Tulane University’s commencement on Saturday was a milestone for its 2,800 graduates and for new President Michael Fitts, who stepped to the lectern to preside over his first Tulane commencement at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
But first, before the business of the day began, he introduced a version of the hymn “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” performed by Tulane alumnus and well-known clarinetist Michael White.
In prior academic jobs, Fitts said, he oversaw graduations, but they felt different. “No jazz bands, no beads,” he said.
Popular comedian Maya Rudolph also gave her first commencement speech, an address that featured some of her famous impressions, including Beyoncé and Oprah, and ended with a comedic send-up of how some singers approach the national anthem.
But first, she shifted the spotlight for a few minutes to her cousin, Sabrina Jade Rudolph, who earned a bachelor’s degree Saturday.
“I’m so, so, so proud of you,” she said. “Now please don’t sully the family name.”
The Rudolph family has connections to Tulane that predate Sabrina by nearly a half-century. Maya’s father, Richard Rudolph, graduated from the university in 1968. The following year, he married soul singer Minnie Riperton, and the two co-wrote the 1975 hit “Lovin’ You,” a tune that began as a lullaby for Maya, who was then a toddler. Riperton died four years later of breast cancer.
The Rudolph family contingent on hand Saturday included her father; her husband, movie director Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood”); and their four children.
Fitts welcomed the family and recounted its history before bringing on Green Envy, Tulane’s acclaimed a cappella group, to perform “Lovin’ You.”
It was a poignant moment for Maya Rudolph, she said in an interview afterward. She remembers visits to the city with her parents as a young child, sitting at Café du Monde eating her first beignets. “It was just magical,” she said. “There is nowhere else like New Orleans.”
It’s the way of graduation ceremonies, which so often mix wistfulness for times past with hopes for what’s to come.
For instance, Diondra Rhinehart, of New Orleans, earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and early childhood education, marking a milestone of her own: She is the first in her family to earn a college degree.
Rhinehart had spent time recently teaching her son Jay, 2, to say, “Mommy is graduating today,” and that’s whom she was thinking about as she sat in her graduation gown and mortarboard on Saturday.
In many ways, she also was celebrating one of her important friendships, with the young woman seated next to her, fellow 2015 graduate Crayshonda Byrd, who received a bachelor’s degree in finance. The two have been classmates and close allies since Warren Easton Charter High School.
So the two friends laughed as Maya Rudolph surveyed the crowd. “Look at all these beautiful faces … and iPhones,” she said, shaking her head at the hundreds of small rectangles pointed at her, recording her debut commencement address.
Rudolph, a graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, said she had “majored in not washing my feet and advanced Zig-Zag (cigarette paper) rolling.”
During her senior year, when her father asked what she wanted to do, she told him she wanted to be on “Saturday Night Live,” a dream she would fulfill about a decade later.
That hadn’t been easy to tell her father, she quipped: “I never wanted to admit I was a thespian.” But he not only accepted her but showed his support for what would become “his daughter’s long career in fart jokes,” she said.
Before setting off on her own, however, she did what many young graduates do: “I enrolled in more school and asked my dad to pay for it.”
If she could travel in a time machine to give herself advice at 21, she said, she would tell the young Maya to “take as many bikini photos as you can now,” because bodies change once babies arrive.
She said graduates should also kiss their mamas, work hard (“Don’t be lazy”) and put away their iPhones once in a while.
“And be nice to jerks, because we don’t know the exact criteria for heaven yet,” said Rudolph, who second-lined out of the ceremony behind Fitts, with 2,800 new graduates dancing behind her.