With flip flops on his feet, Jimmy Buffett looked out at hundreds of University of Miami graduates and grabbed the pink stole that had just been draped around his neck to mark his new and lofty honorary degree.
“I started off as a bar singer in Coral Gables,” he told students. “And I got a doctorate now.”
The singer-songwriter brought his signature laid-back island style, along with lots of salty advice, as commencement speaker at a Friday ceremony that also was one of the last for UM President Donna Shalala after 14 years at the helm.
Students pinned buttons with red hearts on their gowns that said “I love Shalala,” and gave her high-fives as she made her way to the stage. When she took to the podium, Tina Turner’s Simply the Best played on the loudspeakers. Graduates in decorated caps and high heels stood to give her a standing ovation.
“It’s great to be a Miami Hurricane,” she said to cheers.
Shalala is leaving the private university to head the Clinton Foundation. Julio Frenk, dean of faculty at Harvard’s school of public health and a former minister of health in his native Mexico, has been tapped as her replacement.
Louixelle Marcelin, who graduated with a degree in exercise physiology, said Shalala had made a “huge impact.”
“She left a legacy behind – all of the things she’s done on campus, like raising an obscene amount of money from alumni and resurrecting the [Student Activitites Center,]” Marcelin said.
After student ambassador Eboni Person, a school of education and human development grad, gave a speech celebrating people who have fought for civil rights, Shalala underlined her message by repeating what has become a slogan in nationwide protests against police killings: “Black lives matter.” The comment drew loud applause.
In introducing Buffett, who was awarded an honorary doctorate in music, Shalala recognized the multiplatinum artist for his “enduring impact on American culture.”
A member of the National Songwriters Hall of Fame, Buffett has branded his famous song “Margaritaville,” into an empire of restaurants, hotels and a satellite radio station. A philanthropist, Buffet also donates $1 from all of his concert tickets to Singing for Change, a non-profit he started. He recently performed in the Florida capitol to rally support for Everglades restoration.
Buffett told the crowd he was inspired to become a marine biologist after visiting the aquarium while on vacation in Florida with his family – and he wanted to study at UM.
“I wanted to be Jacques Cousteau with a Southern accent,” he said.
The closest he got was a nearby bar that’s now called Titanic Restaurant and Brewery, where Buffett said he landed his first paying gig.
He distilled his advice into a checklist for the “ever-elusive future.” The four bits of wisdom he shared: Everything in moderation. Make your avocation your vocation. Go see the world. And “be Santa Claus when you can.”
Wearing aviator sunglasses (he said he forgot his reading glasses,) Buffett encouraged students to get out and see the world. “Use your time well. Beware of falling into the sedentary trap.”
The closest the University of Southern Mississippi grad (class of ’69) grad got to actually singing was when he quoted Bob Marley.
“One love, one life, let’s get together, and feel all right,” he said to the beat. The crowd helped him finish the song. Buffett didn’t stick around after graduation, saying he had some fish to catch on Elliott Key.
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