WATERVILLE, Maine — Film icon, environmentalist and political activist Robert Redford called upon Colby College’s Class of 2015 to fix the nation’s political problems and address environmental issues during the school’s 194th commencement ceremony Sunday.
“You’re stepping into a world that’s, well, pretty rough. It’s pretty chaotic. It’s pretty divisive,” the film star and founder of the Sundance Film Festival said. “You’ve got climate change, you’ve got debt, you’ve got wars, you’ve got political paralysis.
“The story I think can be retold, and I really believe that you’re the ones to do it,” he told the graduates. “You’re the ones to retell this story, and God knows it is a story that needs to be retold. If we’re going to have any kind of future at all, it has to be retold.”
In all, 483 baccalaureate degrees were conferred during the ceremony, including one to Redford’s grandson, Conor Schlosser, and a posthumous degree conferred to the grandson of Walter Cronkite, Peter Cronkite, who took his own life at the school last month.
Another five honorary doctorates were awarded during the ceremony, including one to Redford, who never completed a college degree program but has multiple honorary degrees.
Colby President David Greene said they were honoring Redford “because of his enduring commitment to the environment, to the arts and to paving the way for others to succeed.
“We honor him because of his commitment to open expression of ideas and his dedication to the power of artful storytelling,” he said.
Redford told the graduates he wanted to celebrate the value of education and the value of teachers, saying he was not a good student growing up in Los Angeles.
“I didn’t know it then, but the school system was pretty poor, because we had substitute teachers. It was the end of the Second World War, and so I didn’t know that the teachers were substitute teachers,” he said.
“So it left me uninspired. It left me more interested in what was out the window and sketching underneath the table — things like that,” he said.
“I loved to to draw stories for myself and entertain myself,” he said. “It was kind of like having a companion.”
Despite his lack of interest in school, Redford said he learned a valuable lesson in third grade, when a teacher caught him drawing during a lesson and made him show the drawing to the class.
“I thought, ‘Oh God, I’m toast. She’s going to burn me and it’s going to work and the kids are going to laugh and I’m going to feel like hell and I will shrink,’” he said.
Instead, when he showed the picture — which he said depicted cowboys chasing Indians over a cliff while being bombed by B-51s — the class responded positively to it, and the teacher gave him 15 minutes every Wednesday to draw a story for the class in exchange for his attention during the lesson.
“Had she not made that move, my life … could have gone in a different direction,” he said. “That’s just an example of how a teacher can maybe affect your life, and it certainly changed mine and certainly for the better.
“So I was not a good student, but I learned a valuable lesson about what a really good teacher could do, and it only takes maybe two or three in your academic lifetime to make a difference,” he said.
Redford went on to call on the class to work for collaboration, saying it connects them to the planet, unlike “plans to slowly destroy the planet through unwanted development, out of control development, short-term thinking — short-term, narrow-minded political thinking.”
He spoke out against political divisiveness, saying “they’re stuck sticking to their own stubborn ideology about what’s right, and it’s the only right. The only right is the right they proclaim.
“I think when you have that kind of stalemate, there’s an inherent loss of opportunity, an opportunity to take social issues and take the social fabric of this country and move it forward,” he said.
“So obviously something has to change, and I think you’re the ones to do it,” he said.
Redford told the students he was “stunned” decades after the Watergate scandal, when he reviewed footage of a bipartisan congressional committee interviewing then White House legal counsel John Dean and found Republicans and Democrats “working together to get to the truth.”
The footage showed cooperation and collaboration are possible in politics, he said.
“I thought, wow, there was a time, so it’s still possible. It can be revived. Again, I think I’m putting it in your hands — sorry about that,” he said.
In conclusion, Redford told the students to be bold and not fear taking risks.
“You may have some heartaches, things may not go right, but you have to be using methods to keep moving forward, and I think taking a risk is one,” he said. “I think not taking a risk is in fact a risk, so don’t be afraid to take a risk. Don’t be afraid of failure.”
Redford, 78, works as an actor, director, producer, environmentalist and philanthropist. He has starred in iconic films such as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Jeremiah Johnson,” “The Sting” and “All the President’s Men.”
In 1981, he founded the Sundance Institute, which works to advance the work of filmmakers and storytellers worldwide. Since its founding, Redford has been heavily involved in independent filmmaking. The Sundance Film Festival caters to independent filmmakers across the country.
Follow Evan Belanger on Twitter at @evanbelanger.