2012 Commencement Address
Mike Peters, creator of the cartoon strip Mother Goose & Grimm and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from WUSTL in 1965 and was selected to address the class of 2012.
My fraternity brothers reminded me, or let me know, that my first degree here at Washington University was an honorary degree, so, thank you for the second honorary degree that I had here.
I’m honored to have my wife and my daughter, who surprised me last night — my wife is the one who should be making the speech — and my sister is back there and my niece and my best friends from Sigma Chi and my best friends from CBC (Christian Brothers College High School) are here, so thank you so much. And my mother, I hope, is here looking down on me.
And, as the chancellor said, she had a TV show called The Charlotte Peters Show. It was five days a week and she sang, she danced. It was like Oprah and I Love Lucy, all in the same show. She would have movie stars on and politicians and stuff. And, we, my sister — I can’t see her here, but I think she will agree with me — that we were famous. There she is (sees his sister)!
We were sort of famous being in the limelight of my mom because of her show. I mean, everybody knew of Pat (sister) and Mike when she had her show because she would always talk about us.
Here’s a story that you never heard, and I thought was kind of apropos. In my freshman year of high school, I would get phone calls from girls who I did not know, and they would ask me to go to their prom. And since I couldn’t get a date anywhere else, I would say, “Absolutely.”
Then, I would go get a tuxedo and wait for them to come to my door and, because I couldn’t drive, and so the mother and father came and the girl. I would introduce her, you know, to me. Then, we would go get in this car.
While we were in this car, on the way to the prom, the mother would say, “You know, Gladys is musical.” And I said, “Really?” And she would say, “Yes, would you like to hear Gladys play some time?”And I said, “Yeah.”
Then, the mother brought a violin out and gave it to Gladys, and Gladys would start playing all the way to the prom. I didn’t know what to do. I just sat and listened, and, at the end, (said) “Very good.” You know, what do you do? Then, we went to the prom.
The next girl was Monica or somebody. I introduced myself. We get in the mother’s car. The mother says, “You know, Monica is musical.” And I said, “Of course, she is.” Then, Monica would take an oboe out from the driver’s seat and start playing it. And I would sit there and kind of really appreciate it now. It was kind of fun. And, then, we would go on to the prom.
It wasn’t until I was 30 years old that I realized they were auditioning for my mom’s show. I didn’t realize that. I thought any girl you took to a prom brought a musical instrument and would play for you, you know, as a thank-you for inviting me, and the first girl I invited out and to a prom, and she came out and didn’t have a musical instrument. I thought she was dissing me. I thought, “What a put-down,” you know.
But, as you can see, I lived, as the chancellor said, I grew up about two miles from here in a place called Dogtown. I was a weird little kid.
I had, I was cross-eyed. So, one of my eyes was always looking at my other eye. I was lazy-eyed, one eye was always like that, and any picture I had always had me smiling, but it was sad, this cross-eyed kid.
And I was very skinny. I had a concave chest. Once, it was so concave — Marian (wife) doesn’t know this — I did eat my cereal out of the concave when I was watching TV one time, but I never told you about it.
But the worst thing was, I had this horrible stutter. It wasn’t just a stammer, it wasn’t an “Uh-uh-uh,” like that. It was an “Eeerrrrggghh,” like this.
And my mom would introduce me to 100 people because she had this TV show, and she would say, “Hi, this is my son, Mike. He’s a future president of the United States. Say hello, Mike.” And I’d look up cross-eyed, and I’d go, “Eeerrrggghh,” and people would go, “Oh, Jesus,” and then kind of turn away, they were embarrassed.
So then, I started drawing because I thought, if I drew, I wouldn’t have to open my mouth. I could just do a drawing, I’d give it to a girl and she’d say “Thank you,” and then she’d say “What’s your name?” And I’d go, “Eeerrrggghh,” and she’d go, “Oh, Jesus,” you know, like that. And so I learned to kind of keep my mouth shut and to draw. And I never really talked very much, and I never went outside all that much.
