of the few night schools accredited to grant a regular high school diploma.

Then there was Lyndon Johnson. On May 29, 1964, he addressed the senior class at Johnson City High School in Texas – from which he had graduated 40 years before.

Talk about returning in triumph.

“I only wish the people could be here now who thought then that it would take me 40 years to get my diploma,” said LBJ.

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