Rock legend addresses graduates

December 14, 2018
Stephen A. Stills

Stephen A. Stills is a singer, songwriter, philanthropist and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer whose legendary six-decade career traces its origins to Gainesville. One of rock music's most enduring figures, Stills has had multiple solo works and been a part of four hugely influential groups - Manassas, Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. As renowned for his instrumental virtuosity as for writing era-defining anthems including "For What It's Worth" and "Love The One You're With," Stills is ranked No. 28 on Rolling Stone's list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, calling his acoustic picking on "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" "a paragon of unplugged beauty." Three of his albums are among Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Ladies and Gentlemen...

I am delighted to have been invited to join you on the occasion of your graduation from the storied University of Florida, and offer you my heartfelt congratulations, my immense admiration and vast appreciation for your outstanding achievement in having successfully survived college life – and much to your surprise, might have actually learned something.

In all seriousness, you obviously learned a great deal.

Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here celebrating the fact that you have not only proved yourself equal to the scholastic demand, that you carefully read the assigned material deemed pertinent by your professor to equip you with a thoroughgoing grasp of the subject matter, and write a report that reflects your level of understanding as it evolves...

...but furthermore seek out related materials that might extensively expand your understanding more fully.

And allow you to absorb a deeper comprehension, one that often can lead to one’s acquiring mastery. 

To merit recognition for having surpassed the expectation to display an advanced level of comprehension demands that your summary at the end of term offers you the opportunity to present, if well written enough, evidence of the ability to expand upon your subject well beyond the intended scope of the course, and prove yourself to have truly mastered the subject.

I find it most ironic that someone such as myself, with literally no experience in university-level studies, should presume to offer up so preposterous an observation having been invited to merely provide a few words of wisdom.

Nonetheless, I will soldier on, if for no other reason than the sheer entertainment value I might provide in sharing a few more observations I have about life itself... and the transition to life after college you are all destined to suffer.

So what IS next?

If you have had in mind a certain calling, one that might require postgraduate study, or have been recruited for a top-level job, run with it.

But if you are not yet sure of what you intend to do, at some point, while it’s still fresh in your mind, make some time to rest in solitude and reflect upon the entire course of study you have just completed.

How it unfolded from start to finish. 

Perhaps the thought that went into its progression will come to you, or perhaps it already had, to some extent.

The way certain courses impacted others, or were intertwined as your professors, in their wisdom, thought it essential for you to be surreptitiously taught to think.  

It’s meant to expand your mind, leave a little room for creativity. 

To resist the impulse to settle on the first thing that pops into your head.

You might come back to it, but at the very least you’ve given an idea room to breathe.

It’s one thing to be decisive, quite another to decisively rush to judgment, only to find that you’d made a colossal blunder, and as the unforeseen consequences come crashing about your head, realize far too late that you’d failed to properly think things through. 

I have followed my instincts with surprising success over the course of my career, but then again, instinct plays a fundamental role in shaping the desire to become a musician in the first place, and the hundreds of hours of practice that it takes to

become proficient enough to be invited to play with equally talented musicians and further develop the skills necessary to willingly adapt to the nuances of your colleges in order to achieve a unified sound, unique to your ensemble, which will thereby prepare you for the instinctive collaboration common among  accomplished musicians, and thus fully qualified  to play with almost anybody.

Provided, of course, that you have acquired the ability to sight-read effortlessly.

Sadly, my ability to learn everything by heart so quickly left me utterly deficient in this essential skill, and almost totally reliant upon talented copyists and forgiving master composers to pull my arrangements out of me over my entire career.

I would have never made the Gator Band even if I had returned for college here.

At this point, I must address the myth that I was ever a fully accredited student at this university.

It has taken me far too long and a great deal of research to fully reacquaint myself with the facts of that chaotic time in my life.

Having lived in Gainesville several different times -- during my childhood, one again as a junior at Gainesville High School and a year later for a few months in an attempt to realize my dream of attending the university -- I arrived here having completed my high school studies at a fine prep school in Costa Rica, only a few short weeks after the tragic death of President Kennedy, intent upon being accepted by the only university I had any desire to attend, audaciously seeking to commence my studies at mid-year, after the winter break.

My records had scattered along with my family, so I had little in my possession to convince the registrar that I had even finished high school, let alone qualified for admission.

After a flurry of persistence, my records did arrive but too late to review in time for such an extraordinary request.

I recall some concern being voiced about the disparity between my grades and the uncommonly high marks I had received for my College Entrance Exam and SAT test scores. 

Or that I had been educated in Spanish.

I was asked to attend the university’s remedial prep school, and told that I had been granted provisional admission to the University of Florida.

I received an A+.

The catch was that I had to wait until the following fall term to begin my freshman year.

So I made my way to New Orleans and got the first job I applied for: singing in a Bourbon Street Folk Music club.

I quickly tired of the chaos of upper Bourbon Street and made my way to New York City.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Eighteen months after my departure from Gainesville, The Buffalo Springfield put an end to my elusive college career. But my love for the University of Florida has remained undiminished since 1953, when I first laid eyes on her as a mere second-grader at J.J. Finley Elementary School.

Congratulations Graduates!

Go Gators!

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