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Smiley looks forward to 'homecoming of sorts'

Bloomington Herald-Times

Smiley looks forward to 'homecoming of sorts' at IU; Talk show host calls invitation to give IU's commencement address 'one of the highest honors' he has received

By Steve Hinnefeld 331-4374 |
May 4, 2007

Tavis Smiley never tires of telling how he arrived at Indiana University with nothing but a suitcase, a few dollars in his pocket and a letter saying he had been admitted to the institution.

Thanks to helpful officials and staff, he not only survived but thrived in Bloomington. And now, he's adding a new chapter to the story, returning to campus give this year's IU commencement address.

"It is a homecoming of sorts," he said in a telephone interview this week. "And I think, of all the things I've been asked to do at this point in my career, it is one of the highest honors."

Smiley, 42, rose to prominence as the host of the talk show "BET Tonight" on Black Entertainment Television. He now hosts "Tavis Smiley" on PBS and "The Tavis Smiley Show" on National Public Radio.

He is the author or editor of 11 books, including last year's "What I Know for Sure: My Story of Growing Up in America."

He said he won't use a prepared text Saturday but will engage the 8,000-plus graduates and their families. He's likely to quote a line attributed to Winston Churchill — "never, never, never give up" — and apply it to his own life story.

"As a kid growing up in Indiana," he said, "I could never have imagined I could have gone to IU, much less graduate from IU. And to be asked to come back and give the commencement address — that doesn't happen without the love and support of a lot of people."

The oldest of 10 children, Smiley grew up in Bunker Hill, near Kokomo. He arrived at IU without a place to live or a way to pay tuition. Jimmy Ross, the financial aid director, and Bill Walters, the bursar, took him under their wings. Both are now deceased.

"I think they would be so proud of him. They would be at the front of the line at commencement," said Perry Metz, IU director of radio and television services, who supervised Smiley when he was a student at the IU chancellor's office.

"Tavis came here with sound character," recalled David Hummons, a bursar's office official. "He didn't have resources, but he had sound character. He really wanted to go out and make a difference."

Smiley left IU without graduating to work for Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. Long after he became a media celebrity, he finished his IU course work and earned his degree. Ken Gros Louis, the longtime IU Bloomington chancellor, bestowed the diploma when the two met for lunch in California.

"I think he found it very moving," Gros Louis said. "It was a special moment for him."

Smiley returned to IU in 2003 to deliver the Neal-Marshall SPEA public policy lecture in 2003. He spoke about the "diversity imperative," the notion that people and institutions should embrace racial, ethnic and gender diversity for practical as well as ethical reasons.

He said it gave him great pleasure to sit with Adam Herbert, IU's first black president, when the Indiana basketball team played in the NCAA West Regional in Sacramento this year. While progress moves in fits and starts, he said, one can't overstate the value of having people of color in high-profile positions at institutions like IU.

"That's the symbolic part," he said. "With the substance, of course, we still have some work to do."