I was at the graduation ceremony at Ohio State University a few weeks ago to see my son get his diploma (Summa Cum Laude!), but I also got to hear a few speeches. Forty-nine percent of those gathered, I’d guess, didn’t enjoy listening to President Obama (51 percent did, I guess), but everyone seemed to enjoy OSU President E. Gordon Gee, at least for a few minutes (it was a long talk).
Gee’s memorable statement was an impassioned plea: “Never, never let a bigoted remark stand!” He pronounced it slowly, emphatically, with clenched fist, if memory serves me. The stadium crowd, with 10,000 graduates and perhaps 30,000 family and friends, stopped his speech with applause.
Imagine our surprise when we heard the news of the past week or so that Mr. Gee made bigoted comments against Catholics (among others). He called it an ill-fated attempt at humor at a meeting (someone had recorded it), talking about Notre Dame and football: “You just can’t trust those damned Catholics!” (laughter in the room). One would think that a Mormon leader, such as Gee, would be especially sensitive to religious bigotry.
This country has had a long fight with anti-Catholic bigotry; Irish, German, Italians—none of them were the same as most of the earliest Anglo settlers here. These days, isn’t there at least some discomfort with the Latin American immigrants on the basis of their religion? (I know, it’s always more complicated than that—it was for the Germans, Italians, and Irish, too.) But there is no room in this country for bigotry, period.
OSU directors knew of Gee’s comments as early as March, so we know his speech (and subsequent retirement) did not come out of the blue. It’s too bad, really. His welcome words sound like empty words now, little more than an attempt at damage control. He was right, but it just goes to show: actions speak louder than words.
OSU graduation photo by John Feister