PROVO A month of controversy over the decision to invite Vice President Dick Cheney to speak at Brigham Young University's commencement ended Thursday with more than 20,000 BYU graduates and their families, along with faculty and staff, soaking Cheney in applause.
There was no sign of disapproval inside the Marriott Center. Instead, the crowd cheered as Cheney arrived with President Gordon B. Hinckley of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. President Hinckley returned the greeting with a signature wave of his cane. The crowd cheered again when Cheney received an honorary doctorate of public service and cheered repeatedly during his apolitical speech, interrupting it 18 times with applause.
Camera flashes blinked furiously around the packed arena as Cheney and President Hinckley entered. The flashes grew particularly intense when the lights went down at the beginning of Cheney's speech.
Cheney returned the adulation.
"Thank you for the warm welcome to Provo, Utah, home of one of the finest universities in the United States of America," he said, later adding that "BYU is a place of faith and kindness and compassion."
Early speculation that Cheney, despite low national approval ratings, would be welcomed in one of the most conservative places in America was confirmed when sustained applause followed his declaration that "I bring congratulations and good wishes from the president of the United States, George W. Bush."
The advice portion of the commencement speech mirrored messages Cheney has delivered at other commencements over the past five years, but first Cheney called President Hinckley "a distinguished American" as a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
He also drew shouts of approval by noting BYU was ranked No. 1 on the Princeton Review's "stone-cold sober" list every year the graduates were at the university. And he celebrated BYU's victories this school year over rival University of Utah in basketball and especially football, a game he said was won with "Jonny Harline's answered prayer."
Cheney also mentioned that two of his wife Lynne's great-grandparents graduated from Brigham Young Academy before it became BYU, and that her great-great-grandmother joined a train of 50 wagons in 1848 to travel to Utah "to make the desert bloom."
He told the graduates to watch for opportunities and people who will point them in unexpected but fulfilling directions, much like a visit to Congressman Donald Rumsfeld in the 1960s led Cheney away from a career as a professor and into nearly 40 years of public service.
"For all the plans we make in life, sometimes life has other plans for us," he said.
He also encouraged graduates to pick themselves up if they fail to succeed, as he did at Yale University before earning two degrees at the University of Wyoming.
"America is still the country of the second chance," Cheney said. "Most of us end up needing one."
The advice was the same he gave last year at Louisiana State University and at commencements at four other schools from 2002-05. Those speeches and the BYU speech are online at www.whitehouse.gov.
Cheney thanked BYU for the honorary degree and closed by saying, "I leave here as a proud member of the Brigham Young Class of 2007."
A standing ovation lasted a full minute.
Lew Cramer, whose nephew Stephen John Pearson delivered a speech on behalf of his fellow graduates, called Cheney's speech "a home run."
Several students said the warm reception for Cheney was intended to send a message from the majority of the BYU community.
"We at BYU respect the office of the vice president, we respect differing opinions, and hopefully we showed support for the democratic process, the office of the vice president and the United States of America," said Emily Sego of Albuquerque, who graduated with a master's of business administration.
"I think everyone wanted to make him feel welcome here after the rumors of protests the past couple of weeks," said Adam Grant of Norwalk, Conn., who earned a degree in facilities management.
President Hinckley and his two counselors in the First Presidency of the church, which owns BYU, invited Cheney. Joining President Hinckley at commencement were Elder Richard G. Scott and Elder David A. Bednar of the church's Quorum of the Twelve, and Elder Rolfe Kerr, the church's commissioner of education. Scott and Young Women General President Susan Tanner attended in their roles as a members of the BYU Board of Trustees.
Samuelson also bestowed honorary degrees on Ira and Mary Lou Fulton and Jack and Mary Lois Cannon Sharp Wheatley.The Fultons have given tens of millions of dollars to BYU and are heavily involved in several campus colleges. The Wheatleys helped found the BYU Museum of Art and continue to sit on the museum's leadership council, while Jack Wheatley has helped with fund-raising and construction of the nearly complete Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni and Visitors Center.
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E-mail: [email protected]