It wasn’t part of the script.
Kathy Ireland stepped out from behind the lectern. She took the microphone with her. Was this going to be one of those defining moments when years from now people would still say that was “the Ireland at NEIT episode?” What might the woman who appeared in 13 consecutive Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues – and who is also an actress, author and chair, CEO and chief designer of Kathy Ireland Worldwide – do?
Was she going to model the cape that moments before had been draped around her neck as she received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree Sunday at New England Institute of Technology’s commencement ceremony at the Rhode Island Convention Center? Might she do something even more daring?
Whatever was going to happen, the news photographers weren’t going to miss it. They trained their telephoto lenses on Ireland. The 1,175 grads and their families and friends craned their necks to see the stage and the screens showing Ireland bigger than life. Ireland had everyone’s attention. She’s good at grabbing attention. She twisted to demonstrate how she would model a swimsuit.
It wasn’t an “episode” to go viral, but Ireland had a lot to say to the graduates about her life, which not only might they relate to, but could serve them in the years to come.
Speaking quickly and only occasionally referring to notes, Ireland talked about growing up and being told she was not qualified to do the job. She also talked about education and the sacrifices many of the graduates have made in order to gain their degrees.
“If I had formal education, I would have avoided many, many mistakes,” she said.
She urged the graduates to pursue their dreams and not be dissuaded by those who may think they are reaching too far.
“Don’t break down, break though,” she said. “Please never let anyone silence you.”
Yet, she said, critics can also be helpful.
“Criticism is a gift, sometimes a nasty gift,” she said.
Ireland said some criticism is “garbage, but look at it and sometimes you can glean from it.”
Ireland urged the class of 2014 to understand their values, not to compromise them and “surround yourself with those who love you enough to tell you the truth.”
At points in her speech that lasted about 30 minutes, Ireland rambled before returning to her theme that she is proud of the graduates and looks to them for great achievements. She told them to rebel against everything evil and “take the good and reject the bad.”
Ireland also interjected a personal story of her first job as a newspaper carrier at the age of 11. She saw an ad for newsboys and questioned why a girl couldn’t do the job. She was given a chance but was crushed when a customer, a man, told her it was a boy’s job. She hid her tears and went on to say if the customer expected the paper to be left on the drive, you need to go a step further and put it on the porch. It’s an axiom that has evidently helped her build a business that markets more than 15,000 products with designs in fashion, weddings, home and office.
“I’m really grateful to that man,” Ireland said.
At the 73rd commencement ceremony, Richard Gouse, president of the college, also presented an honorary degree to Rhode Island business and community leader Cheryl Merchant, president and chief executive officer of Hope Global. Under Merchant’s leadership, the 131-year-old textile manufacturing company has nearly tripled revenues, product lines and market share in the automotive, industrial and defense industries. The company employs 700 people around the world.
Merchant is active in the business community and serves as a member of the Governor’s Workforce Board. Charities that provide assistance to children and women in need are a focus at Hope Global.
The graduates also received words of encouragement from Mayor Scott Avedisian, who pointed out that Warwick hosts several NEIT programs, and Town Manager Thomas Coyle of East Greenwich, where the main NEIT campus is housed.