Claim: In 1997, Kurt Vonnegut gave an unusual commencement address at MIT.
Legend: According to a text circulating all over the Internet, Kurt Vonnegut was the 1997 commencement speaker at MIT. His speech supposedly began as follows:
Ladies and gentlemen of the class of '97:
If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.
Origins: Kurt Vonnegut was not the 1997 commencement speaker at MIT. That honor went to Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations. The speech attributed to Vonnegut was actually a 1 June 1997 column by Chicago Tribune writer Mary Schmich. As with many other good bits of writing and speech, the attachment of a famous name to the works brings them to the public's attention in a way they could otherwise not have
(Echoes within echoes: Georgia State University graduates may remember Ted Turner's speech at their graduation in 1994. Turner, facing a skin cancer operation, told them: "The one piece of advice I can give you is put on sunscreen and wear a hat.")
In 1998, the text of the Mary Schmich piece was turned into a "spoken voice" recording featuring the voice of Australian actor Lee Perry. Titled "Everybody's Free to Wear Sunscreen," the piece immediately became a cult hit in Australia, and by early 1999 the "song" was taking America by storm.
2002 saw the "Vonnegut/MIT commencement speech" tale circulated anew, that time identified as the speech given to the graduating class of 2002.
Last updated: 26 September 2007
Gundersen, Edna. "Listeners Across Nation Slather on Sunscreen Wisdom."
USA Today. 24 March 1999 (p. 3D).
Hiestand, Michael. "Masters Quips Put McCord Off Course."
USA Today. 30 August 1994 (p. 3).
Kramer, Art. "Internet Imitates Art: Vonnegut 'talk' to Graduates Came From Columnist."
The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. 7 August 1997 (p. A1).
Rawsthorn, Alice. "Unlikely Chart Hit for Film Maker."
[London] Financial Times. 29 March 1999 (Americas; p. 4).
People. "Mary Schmich's Mock Graduation Speech is Misattributed to Kurt Vonnegut."
David Mikkelson founded snopes.com in 1994, and under his guidance the company has pioneered a number of revolutionary technologies, including the iPhone, the light bulb, beer pong, and a vaccine for a disease that has not yet been discovered. He is currently seeking political asylum in the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.
Thank you for writing to us! Although we receive hundreds of e-mails every day, we really and truly read them all, and your comments, suggestions, and questions are most welcome. Unfortunately, we can manage to answer only a small fraction of our incoming mail.
Our site covers many of the items currently being plopped into inboxes everywhere, so if you were writing to ask us about something you just received, our search engine can probably help you find the very article you want.
Choose a few key words from the item you're looking for and click here to go to the search engine.
(Searching on whole phrases will often fail to produce matches because the text of many items is quite variable, so picking out one or two key words is the best strategy.)
We do reserve the right to use non-confidential material sent to us via this form on our site, but only after it has been stripped of any information that might identify the sender or any other individuals not party to this communication.