St. Thomas honor student apologizes for grad speech

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 24, 2006 - 10:19 AM

The commencement speech, with reprimands for birth-control use and a recent food fight, sparked boos and walkouts.

A University of St. Thomas honors graduate who scolded his fellow seniors at Saturday's commencement ceremony for being "selfish" apologized Monday for offending people during his politically charged speech.

Ben Kessler, an academic All-America football player who plans to become a priest, chastised students for using birth control, criticized them for a recent food fight and upheld the St. Paul university's controversial policy against allowing unmarried faculty and staff members in romantic relationships to room together on school trips that involve students.

"Then he got into other failures of society, and one of my classmates next to me stood up and left," said Daphne Ho, a graduating senior whose family traveled from Hong Kong for the celebration.

In a prepared statement released Monday by St. Thomas, Kessler said that he had tried in his speech to look back at some issues faced by the university and society and then look ahead.

"Instead of providing hope for all, I offended some by my words," Kessler said. "I sincerely apologize to each person I offended."

Kessler, 21, of Janesville, Wis., was invited to speak after receiving the 2006 Tommie Award, given each year to a distinguished senior in a vote of students, staff and faculty. He was a star defensive tackle for the Tommies and attended the university's minor seminary, St. John Vianney, where he majored in philosophy and business. He graduated with a 4.0 grade point average.

Present for his 15-minute speech at O'Shaughnessy Stadium on the school's campus were Archbishop Harry Flynn, other dignitaries and more than 900 graduates.

The speech prompted booing and walkouts.

"He started out pretty well and then, out of nowhere, comes these bombshells about things he'd seen that irritated him," said Chris Kearney, a graduating senior from Hibbing, Minn.

"The heart of the speech was about making selfish decisions, so when I went up to get my diploma afterwards, I told him he made some good points about being selfish -- and he's the man that was selfish enough to ruin hundreds of people's graduations," Kearney said.

Several students were seen crying, while others hollered to get Kessler off the stage. Brandon Mileski, a 2002 St. Thomas graduate, was in the crowd to watch his girlfriend receive her diploma.

"Dozens of students literally started walking out when he brought up birth control issues and, at one point, I thought a riot would break out," Mileski said. "I give him credit because he kept on going when everyone started booing and heckling.

"At one point he was talking about the meaning of true happiness and someone stood up and screamed: 'I'll be happy when your speech in done!' "

St. Thomas responds

St. Thomas spokesman Doug Hennes said no one in the administration read Kessler's speech beforehand because it has never been an issue in the past. The Tommie of the Year, Hennes said, typically congratulates everyone and wishes them well.

The Rev. Dennis Dease, St. Thomas' president, said in a prepared statement Monday that he accepted Kessler's apology and that he regrets that graduates, families and guests were offended.

"I have shared my sentiments with Mr. Kessler that it was not appropriate for him to use the commencement exercise as a venue to express his opinions on several issues," Dease said.

At the same time, the president said, it was also important "to treat one another with respect as we speak and as we listen, regardless of how controversial an issue may be."

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