‘Class of 2012, you are Superman,’ Peters tells graduates

Do what you love, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist says during Commencement

Mike Peters punctuated his address by telling the Class of 2012 that they were Superman. (Joe Angeles/Washington University)

Do what you love, and you will find success, said Mike Peters, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and creator of the award-winning cartoon strip Mother Goose & Grimm, during the 151st Commencement ceremony at Washington University in St. Louis.

“A bunch of you are going to be lawyers, or doctors, or engineers, or artists,” Peters, a WUSTL alumnus, told the approximately 2,700 degree candidates gathered before him May 18 in Brookings Quadrangle on Washington University’s Danforth Campus. “There are some of you — just a few maybe, or maybe larger than that — when you leave here, you haven’t the faintest idea what you’re going to be doing.

“My suggestion is, for those of you who don’t know what you want to be, try to write down the things you love,” said Peters, who received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from Washington University during the ceremony.

“Try to get a job in those things you love. It doesn’t have to be beer and movies, but try to make it.”

After meeting the other five honorary degree recipients at a university-hosted dinner the evening before, Peters said he realized that they all have something in common. “We love what we do,” he told the crowd of more than 15,000.

Peters recalled a young woman who approached him for advice.

Her friends said she had a funny voice, she said, and she wanted to do commercials. She had gone to Los Angeles but hadn’t been able to find much success.

“I said, ‘Go back. Don’t take no, just go back.’

The woman, Nancy Cartwight, followed Peters’ advice and went back to Los Angeles.

“For the last 22 years, she’s been Bart Simpson.”

Peters, who earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from Washington University in 1965, is recognized as one of the country’s most prominent cartoon artists for his outstanding work as both a political and comic strip cartoonist.

His editorial cartoons appear in more than 400 newspapers and publications worldwide, including Newsweek, Time and U.S. News & World Report. He was named winner of the Pulitzer Prize in journalism in 1981.

Mother Goose & Grimm, the comic strip he created in 1984, appears in more than 800 newspapers worldwide and is consistently placed in the top 10 most popular comic strip ratings. Peters has received virtually every major honor in his profession.

Peters began his remarks by thanking Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton and the Board of Trustees for the opportunity to address the Class of 2012. “I hope you don’t go, ‘Oh God, why did I invite this guy?’” he added.

Peters, who was born in St. Louis in 1943, grew up in Dogtown, just a few miles from the Danforth Campus, as a “weird little kid,” who was cross-eyed, was skinny and stuttered. His mother, Charlotte Peters, an entertainer who had her own TV show in St. Louis — a cross between Oprah and I Love Lucy, Peters said — was well-known and would introduce him to people.

Each graduate was given a commemorative cartoon drawn by Mike Peters especially for the Washington University Class of 2012. (Credit: Mary Butkus)

“I’d look up cross-eyed, and I’d go ‘Eeerrrggghh,’” he said.

People would turn away because they were so embarrassed for him, Peters said.

“Then, I started drawing because I thought, if I drew, I wouldn’t have to open my mouth.

“So I learned to kind of keep my mouth shut and to draw. And I never really talked very much, and I never went outside all that much.

“Until this one day, Pat, my sister, we walked back from St. James at Midnight Mass, back to our house. Our parents had put out all the Christmas gifts. My mom gave me this gift, and I opened it up, and she had made me a real-live Superman suit.

“Now, this is at a time when no kid had a Superman suit. They weren’t doing that then. I looked down, I was like, ‘I can’t believe this.’ I’m looking like that guy in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when he opens up the Ark of the Covenant and the light shines … except that guy was a Nazi so his face melted off.

“I took it upstairs, and I put on this costume. And I felt like I could do anything. I felt like I was faster than a speeding bullet. I was more powerful than a locomotive. I could leap tall buildings in a single bound. I truly felt enabled.”

As an art student at Washington University, Peters recalled spending time working on Thurtene Carnival, the yearbook and Student Life newspaper. His grades, however, “were not the best.”

http://youtu.be/IRRcrYn8vlcPeters’ Commencement address to the Class of 2012.After the art school dean told Peters that he had to bring his grades up, Peters approached a professor he had had in a class the year before. “What should I do?” Peters asked him.

“And he says, ‘You like drawing cartoons, don’t you?’ And he says, ‘Why don’t you do cartoons in all your art classes?’

“‘When you go to figure drawing class, exaggerate the
figures, make them look like cartoons. When you go to design class,
design cartoons. When you go to painting class, paint cartoons.’

“I said, ‘Won’t they get mad?’

“And he said, ‘It’s OK. You’re flunking, Mike. It’s all right.’

“So I started doing that. I started doing cartoons in all my classes, and I got my report card that first semester, and they were all As and Bs.”

Peters closed his speech by telling the graduates that he and his wife, Marian, a fellow WUSTL alum, had gone to see the movie The Avengers the previous weekend.

“And it hit me,” he said. “It hit both of us that you guys are like The Avengers right now.

“You are our superheroes. There’s no stopping how far you can go. You’re more powerful right now than a locomotive. You can leap tall buildings in a single bound.”

He paused. “You, the class of 2012, you are Superman!”

He then flung open his graduation gown to reveal his own, adult-sized Superman suit. The crowd jumped to its feet and burst into applause.

To view a slideshow of Commencement day events, visit news.wustl.edu/news/Pages/23893.aspx.

For a full transcript of Peters’ Commencement address, visit news.wustl.edu/news/Pages/23894.aspx.