Cartoonist Mike Peters may not have been the first person I would have guessed if asked to predict who would deliver the commencement address at Washington University in St. Louis. However, Peters’ speech yesterday was absolutely perfect. The alumnus of the class of 1965 was relatable, funny and inspiring to the class of 2012.
Peters told of growing up in a St. Louis neighborhood called Dogtown. His mother was a local celebrity, TV host Charlotte Peters. Random girls would ask Mike to their proms. On the ride to the dance, the girls’ mothers would mention that their daughters were musical. Mike said they would pull out a violin or oboe and start playing right there in the car. It wasn’t until years later that he realized they were trying to use him to get on his mother’s TV show.
Mike described himself as a skinny kid with a concave chest and a terrible stutter. His mother tried hard to help him overcome the speech impediment. One Christmas, Charlotte gave Mike a Superman suit that she had made. Back in the 1950s, Superman suits were not sold everywhere like they are today. He would wear it while picking up litter outside his house, pretending to fly from the house to the trashcan and back.
His stuttering led him to express himself through drawing. His doodling got him in trouble at school, which caused his mother to send him to a Catholic military school. He graduated and got into WashU where he met his future wife, not realizing that her father was one of the Deans. It was at WashU that he learned to embrace his cartooning talent rather than fight it.
After getting drafted and serving in the Army, Peters met editorial cartoon legend Bill Mauldin. The famed cartoonist became a mentor to Peters, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and create “Mother Goose & Grimm.” Each of the 2012 graduates received a print of Grimmy wearing WashU colors and offering them “ConGRADulations!”
The speech ended with Peters telling the students that they had the power to be faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. He said, “You, the class of 2012, you are Superman!” As he delivered the line, he ripped open his academic gown to reveal the Superman suit underneath.