The Fonz and a commencement crossroad

Posted 5/3/22


 came to a stop across from Crossroads, the former Providence YMCA building, and waited for the light to turn green to get onto the on ramp to Route 95 south.

It was Sunday, the scene …

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The Fonz and a commencement crossroad


I  came to a stop across from Crossroads, the former Providence YMCA building, and waited for the light to turn green to get onto the on ramp to Route 95 south.

It was Sunday, the scene awash in sun and the temperature edging into the 60s. I had just heard that Emmy award-winning actor, director and author Henry Winkler would deliver – or I should say, perform – an inspiring message to New England Institute of Technology graduates at the Dunkin Donuts Center. My window was open. I was breathing in the sweet smell of spring. The road was empty. But I wasn’t alone. On my left barely eight feet away and sitting on the cement wall to the highway embankment was a man who looked to be about Winkler’s age. He had long hair, just like the actor. He was unshaven, not like the actor. He was overdressed for the day in a jacket over a plaid sweater. He held a limp piece of cardboard. Nothing was written on it. I gathered he had just arrived at this post to see what he might collect for the day.

Another man, who looked to be the same age and similarly dressed, stood on the other side of the road. 

“Beautiful day,” the man nearest to me yelled. He wasn’t talking to me, but that didn’t matter. 

I echoed his declaration and we locked gazes. It was like he suddenly realized I was there. He smiled. I smiled. “This is just beautiful,” he emphasized looking up into the clear blue sky. I nodded in agreement. The guy to my right joined the chorus.

“Got a twenty,” the man to my right said. He wasn’t asking for money. He was announcing his good fortune. The man to my left was smiling again. “You know I got a ten,” he answered if that was a significant achievement. He read my confused look. “Getting tens is harder than twenties,” he said.

My mind reeled back to commencement and Winkler’s performance. His speech was funny, yet thoughtful and inspiring. I wondered if it could be life changing.

New England Tech has a tradition of bringing in luminaries as graduation speakers whether stars from the silver screen, the media, government or the arts. I imagine honorariums for such speakers are high on top of paying travel expenses and making arrangements. It has to be worth it. Conferring honorary degrees on nationally recognized personalities – Winkler is a second time NEIT commencement speaker so he wasn’t put through the ritual again – surely trains a media spotlight on the institution. There’s more to it than that. A big name commencement speaker is a graduate’s bragging rights. Might those speeches also be indelible and become guideposts for living?

Winkler described himself as hopeless when it came to geometry, a course he needed to pass to move on but he kept failing not matter how many times he took it. He had the audience. They laughed, perhaps relating to the challenging courses they once faced. Then came the punch to the educational system: “How they (students) learn is not how we (educators) think they should learn.”

But Winkler was not out to bash the educational system or call for reforms. His focus was on the capped and gowned graduates before him.

He told them to build upon their accomplishment. “If you have done it, why not go out and do it again.” He told them they have no time for negative thoughts or to doubt themselves and that the town, the state, the country and the world is looking to them. Then he made it personal.

“I depend on you on every one of you to do the best you can,” he said pointing to the graduates in an inclusive swing of his arms. 

“Be the best you can possibly be…you are your destiny and no one can get in your way if you say no.”

The audience was with him. They cheered their approval.

Commencements are uplifting events filled with the excitement of completion and the trill of taking the next step. I felt it as I waited for the light to turn green. It was not dulled by my encounter with the two men outside Crossroads. While their lives must not be easy and they have regrets, they were not indulging in self-pity or putting on a show to gain the pity of others. Quite simply they were celebrating another day…and it was beautiful.

It was renewing to have heard the “Fonz” Fonzarella from the TV series “Happy Days” and to be included in the conversation, albeit all of about 20 seconds before the traffic backed up behind me, of two men who haven’t allowed their circumstances to drag them down.

They said “no” to negativity.


Side up, the Fonz


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