[CUA Office of Public Affairs]

Commencement Address: Jodi Applegate, NBC "Later Today"

Presented at The Catholic University of America

May 13, 2000

I am honored and excited and most of all humbled to be here today.

A commencement technically is a beginning. Though we’re all really in the middle of something. Of everything. I think a lot of true beginnings go unheralded. Will the next phase of your life start with the first day of your new job? Or did it start the day they decided to hire you? Or the day you applied for the job? The day you did something great that people found out about? The day you did something bad that no one found out about? Or was it the day you were born? Or the day a potential rival of yours wasn’t born?

What caused the swimming pool installer from Michigan to win the Big Game lottery? He stopped at Mr. K’s Party Shop for a hot dog and bought some tickets while he was there. Now the lives of his friends, family and generations of descendants are changed forever. Silly random numbers popping up. For good or for ill . . . those riches will dramatically affect the fates of thousands of people and their descendants over generations. Does God will certain numbers to win? Or does he take a hands-off approach and leave it to the computer?

I admit it. There’s a tedious freshhman dorm-room style debate about the nature of the universe playing on a loop in my brain at all times.

I stand in awe of the sheer complexity – the indecipherability, the apparent flukiness– of the world. . . and yet the stark simplicity of it all.

I mean I opened the "I love you" e-mail virus! Didn’t you? Think of all the work that went into the construction of such a clever and destructive program. And of the fundamental human yearning for love that prompted millions of us fools to fall for it with the click of a mouse. I don’t understand how my computer works. I don’t understand how my washing machine works. But I do see the sublime and the ridiculous cheek-to-cheek tangoing to the tune of life.

And that’s the only subject about which I can speak with any authority whatsoever. You have received an excellent education at Catholic University . . . academic and spiritual. And with your other life experiences. . .what could I hope to add? Maybe just a few notes from my travels.

For the past four years I’ve worked at NBC News and before that in local news in various capacities ranging from hard-nosed journalist to peddler of infotainment. . . and everything in between. I covered Princess Diana’s funeral from Westminster Abbey, political conventions, the Olympic bombing . . . I’ve interviewed Hillary Clinton and Colin Powell live on national TV.

Then again . . . Right now, we’re in the midst of all-important May ratings period. So last week we featured an underwear fashion show, 7 solid minutes all about my new haircut (and I loved every minute of it). I rode Coney Island’s ancient rollercoaster live on the air, screaming all the while. I work for a network news organization. Edward R. Murrow would be proud. To be fair, Later Today doesn’t claim to be the NBC Nightly News. Tom Brokaw doesn’t do the zoo.

But my job is a peculiar vantage point from which to watch the world go by like a surreal parade. Though anyone with a TV and a remote control can experience a similar immersion in the culture and yet detachment from it.

Our popular culture – especially the Internet and really specially television – have an uncanny knack for equalizing everything. As you flip or surf everything gets frapped together and flattened out and juxtaposed and in a de facto way, spliced together in no particular sequence or proportion. It makes you laugh ‘til you cry. Or cry ‘til you laugh. Or maybe just glaze over. The tragic, the profane, the beautiful and the banal come gushing or trickling at you and letting it wash all over you is oddly not unpleasant. It’s like a heartbeat: our top story tonight . . . drop the chalupa. . .the Million Mother march. . . Rich chocolate Ovaltine. . . Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s marital meltdown. . . President Clinton making White House comedy videos. . . Jay Leno on "Meet the Press". . . You have one lifeline remaining. . . The plight of the ethnic Albanians. . .Remember them?. . . Emerill says Bam! Kick it up a notch. Six-year-old Cuban boat boy Elian Gonzalez. . . Wassupppp. . . Global climate change. . .Where in the world is Matt Lauer? Yet another school shooting. The passing of John Cardinal O’Connor. Disney has taken ABC away from you and the Pets.com sock puppet is in fact suing Triumph the insult comic dog from the Conan O’Brien Show.

What does it all mean? In the secular world anyway, no one will tell you. For better or for worse, no one will tell you what to think. Well a few people, but you don’t have to listen to them.

I spend a whole lot of time trying to reconcile it all, especially when on a network morning show we could literally end up covering all of the above in a single program. Perhaps you find it heartening to know that a TV newsperson, even after years of inhaling toxic hairspray fumes, actually thinks about such things. If so don’t get too heartened because the thought I had was that I don’t understand any of it. Though I do hold out hope… and I do have some scant, anecdotal evidence that every once in a while if you’re diligent and conscientious you can fence off a tiny parcel of the wilderness and bring to it order and goodness. I have, on occasion, actually seen this happen.

Now I have a story for you. I hesitated to tell this story because I do feel that in America nowadays too many people talk too publicly about their personal woes for ratings, for attention or whatever. But I’m not a complete stoic either and I’ll share this story with you because tomorrow is Mother’s Day.

