Penn State Football: O’Brien Takes the Field as Niece’s Commencement Speaker
June 06, 2013 11:45 PM
by Mike Poorman
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A commencement speaker from Penn State?

Dr. Alan Goodwin, the principal at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., wasn’t exactly a big fan of the idea.

“When I first heard about possibly having a speaker from Penn State, I wasn’t sure we would want to run it by the committee,” Goodwin said by telephone yesterday, in the midst of preparations for Walt Whitman’s graduation ceremonies, slated for Friday at 2:30 p.m. at the DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.

“Then I learned that Bill O’Brien came in after the scandal and that he did such a great job holding things together,” said Goodwin. “At that point, I thought it would be excellent to see and hear how he managed all that he did. He’s someone the students can relate to, having overcome some big hurdles to succeed.”

It wasn’t a fluke that O’Brien ended up as the featured speaker at graduation ceremonies for 450-plus Walt Whitman seniors. His niece Katie, the son of O’Brien’s older brother Jack – a former three-term Massachusetts state senator -- and wife Kathleen, is a senior at Walt Whitman. (Her brother Matthew is a junior offensive lineman at Brown.)

Whitman is an “affluent school outside of D.C.,” said Goodwin, “with a lot of well-heeled people with connections.” Students at the school come from over 40 countries and 89 percent of their seniors attend four-year colleges. At Whitman, senior class officers recommend the commencement speaker.

Some kids knew about Katie’s newly-famous Uncle Bill, who was a national coach of the year at Penn State in 2012. O’Brien’s name came up in their brainstorming sessions, and before you knew it, he was asked to be the speaker at Walt Whitman’s 2013 commencement ceremonies.

It’s a pretty big deal, actually. Past Whitman graduation speakers have included Bob Schieffer of CBS News, Maryland Congressman Chris Von Hollen and Seth Goldman, president of Honest Tea. On the list of speakers for the 33 high school commencement ceremonies in Montgomery (Md.) County in spring 2013, the Nittany Lion boss is listed as “Mr. Bill O’Brien, Pennsylvania State Head Football Coach. On the list, the speaker before him is Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Council (Thomas S. Wooten H.S.). And the name after him is Eun Yang, Anchor, NBC 4 (Walter Johnson H.S.).

(By comparison, speakers at Saturday’s State High commencement ceremonies, which include my sons Alex and Kyle, are senior class president Alexander Goncalves, superintendent Bob O'Donnell, board president Penni Fishbaine and principal Scott Deshong.)

Meanwhile, back at Whitman, Katie O’Brien is a star in her own right, having spent considerable time in South Africa as part of an exchange program. “Most students spend a week. Katie was there several weeks,” Goodwin said. “She’s an extraordinary person.”

Goodwin couldn’t be happier with the school’s 2013 speaker, who will be addressing – among others -- 13 Whitman students who will be going to college at Penn State.

“I watched one of O’Brien’s speeches on YouTube, and it really reinforced we made a good decision,” Goodwin said. “He’s someone the students will be able to relate to. He made a tremendous go of it in a very challenging situation. His role modeling is really great. It will be good for our seniors to hear about adults who are facing big problems yet still overcome hurdles.”

O’Brien’s speech comes almost four decades after the one Joe Paterno gave on June 16, 1973, when he delivered Penn State’s commencement in Beaver Stadium.

In that address, Paterno chastised former President Richard Nixon for anointing Texas the top college football team and, on a more serious note, quoted Walter Lippman: “…Money alone will not make you happy. Success without honor is an unseasoned dish. It will satisfy your hunger, but it won’t taste good.”

For his part, O’Brien plans to keep his address characteristically straightforward, telling Maryland’s that he plans to avoid any talk of the scandal and instead concentrate on overcoming adversity and being a leader.

“The biggest thing is to have a good work ethic,” O’Brien said, “to be humble and to give back to others.”

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