When Bill Clinton spoke at Irvine Auditorium late last month as part of the Center for Africana Studies’ “Kerner Plus 40” Symposium (see story) he added to the long legacy of presidential appearances here at Penn—a legacy that dates even further back than the Presidency itself.
Penn’s first presidential visit, though a retroactive one, came in 1775, when General George Washington—not yet named President, because there was no such office—visited what was then called the College of Philadelphia for the University’s Commencement. He was joined that day by John Adams, who would serve as both Washington’s vice president and successor. Eight years later, Washington would become the first of ten U.S. presidents to receive an honorary Penn degree. Among them is Theodore Roosevelt. As reported by Old Penn on Feb. 18, 1905, Roosevelt was to receive his honorary doctorate along with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who in later years played a pivotal role in World War I. Wilhelm accepted his degree in absentia; the University revoked it in 1918.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower received an honorary degree in 1947, and though John F. Kennedy was here in 1957 and Harry S Truman in 1960, 15 long years passed until the next Presidential visitor, Gerald Ford, who was Commencement speaker in 1975.
Penn has also played host to distinguished First Ladies, with Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton—now a Presidential hopeful herself—receiving honorary diplomas. Mrs. Clinton posed with Ben on the Bench, while Mrs. Bush turned a memorable phrase in 1990: “Somewhere out in the audience today there may be a future President of the United States. I wish her well.”
Originally published March 6, 2008