At this time of year I always think about my mother, she died in 1981 in May just before Mother’s Day. I had just turned 17 – I’m 36 now so her death is over half my life ago. My memories of her get a little hazier every year, I can’t really remember her voice but if you want to picture her you can think of her as I remember her. Middle-aged or better yet think of her in her prime as she appears in many snapshots from before I came along. In the early 1960’s she was slim and stylish and understated, not half bad for small town would-be Jackie Kennedy. In the photos she has a melancholy knowing look on her face— but what did she know?

At the time of those pictures, her life was two-thirds over, but she didn’t know that.

She’d lived her whole life in the same two-bedroom rowhouse without central heat in Wheeling, West Virginia, a former boom town on the Ohio River. Wheeling had seen its best days long before. She was a secretary -- that’s what women of her generation and her social class did. Secretary, nurse, teacher, nun, wife. But she wasn’t married in the spring of 1964. She and her older sister still lived at home taking care of their bedridden parents and while working full time, she accepted her duty.

Then in the spring of 1964 she found herself pregnant. She concealed it as best she could, she tried to hide her morning sickness and she wore a coat around the house to disguise her growing belly. Then one weekend she went to Pittsburgh, that’s the closest big town. She said she was going shopping.

A few days later, she came home a bit slimmer, with an ace bandage wrapped around her ankle as a pretext for staying in bed for a few days. And then went back to work at the Aetna Insurance Company. Then, every weekend afterward, she would go back to Pittsburgh on the bus – shopping, supposedly. But she was traveling to a foster home to visit her baby–me.

I’m not sure when she hatched the next part of the plan but seven months after I was born, it was Christmastime. Ordinarily, during Christmas, her family would get a 5-year-old from the local orphanage for a few weeks. Some unfortunate soul to spoil for a while as a good deed. But this Christmas she came home with a 7-month-old infant girl. They said, "Margaret, a 7-month-old isn’t going to understand Christmas or play with doll babies."

She answered that the orphanage was all out of older kids and that this baby was all they had left.

Christmas came and went. After the holidays, she pretended to file the paperwork necessary to adopt me. As I grew and came to look just like her, I doubt that anyone in all of Wheeling was fooled by her ruse. But it was her ritual to make it all seem more right in her mind. She wasn’t exactly Hester Prynne but she wasn’t Murphy Brown either. Somewhere in between.

Anyway I didn’t find out any of this until much later, after she died. Now she was stoic. She took it to her grave.

When I was a junior in high school, she was diagnosed with breast cancer which had spread throughout her body before she ever even went to a doctor. That was in 1981, and even that recently, cancer was talked about in hushed tones. I remember people in Wheeling calling it "C.A." "You know so-and-so has C.A."

She was sick for a long time but hid it from me to spare my feelings. She went with grace. I was 17. And as I said I’m now 36 and very busy with work.I wonder if I’ll ever be a mother, (though a pregnancy would surely boost those ratings!) if I ever could live up to that title to her precedent. If I could ever put another life truly above my own. That doesn’t come easily to a woman of my generation or of my newly adopted social class or maybe that’s an excuse. Maybe it’s just that I’m selfish. My mother existed largely so that I could. Was it a thankless task? I think about the sacrifices she must have made, the doctor or handsome police captain - who might have still married her–even though she was 36 she still looked pretty good. But she had a kid. The hours on smelly buses between Wheeling and Pittsburgh. The resolve it must have taken to look people in the eye and tell them various parts of the elaborate fiction about my origins knowing they didn’t really believe a word of it. I think about how she must have felt every Sunday at Sacred Heart Church. Through it all, she remained fiercely proud of her Catholic faith.

So, if you’re lucky enough to still have your mother or a close approximation, call her and really talk to her. I don’t know her but I do know she made sacrifices for you that you will never even know about.

I guess this is my version of the "wear your sunscreen" commencement address novelty song that got so much radio play a while back. Maybe my advice boils down to: love your mother, don’t watch too much TV and stop to smell the roses.

I am definitely of the world, I even kind of like a lot of the absurdities I listed, including the cruel ones because it’s all part of being fully human.

But this world can be a very cold place so we reach across time and space and open anonymous e-mails offering love. We spend our lives trying to get back that comfort of perfect love that our mothers gave us when we were babies. That her body gave us in the womb or that we got wherever we were before we were born or that we’ll get wherever we go after we die.

I may never be a mother but I suspect that motherhood is utterly bittersweet, like life itself, Absolutely taken for granted yet absolutely hungered for  neverendingly.

I thank you all so much for indulging me and letting me say a lot of things they’d never let me say on TV.

And I thank you so much for letting me be a part of today’s ceremony. I wish you all the very best in whatever endeavors you’ve chosen and I hope that you will all lead very very rich, full, deep, broad, exhilarating, useful and joyful lives.

And, happy Mother’s Day.

 

 

 

 

 

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