It’s The Story In Front Of Us That Holds The Real Excitement

Editor's note: On May 18, Co-anchor of WABC-TV New York’s Eyewitness News Bill Ritter spoke to his fellow graduates at The New School. Ritter was finally getting his bachelor's diploma 44 years later than he originally expected, because in 1972, when Ritter was a semester away from earning his degree from San Diego State University, he was kicked out for demonstrating against the Vietnam War.

The following is his speech as prepared for delivery at a ceremony on May 18, two days before the official graduation ceremony. A video of his remarks is available above. You can learn more about Bill Ritter's journey from anti-war activist to news anchor and part-time college student at WABC.

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Congratulations!  Class of 2016 at the new school bachelor’s program.  My name is Bill Ritter, and like you -- I am a transfer student AND an adult student.

How many of you are children of parents who did not graduate college? How many of you at some point in your life -- didn’t think you would ever be here -- celebrating your college graduation?

I’m with you. My parents went to college, but couldn’t afford it, so they stopped going, and instead went  to work to help out their families. And I’ve been thinking a lot about my mom and dad these last four years at the New School, and I can’t help but wonder what they would think. If they were still alive, about this week, about tonight. About this coming Friday. And, importantly, about me standing on this stage where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once spoke, back in 1964.

As it turns out, a year after he spoke right here at the New School, I heard Dr. King speak in Los Angeles -- on the pulpit where O had been bar mitzvahed.  

His speech back then, when I was just 15, was so meaningful for me. His commitment to speaking out against injustice, and taking action, resonated powerfully.

And, as I would find out during my first career in college,  not long after I heard Dr. King speech,  his words and his deeds  would help motivate *me* to speak out and take action against wrong-doing.

When I was kicked out of school in the early fall of 1972, I had 5 classes to graduation, 1 semester. Bill Ritter

And because of what I did back then, I am here tonight. Here at the New School. Embracing all the ways that the pursuit of knowledge intersects with our own lives.

We all have a back story, and here’s mine.

I was kicked out of college 44 years ago.

This is what I looked like back then. (See video for unveil of picture from 1972)

I would be rewriting history if I said that my parents, who were in the beauty supply business, loved my hair-do.  My Jew fro. They didn’t like it.

"You have such beautiful hair, shorter," my mom would say.  

While they may not have been approving of my appearance, they were amazingly supportive of what I was doing.

I was an activist. Against the war in Vietnam.

Bill Ritter shares a photo of himself from 1972. 
Bill Ritter shares a photo of himself from 1972. 

When I was kicked out of school in the early fall of 1972,  I had 104 ½ units, 5 classes to graduation, 1 semester.

The event that got me kicked out happened on April 20, 1972.

I was part of a group of anti-war demonstrators who took over an ROTC classroom while cadets were taking a test.  It got a little rough.  Some eggs were thrown.  Some fists were thrown.  Not exactly Dr. King’s theory of non-violence, I know.

But I didn’t do any of that,  I was just one of the organizers.

Here’s what what one professor said about that day in his book about the history of my former school, San Diego State University.

"About 75 of the demonstrators made hostages of ROTC students taking an exam... The scene turned nasty with blows exchanged and protesters throwing eggs at the cadets.  When ordered to leave, the demonstrators did so."

That’s not exactly how the cops saw it -- that they gave an order and we left -- although that’s what we did.

But nonetheless I was charged -- criminally, with failing to disburse, unlawful assembly and trespassing.  And I was kicked out of school.

That demonstration -- that day -- changed my life.  Because after I  got kicked out,  I did not return to college, and I wore my lack-of-a-degree as a kind of badge-of-honor, my price for having fought against what I thought was an unjust war. It was a small price to pay, compared to the more than 50,000 young Americans who were killed and the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who lost their lives.

As it happens, the demonstration that ended my first attempt at college, was 44 years and 1 month to the day of our upcoming Commencement ceremony on Friday.

If my math is correct, that’s 16,101 days.  Or -- my life.  From 22 years old to 66. In that span, about a dozen employers, 6 dogs, 4 cats, 3 children.  

My life.

