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05.17.10

The 30 All-Time Graduation Speakers

As commencement rolls out across the country, legends and celebrities trot out for a final speech. From Tom Brokaw to Marian Wright Edelman, The Daily Beast tallies the speakers who’ve sent the most college graduates on their way.

Once the sole province of college presidents, politicians, academics, and other people of sufficiently dry substance, college graduation speeches have become incrementally faddish over the past half-century. Glenn Beck delivered Liberty University’s address on Saturday; Lisa Kudrow will appear before Vassar’s Class of 2010 this week; last week, Alec Baldwin addressed New York University’s graduating class—it dovetailed conveniently with his gig three days later hosting the season finale of Saturday Night Live.

Click image to view the rankings of the 30 most popular commencement speakers.

Seeking to apply a bit of timelessness to one of the great American honors, The Daily Beast spent last week tabulating the most prolific commencement speakers of the past 50 years. In uncovering these graduation speech all-stars, several trends emerged. A global perspective helps, whether former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan or U.N. ambassadors Andrew Young and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. So does a job as a television talking head, whether Tom Brokaw or Ted Koppel or Cokie Roberts. And a Nobel Peace Prize doesn’t hurt, either (Oscar Arias Sanchez, Desmond Tutu).

And looking at the top five, while it helps to be a national leader who also smashed through various glass ceilings (Marian Wright Edelman, Madeleine Albright, Elizabeth Dole), it’s even better to be a Bill. The runner-up, Bill Clinton, has given a commencement address 30 times. The all-time champion, Bill Cosby, has shared his wisdom-laced humor with no less than 37 outgoing senior classes.

To compile the ranking, we culled through five decades of speakers at 50 leading schools across the country—a sample that included liberal arts colleges, and large private and state universities.  With an initial list of repeat orators (we discounted university presidents speaking at their own school, of course), we scoured through news clips and public records to pinpoint who amassed the most speeches. The numbers we compiled, if anything, are conservative: There are surely some speeches that fell under the radar. But they effectively measure which speakers have transcended fads. Yes, there are a lot of presidents, but there are far more surprises, from cartoonists, to poets, to corporate executives. For the results, click here.

Clark Merrefield and Lauren Streib reported these rankings.