This is when I’m like 10 years old, until this one day, Pat, my sister, we walked back from St. James at Midnight Mass, back to our house. Our parents had put out all the Christmas gifts. My mom gave me this gift, and I opened it up, and she had made me a real-live Superman suit.
Now, this is at a time that no kid had a Superman suit. They weren’t doing that then. I looked down, I was like, “I can’t believe this.” I’m looking like that guy in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when he opens up the Ark of the Covenant and the light shines and the guy is like this, well, that was the way I was, except that guy was a Nazi so his face melted off. But I was like, I couldn’t believe this.
And so I took it upstairs, and I put on this costume. And I felt like I could do anything. I felt like I was faster than a speeding bullet. I was more powerful than a locomotive. I could leap tall buildings in a single bound. I truly felt enabled. It was a good thing. So I wore it everywhere. I wore it to church. I wore it to St. James once and then the nuns sent me home.
But, usually during the summer, I would sit in my room, just kind of drawing because I wouldn’t have to talk, and then if I saw anybody outside doing something bad, like somebody throwing trash out the window of their car, I would go to my closet and put on my Superman suit and then walk down to my steps and then fly over to the trash, then land and pick up the trash, then fly back to my house and then put it in my trash can. And then take off my suit and put it back up.
Well, this was at a time, I was 10, 11, this was at a time when many boys (like my friend Bruce just told me) was making money by mowing the lawn and stuff like that or by joining a baseball team or learning football. And I was still running around, cleaning streets in my Superman suit. And my mom did not think I was growing up to be a normal kid, so she sent me to an all-boys military Catholic high school. An all-boys military Catholic high school.
It was a Christian school for the criminally insane, you know. It was this school — I mean, it’s not military anymore and it’s one the best boys schools. But, they taught you, they had you carry M1 rifles and we were there, with a picture of Jesus on one side and then Gen. George Patton on the other. So it was a weird school that taught you to love people, and then kill them. You know, it was Our Lady of Armageddon; it was this weird, strange school.
I didn’t know what to do there. All I knew was that I was an artist, and they didn’t have any art school at that time at this school. So I realized in the boys’ room at the school — and I didn’t think about this until I was 40 and then I thought, “Now, that was odd” — in the boys’ room, guys always draw dirty picture in the stalls. Sometimes. And so I would do a picture of a naked lady, but then sign my name, Mike Peters, underneath it, because I wanted people to know I was an artist and I should be viewed.
My mom was trying get me over stuttering, and so she said the only way to get over stuttering is by getting in front of the people. So she had me join the CBC cheerleading team, and I would get on top of a 10-man pyramid, because I was concave, the skinniest kid, and I would have a megaphone, and I’d say to 1,000 people, give me a (stuttering) C-C-C. And 1,000 people would go (stuttering) C-C-C! And it became the stuttering cheer of CBC. It was a fabulous thing.
So all I did mainly at that school was draw. I was with the school paper and all this kind of stuff. I was in this one class, Mr. Morgan’s class, and this buddy of mine and I, we would sit there and I’d draw an airplane and then pass it over to him, and then he would draw a tank blowing up the airplane, and then he’d pass it over, and then I would have a guy with a bazooka blowing up the tank.
So Mr. Morgan caught us and put us in the last row of his class, next to the window. He called that row his vegetable garden. He said if you get nothing else out of this class, you will get sunlight. And then maybe through the process of photosynthesis, you will grow and flourish.
Well, like 20 years later, I get asked to come back to the school. They want to give me an award and put me in the Hall of Fame, which is ironic because I was always in trouble for doing these cartoons and now they want to give me an award for it.
So I decide, since Mr. Morgan was still there, I thought I’d go back to St. Louis and then go through my yearbook and see how he looked and I could draw him in front of him and then he can’t get mad because I’m an adult now. So I go back to St. Louis, I start looking through my yearbook, which was fascinating, and I get to Mr. Morgan’s picture and obviously, I had taken the yearbook and gone, “er, errrgghh,” like this to him, and so he signed it and he said, “Dear Mr. Peters, you had better start growing up real soon because, remember, you can’t always draw cartoons.” No, no, that’s great.
