While this is nationally syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker’s first commencement address at the College of Charleston, this won’t be her first time attending the ceremony. Her youngest son, John Cleveland, crossed the Cistern in 2007 to receive dual degrees in history and political science, albeit in the pouring rain.
“They kept postponing it, and we would go inside and hope that the rain would pass,” she recalls. “It would clear for a while, and as soon as we got seated again, it would start all over again. Finally, after three or four of those exercises and several hours, we just sat through it with umbrellas, and the graduates just sort of gave into the weather and started tossing beach balls around. Everybody was thoroughly drenched.”
A framed photo of her soaked son (who now serves as Gov. Henry McMaster’s policy director and external communications director in Columbia) accepting his diplomas, which sits on a shelf in the library in the Parker/Cleveland household in Camden, South Carolina, is a daily reminder of that day.
“He looks quite happy despite the fact that he was just completely soaked through in his little white jacket,” says Parker, who is married to Columbia attorney Woody Cleveland.
Although the weather forecast for Saturday’s commencement ceremonies for the Class of 2020 is a little dicey, and the dark clouds of the pandemic dominate just about every area of our lives, Parker plans to focus on the sun eventually shining.
“My first inclination was to say I’m sorry because they’ve missed so much, all the excitement of graduation and the beauty of the commencement ceremony at the College of Charleston, especially,” she says. “But those are minor things compared to the challenges they face as young adults going out into the world looking for jobs and trying to navigate the coronavirus and have hopes for the future which is very, very unclear right now. My message is to be brave and to be patient because things will work out, and this we know as adults who’ve seen challenges come and go. Things will work out, but it may take some time.”
Parker didn’t even attend her graduation at Florida State University when she graduated in 1977 with a master’s in Spanish and just nine hours shy of a doctorate. But, suddenly one day, she says, she lost interest in 17th-century drama, gave up her teaching assistantship and loaded up her Toyota station wagon. She headed north on I-95 with no particular destination in mind. Once in South Carolina, where her mother’s family has lived since the 1600s – and where she spent a fair amount of time as a child – she came to a literal fork in the road at the I-26 intersection.
“I could go left to Colombia or right to Charleston,” she recalls. “I had family in both places, so I literally did eeny, meeny, miny, moe and wound up in Charleston.”
One of her first stops in town was at the College’s languages department to inquire about teaching Spanish, “which is all I really knew how to do.” She was walking down the hallway when she ran into a French professor, Chi Diep, who was good friends with Peter Manigault, the publisher of Charleston’s two newspapers, The Evening Post and The News and Courier. The next thing you know Parker was covering town council meetings in Moncks Corner, Goose Creek and Hanahan. But she quickly rose through the reporting ranks and was soon covering the City of Charleston and the courts downtown.
Stints at three different newspapers followed, including The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, The Birmingham (Al) Post-Herald and The San Jose Mercury News, before winding up back home in central Florida in 1987 at The Orlando Sentinel, where she first started writing her column. The Chicago Tribune began syndicating her after she became the first woman to win the prestigious H.L. Mencken Writing Award in 1993.
“What happened is I developed a voice, which writers often do after a period of time, and I couldn’t seem to keep it out of my copy,” she says. “I remember once when I was at the Birmingham Post-Herald, the city editor walked past my desk and handed me my edited copy. He said, ‘KP, you ever thought about being an editorial writer?’ He would also toss me other people’s copy – I was an A1 feature writer – and say, ‘Here, put the Parker cutesy on this,’ and what he meant was liven this up a little bit. I was pretty good with similes and metaphors.”
A huge fan of such notables as Tom Wicker, also a South Carolinian, and Russell Baker, both of The New York Times, her column-writing models were Ellen Goodman of the Boston Globe and Anna Quindlen of The New York Times.
“They were really the first two women to write op-ed columns from a woman’s perspective,” she says. “I think in those days, women spent a lot of time trying to imitate men in all respects. I mean, there was a time where I wore a tie to work with my hair up in a bun.”
What does she like most about writing a column? Hitting the send button.
“I certainly don’t feel this every time, but when I know I’ve written a good column, there’s just no greater feeling in the world,” says Parker, who wrote one about CofC President Andrew Hsu in August 2019. “I just know that I’m going to sleep well that night. I can anticipate I’ll have less hate mail the next day. It’s probably a very therapeutic thing to be able to sort through your thoughts in a constructive way.”
The pinnacle of her career was winning the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary “for her perceptive, often witty columns on an array of political and moral issues.” She didn’t even know her editor at The Washington Post, where she landed four years earlier, had entered her. She found out she won in the green room of Meet the Press one Sunday when another guest congratulated her.
“I walked on air for a year,” she says. “It is different. People want to sit next to you, they want you at their dinner parties. You feel like you’re Miss America for a year, but a lot better. It’s the Pulitzer.”
And colleges ask you to give commencement speeches, rain or shine.