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.