OK, so, after that, I get into the art school at Washington University. I meet the girl of my dreams just a block down in front of the Sigma Chi house. I can’t believe, I mean, huge eyes, and I love her to death. But I didn’t know that her father was the dean of students at the time. My grades, now, were not the best. I was spending a lot of my time in bear skin and Thurtene Carnival and the yearbook and the newspaper and all this kind of stuff.
So he thought I was going to be out, you know, out of the school in my junior year. And so I get here, I was taking summer school every year, I’m sorry to say that. So I get here and, on the first day of my junior year, and I come into art school and the dean of the art school, Dean McKay, called me into his office and I hadn’t done anything, he just called me in. He said, “I see here you’ve been taking summer school every year.”
I said, “Yeah,” you know.
He said, “We can’t do that any more. You have to actually make good grades here.”
And, of course, Marian’s father kept thinking that I was no threat. He had been picking out these guys all for the two years that I was dating his daughter. He was picking out engineers and lawyers and doctors, and, no, really, Protestant engineers and Protestant lawyers and Protestant doctors. And here she brings home a stuttering, cross-eyed Catholic cartoonist. This is not what he wanted.
So, the dean says you have to actually pass with good grades. So I don’t know what to do. So I go to my professor that I had the year before, his name was Mr. Brunell, and I told him what the dean said.
Now, here, I’m finally getting to my point, you guys. I tell him what the dean says. And I said, “What should I do? How can I do this?”
He gave it some thought. Of course, Mr. Brunell gave it thought if you asked him his name. You’d say, “What is your name?” And he would (long pause) … “Brunell.” He was sitting there for about two minutes, long, long two minutes.
And he says, “You like drawing cartoons, don’t you?” And he says, “Why don’t you do cartoons in all your art classes?”
I said, “What do you mean?”
He said, “When you go to figure drawing class, exaggerate the figures, make them look like cartoons. When you go to design class, design cartoons. When you go to painting class, paint cartoons.”
And I said, “Won’t they get mad?”
And he said, “It’s OK. You’re flunking, Mike. It’s all right.”
So I started doing that. I started doing cartoons in all my classes, and I got my report card that first semester, and they were all As and Bs. All As and Bs. (applause) Well, you should applaud if you knew me.
Marian’s father tried to — they stopped him from jumping off the Eads Bridge. It was the worst thing in the world to him.
And so here’s the deal. Here’s the deal. A bunch of you are going to be lawyers, or doctors, or engineers, or artists, or whatever. There are some of you — just a few, maybe, or maybe larger than that — when you leave here, you haven’t the faintest idea what you’re going to be doing. When you leave this campus, you don’t know what you’re going to be doing. You’re going to be, you know, walking out there, looking in the newspaper or Craigslist or whatever.
My suggestion is, for those of you who don’t know what you want to be, try to write down the things you love. They may be stupid things, but write down the things you love. I love watching movies, I love drinking beer, I love whatever. But write these things down. Then try to, for six or seven months, try to get a job in those things you love. It doesn’t have to be beer and movies, but try to make it. Last night, all of the people who are going to be getting honorary degrees, the thing we all have together is we love what we do. We love what we do.
One quick story and I’m done.
There was a girl who came up to me in Dayton, Ohio, and she said, “My friends tell me I have a funny voice, and I would like to do commercials or something. I’ve gone around Dayton and can’t find anything, and I went to Los Angeles and tried to do funny voices, and I can’t do anything. What do you suggest?”
I said, “Go back. Don’t take no, just go back.”
So she went back. For the last 22 years, she’s been Bart Simpson, she’s been the voice of Bart. She makes a billion dollars. She makes so much money, but she’s, she’s also a Scientologist, but she makes so much money and loves what she does.
So Marian and I, last week, we went to go see The Avengers. We love the Avengers.
And it hit me. It hit both of us that you guys are like The Avengers right now. You are our superheroes. There’s no stopping how far you can go. You’re more powerful right now than a locomotive. You can leap tall buildings in a single bound. Do you understand?
You, the class of 2012, you are Superman!