When my oldest child went away to college, she gently challenged me to go back to school and finish.  I accepted her proposal.  And I ended up at The New School.  

I realize it is I who learned the great lesson, understanding that I will never be too old to learn new things, that I can still challenge the status quo, and study subjects and complete projects that, like the anti-war activities years ago, and, I hope, like some of my journalistic endeavors since then, have made some kind of difference to society. Bill Ritter

What spurred me -- I thought at the time -- was that by returning to school and finishing something I came this-close to completing so many decades ago, I would help teach my kids that, you’re never too old to learn and try new things.

Looking back 4 years later, I realize it is I who learned the great lesson, understanding that I will never be too old to learn new things, that I can still challenge the status quo, and study subjects and complete projects that, like the anti-war activities years ago, and, I hope, like some of my journalistic endeavors since then, have made some kind of difference to society.  

And that’s why I came here to the New School - whose very history is based on critically engaging with the world.

I felt at home here from the beginning -- immediately --  feeling that the New School "got me"; Understood what I had done and why, and respected me for it. I felt i fit in with the New School’s mission and history.

And so when this university challenged me in my courses, it felt right and natural to respond to that challenge.  

Four years later, I’m looking back at the work I’ve done here, the assignments I proposed, the assignments professors here at the New School approved, and I am blown away by what this university has allowed me to do. The projects that, to me, were engaging, meaningful, and tied in to my everyday work.

  • I  studied the role of protest music right here in Greenwich Village - to help change the country during the anti war and civil rights movements.  
  • I analyzed the New York City Public School system -- the biggest in the country -- with a budget bigger than half of the states in the U.S., and interviewed former chancellors and educators to come up with new proposals to improve the schools.  Like not letting kids drop out when they turn 16.
  • I dove deep into the politics of prison food, based on one simple question asked by my wife Kathleen: why don’t prisons have gardens like they used to have a long time ago? You know, allow inmates to grow something. Nurture something.

That simple question led to an amazing discovery: that a new movement had just been born, and prison gardens were sprouting across the country. And where recidivism rates were typically  60-70%, inmates who became prison gardeners had recidivism rates that were infinitesimal.

My project led me to report TV news specials here at WABC in New York and at ABC News.

In fact the day after my ABC News story aired, the woman we profiled, a young activist who started a garden in of all places San Quentin, received a call from the head of the Department of Corrections for California, who asked her to start gardens in all 31 of the other state prisons in California. Since then, 2 and a half years ago, she has taken her organization nationwide.   

And my last project this semester, a series of focus groups, with New School students as participants, analyzing how college students are using social media to get their news and information during this most unusual presidential primary election season.

I’m already using these findings for how we disseminate information at my job. But equally important -- and this speaks volumes for this school -- is how this last project was conceived.

It was my advisor, Tracyann Williams, who came to know me, and understand what floats my boat. She suggested I do something different for my last semester,  beyond my comfort zone. Make it relevant and important, she said. 

I am so high from this experience, in a very different way than perhaps I was back when this picture was taken, but high just the same Bill Ritter

And with her guidance, I came up with a plan; a plan that involved other professors, from here and at other universities. I could have never imagined working on a school project in which the school was so active.  

I got real support  - from recruiting students,  to getting the sessions videotaped by new school students. It was a most rewarding way to end a most rewarding back to school experience… and it burnished this deep bond i feel for this magical place of learning. Because that’s what the New School is-- a magical place of learning.

I am so high from this experience, in a very different way than perhaps I was back when this picture was taken, but high just the same -- and proud to call myself, after another couple of days, a New School alum.

But we who have come from somewhere else, perhaps with a rather large years-long gap, we especially have a bigger responsibility than the typical new alum.  We are now bright beacons for the mantra that we are indeed never too old to learn, or to be engaged and active, curious and always questioning, and open to whatever answer we might find.  

That’s the essence of our New School education.

Yes, we all have backstories.  But it’s the story in front of us, what’s ahead, that holds the real excitement.  

So it’s onward. And as we climb, let’s also lift. And to quote the motto of the school of my 6-year-old daughter Ella, go forth -- unafraid.

Congratulations to all of us.

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