'Sunscreen' speech rings familiar

Springstead High's principal says she didn't mean to plagiarize her graduation speech from a Chicago Tribune column.

Published June 3, 2005

SPRING HILL - Graduating seniors at Springstead High School applauded and laughed as they listened to principal Susan Duval's commencement speech last week.

The speech sounded funny and wise. But the speech may have also sounded a little familiar.

That's because Duval plagiarized her address from a famous Chicago Tribune column that was the subject of both an Internet hoax about the writer Kurt Vonnegut and a Billboard Hot100 hit song.

Duval prefaced her speech by stating: "I would like to share some personal thoughts with you - the Class of 2005." She later said in the speech: "Part of my advice to the Class of 2005 is not to worry about the future."

During her brief speech, Duval read almost word for word from a June 1997 column in the Tribune written by Mary Schmich. Duval sometimes skipped a few sentences and tweaked a few phrases, but her speech rarely deviated from Schmich's column.

When asked if a student in a similar situation would be considered guilty of plagiarism, Duval was unapologetic.

"Was I turning this in for a grade? No," she said.

Duval began her speech saying: "If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it."

Those words, like much of Duval's speech, are identical to Schmich's column.

Other phrases followed a similar pattern as Duval's speech matched the Tribune column verbatim:

"Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday."

"Keep your old love letters. Throw away your old bank statements. Stretch."

Duval never gave Schmich credit for the speech. In an interview on Thursday, Duval said she had come across the speech while doing research on the Internet but did not learn the name of the author.

"I was searching for material I could quote," Duval said. "I never even saw a Chicago Tribune column. ... It was certainly not my intent (to plagiarize)."

Duval also said she did not intend to claim authorship of the speech, even though she had introduced it as some of her "personal thoughts."

She also said she had told parents who asked her about the speech that she had not written it, but just found it on the Internet and did not know the author.

After receiving an anonymous letter from an individual who had recognized phrases from Duval's speech and felt she had acted unethically, the Times reviewed a videotape of Springstead's May 26 graduation ceremony. The Times compared Duval's speech to the text of Schmich's column, which can be found at the Tribune's Web site.

Superintendent Wendy Tellone, who hired Duval as Springstead's principal in 2003, responded to several messages seeking comment with a voicemail message saying she would be available for comment today. Tellone's predecessor, superintendent John Sanders, had removed Duval from a job as principal of Springstead in 1996 with no explanation.

When told of Duval's action, School Board member Sandra Nicholson was stunned.

"If she needed to use somebody else's words," Nicholson said, "she should have given them credit."

Tribune columnist Mary Schmich said this was not the first time that her column had been appropriated by a speaker at a public event. Others desperate for a good speech, under pressure, have resorted to using her words without giving her credit.

"Someone in that position should know you can't go around and lift entire chunks of text someone else has written, even if you don't know the author," Schmich said. "It puzzles me."

She was amazed by the column's impact.

"It's a fascinating little cultural blip to me," Schmich said. "It's yet another way that it's penetrated the culture without my name on it."

Schmich's original column became a cultural phenomenon soon after it appeared. It was posted on Web pages and e-mailed to thousands of people as the text of novelist Kurt Vonnegut's commencement speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Unfortunately, Vonnegut had not delivered the speech at MIT. But the column went on to attract the notice of Australian movie director Baz Luhrmann, who recently directed the Nicole Kidman film Moulin Rouge!

According to a March 1999 Tribune article by Mark Caro that detailed the column's evolution, Luhrmann made the column the basis of a novelty song titled Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen) on the album Something for Everybody , released in Australia in late 1997.

But, according to the Tribune, it was only after a Portland, Ore., radio station cut the song's length that it became a hit in the United States. In March 1999, it debuted at No. 61 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Those in search of inspiration continue to turn to Schmich's column. Type in the phrase "wear sunscreen" on the search engine Google and links to Schmich's column pop up.

Schmich said she often gets calls during graduation season from people desperate for advice. She was planning to write a column about it.

Duval didn't seek Schmich's advice but borrowed her words. And "Sunscreen" went over well in Hernando County.

Duval smiled while reading the speech. Parents and students laughed and listened with rapt attention. When Duval finished, she got a standing ovation.

When told of the audience's reaction, Schmich joked: "I would have been insulted otherwise."

Times Researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

--Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or 352-848-1431.