“Be here now.”
Academy-Award winning actor and 1978 University of Montana alumnus J.K. Simmons summed up his advice for the Class of 2016 in those three words.
“I’m not sure if for young people in the Class of 2016 ... if listening to the voice of experience is what's most helpful,” he said. “I think what is most helpful for young people, for any people, is to do your best to adhere to the principles expressed in these three words.”
The wind whipped through Washington-Grizzly Stadium on Saturday morning, tumbling chairs like dominoes, ripping caps off students’ heads and ruining hair-dos.
"I apologize for the breeze. It's a little windy today," UM President Royce Engstrom said to begin the ceremony. "Hold onto your hats and it'll be a day to remember."
Simmons asked the more than 3,000 students participating in the ceremony to live in the moment, “not dwell on the past, not be too anxious about the future.”
“I mean wherever you are physically present, to also be mentally, emotionally, spiritually present,” he said. “And by present I mean fully engaged, not staring at your damn smartphone all the time.
“I’m just another curmudgeon who likes to bitch and moan about how things were better in my day – which they were. Before smarty-pants-phones.”
Life may be faster now, and more complicated. But, Simmons suggested, the path to success, however each person defines it, is still lined with the same principles:
Work hard, listen and be fully engaged.
Griz students have certainly worked hard, as outgoing president of the Associated Students of the University of Montana Cody Meixner expanded upon when talking about the all-nighters, obstacles they’ve overcome and stress of final exams.
“All of our years here have been challenging, but this last one I think was particularly difficult,” he said. “As enrollment dropped and budgets tightened, every member of our community began to grapple with complex questions about the capability of our institution and its worth. For awhile, this instilled panic and confusion, outrage, disdain.”
He said that many students started questioning their time at UM, and how it would impact their future.
“But as the snow melted and the Missoula Valley inversion lifted, I think we came to terms with what our institution is,” he said. “Sure, we have fewer students and yes, that means we have fewer faculty and staff, but I ask you to look around. To those students who have worked years to attain the degrees they’ll receive today: Were all those efforts not real? Were all those lessons and experiences not valuable and life-changing? Is it not one of the most noble achievements to have pushed oneself to the extreme, confronted real and sometimes crippling obstacles and to have emerged victorious?
“The University of Montana has taken every one of these students and molded them into the leaders of the state and of the nation and of the world. You have emerged victorious.”
“Aspiration without hard work is really just a pipe dream,” Simmons said.
In a news conference prior to the ceremony, Simmons talked about his work and upcoming projects. But he shook his head any time the words "fame" or "notoriety" crossed his lips, as if it was silly for those words to be associated with him.
“So many actors obtain notoriety when they’re young,” he said. “But it’s not about fame or fortune. It’s about doing the work.”
But Simmons, now 61, has grown in notoriety over the past several years as a popular character actor. That’s in stark contrast to his late 20s when he was broke and seeking jobs waiting tables while he worked to land his next role on stage.
Others' quotes punctuated his address, including his first line, pulled from "A River Runs Through It:" "The world is full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the further one gets from Missoula, Montana."
Simmons said he could "vouch for the veracity of that wonderful line."
"I've been many places, I've met many fine people, and I have also encountered what seems to be like more than my fair share of bastards," he said. "So it's really nice to be back here, where the odds are much more in my favor."
During the ceremony, Simmons was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters. Dr. Jack Ward Thomas, a notable wildlife biologist who's the former U.S. Forest Service Chief, also was honored with an honorary doctorate of science, though he couldn’t attend Saturday’s ceremony.
Simmons couldn’t remember who gave the commencement address at his graduation 38 years ago — "someone educated and wise ... I assume" – and he didn't expect this year's graduates to remember much from his speech years from now.
So his advice was to-the-point: “Take care of yourself: Eat your vegetables, get some exercise, floss. Use your turn signal. I know that has nothing to do with taking care of yourself, it’s just a pet peeve of mine. I needed to get that off my chest. Be on time. Please have the decency to ... not make people wait for you.
“Take out your telephone and use it to make a telephone call. Call an old person. Call your mom. Call your dad.”
The sentiment echoed his 2015 speech accepting the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in "Whiplash." The speech went viral online, and he repeated it on Saturday:
“If you’re lucky enough to have one or more parents alive on this planet, call them. Don’t text. Don't email. Call them on the phone. Tell them you love them and listen to them for as long as they want to talk to you."
His 14-year-old daughter has now read the Harry Potter series 14 times – literally, he said. That word, “literally,” took him on a tangent, scolding today’s youth for its misuse and overuse.
On Thursday and Friday, Simmons said hundreds of Missoulians wanted to talk to him, not about his career but his parents – Don and Pat Simmons – and the impact they had on their lives.
“That’s always my favorite part of coming back to Missoula, Montana, and to the University of Montana,” he said. “My parents didn't often sit us down and preach to us about their philosophy of life. ... They led and taught by quiet example, by living life well and being kind, considerate, by obeying the golden rule, by using common sense. My wife and I try to do the same with our children. We try to be here, now.
“Thank you for having me, and thank you to my mom and dad for having me – literally.”