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Rumors swirl around MIT Commencement 'speeches' by Kurt, Click and Clack

Before there was Kurt Vonnegut, there were Click and Clack.

They are the authors of a real speech, albeit tongue in cheek, delivered via radio in the real world, composed by real alumni -- not to be confused with a Commencement speech supposedly delivered at MIT by Kurt Vonnegut this year, according to a pervasive Internet rumor (see page 5).

Tom Magliozzi (SB '58), and his brother Ray (SB '72), alias Click and Clack of the popular Car Talk show on NPR radio, had their say during their June 5 broadcast, one day before MIT's 1997 Commencement.

Reading alternately, Tom (Click) and Ray (Clack) addressed the parents of graduates:

RAY: We all know that your sons and daughters have plenty of incentive to sit through this long, drawn out self-congratulatory ritual��������������������������� we've still got their diplomas��������������������������� We don't fork them over until the very last minute.

TOM: Of course.

RAY: ���������������������������You, on the other hand, need incentive. So as your graduation speakers today, we will begin by reading the menu for the reception immediately following our remarks....

TOM: Do you know, if we had been standing at MIT's graduation, I think we would have gotten a resounding applause from that -- but they didn't invite us.

Responding by letter, President Charles M. Vest noted a specific element that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan brought to Commencement which Click and Clack could not match. His reply was as follows:

Dear Click '58 and Clack '72:

I was sorry to learn of your disappointment at not being asked to deliver the main address at this year's commencement exercise. It had been my understanding that you don't usually care for exercise -- especially in the open air -- and that you therefore wouldn't be interested in ours.

On the other hand, as alumni, you will appreciate the fact that we have some fairly eccentric students and faculty here at the Institute, so the idea of having you two gentlement as graduation speakers is invariably floated each spring.

This year, as always, there was a strong (but murky) undercurrent of support for you as commencement speakers. Still, even your most ardent backers had to admit that there was one crucial area in which your qualifications could not match those of your fellow alumnus, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan '72.

As you know, the United Nations has a really spiffy flag. Because Secretary-General Annan was featured as this year's speaker, we had a legitimate excuse to fly the U.N. flag on the dais and also to hang it anywhere else we wanted to. You can imagine how useful such a flag can be when you want to cheer up a drab corner of the campus or decorate a really big space like an auditorium or athletic cage.

If Car Talk, or even Dewey, Cheetham & Howe -- had possessed a similarly attractive flag, we might have been able to use you, but, as it was, we felt that we really had to go with the secretary-general for aesthetic reasons.

You will be pleased to know, however, that Secretary-General Annan was a great success. The graduating seniors were especially moved when he described his challenge at the U.N. as, "a little like trying to climb Mount Washington in a '63 Dodge Dart." He was also warmly applauded when he urged the U.S. Senate to give him "their share of the gas money" for U.N. operations worldwide.

Thus, despite your absence, MIT's 1997 commencement exercise was a smashing success. Please rest assured, however, that we will keep you in mind for future ceremonies. If you do get a flag, be sure to let us know. Also, it would help your candidacies if you could get through a complete sentence without breaking into sputtering guffaws. As you may recall from your own graduations, the participants want the speakers to be brief and to the point. I know that brevity is not regarded as your most notable quality.

Finally, I would like to urge you to start sending us really large donations. Tuition pays only half the cost of an MIT education, and research universities are at least as hungry for contributions as is WBUR. So, send money.

Technically yours,

Charles M. Vest, President, MIT

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 13, 1997.

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