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'Big Bird' Keeps the Boobirds Away

Susan Notes: I'd say Big Bird would be a better college speaker than the third tier Bush administration functionaries many colleges opt for.

The famous voice silences critics of his choice as Villanova's graduation speaker.

VILLANOVA - Approaching the podium, a tentative Big Bird sized up the crowd.

Despite his many valuable insights into numbers and letters, in Spanish and in English, he knew there was a slight chance of hostility yesterday, a faint danger of being booed offstage by the very students who had once adored him.

Some of Villanova University's class of 2004 had reacted in disbelief and anger last month when news broke that their commencement speaker would be Big Bird, or rather, Caroll Spinney, the sentimental puppeteer whose major impact on American life happened while wearing an 8-foot-2 yellow-feathered canary suit and sneaking meetings with an imaginary woolly mammoth nicknamed Snuffy.

Lehigh University had secured the writer Kurt Vonnegut. The University of Pennsylvania had the rock star Bono, who, while not necessarily an intellectual heavyweight, at least had global AIDS activism to lend him gravitas.

"At first I was absolutely shocked," recalled Cara Tarity, 22. "Then, I didn't know what to think. I mean, UPenn got Bono and we get Big Bird?

"But today, all my thoughts have changed. Actually, hearing him speak was amazing. It really did it for me."

Perhaps it was the sunny day. Or the slight breeze, sweeping the clouds away.

Somehow Spinney - 70, winner of four Emmys and two Grammys, educator of an estimated 120 million children in 148 countries, described by the Library of Congress as a "living legend" - managed to win over his audience with a single opening word, spoken directly to their childhood subconscious in the unmistakable kind voice of his feathered alter ego:

"Hello," he said as Big Bird, pausing while a cheer grew in the crowd of 1,550 undergraduates, "I am your first teacher."

Outrage expressed in the school newspaper that the prestige of Villanova and $112,000 of tuition should have brought something more than a "preschool icon" had apparently melted. Afterward, students said Spinney had brought their 20 years of education full circle. Having taught them how to cope with anger, fear and friendship, he was a comforting presence on the day they were launched into full adulthood.

"He really was our first teacher," said Ian Bush, 22. "He gave you the foundation for the education that is ending here, 20 years later."

Bush and his roommates were in fact "pumped" about Spinney's appearance, buying the Big Bird dolls on sale at the Villanova bookstore and reading Spinney's recent book: The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch): Lessons From a Life in Feathers.

Parents said the "Sesame Street generation" deserved no less than Big Bird, prompting discussion as to whether the Class of 2025 might find Teletubbies Tinky Winky and Laa-Laa gibbering at their graduation.

Spinney's speech was a scant 11 minutes, recounting his childhood as the smallest boy with the most girlish first name, his first puppet show at age 8 with a stuffed snake in 1942, his Korean War service, and his unwavering faith that puppeteering on a popular children's show was his destiny.

Spinney looks eccentric enough to have lived Big Bird for 35 years: His longish white hair and white beard make him reminiscent of Gandalf the Grey, the fatherly wizard in Lord of the Rings. On his back was an odd moss-green blazer with bone buttons. Over that he wore black robes and a sash symbolizing the honorary doctorate of humane letters bestowed by Villanova yesterday.

His manner was awkward, until he reached down and yanked out what appeared at first to be a ratty green towel. It was Oscar the Grouch, who, in a swaggering voice, explained his grumpy philosophy: "I like to start every day with a smile. That way I get it over with!"

Then Oscar broke into song: "Oh, I love trash. Anything dirty or dingy or dusty."

"In 30 years, you may not remember who this guy is," Oscar said of Spinney. "But you will remember that Oscar the Grouch was your commencement speaker."


— Matthew P. Blanchard
Philadelphia Inquirer


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