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By all accounts, actor Nick Offerman's commencement address at the University of Illinois was a hit, even making a couple of top 10 lists of graduation speeches this spring.

He'd actually been invited last fall, along with a certain former president who ended up sending his regrets in March.

Here are a few behind-the-scenes details about the effort to bring Barack Obama to campus, courtesy of the state's Freedom of Information Act:

-- The formal invitation to Obama went out on Oct. 28, 2016.

"Dear Mr. President," Chancellor Robert Jones wrote. "When we polled students for suggestions for their speaker, you were their first choice. You were also their second, third and fourth choices. As teenagers, they watched you break down barriers to become the first African American to lead their nation.

"In your second run," the statement continued, "you were the one who brought most of them out to vote in their first election. They grew up with you as their President. To them, you represent the power and possibility of the American dream."

-- It was a personal invitation as well from Jones, the first black chancellor in the campus' 150-year history, who recounted his own journey from a sharecropper's son to administrator at several land-grant universities.

"I know firsthand how difficult it can be to choose a path that others believe to be impossible, or worse, one they say that you have no right to follow," he wrote "... There is no one who better exemplifies what can happen when education and opportunity come together than you."

-- The letter was given to UI alumnus Michael Strautmanis, vice president of the Obama Foundation in Chicago and former chief of staff for Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett. He was to hand-deliver it to Obama, and he and Jones spoke several times by phone over the next few months, records show.

-- The UI submitted a more "pro forma" request online through Obama's new website,, after the former president left office in January, just to cover all the bases, spokeswoman Robin Kaler said Monday. UI students also lobbied Strautmanis and Obama through letters and social media.

-- The campus never received an official response to the letter, according to Kaler. But on March 17, the commencement office got an email from stating that the former president would not be available.

"Thank you for your interest in including President Obama in your university's commencement plans. President Obama will be focusing on work for his foundation in the coming weeks and months, and although he will not be able to attend your event, he truly appreciates your invitation."

-- The UI didn't announce this news, instead sending out a tweet a month later, on April 19, teasing the commencement speaker:

"May want to pick up extra tickets for Commencement this year ... (sharing who our #ILLINOIS2017 speaker is April 25!)"

-- Kaler said officials still felt there was an outside chance Obama could say yes, since they hadn't heard anything directly. Plus, "the idea was to do a little bit of teasing, since people thought it might be President Obama."

-- UI students guessed pretty quickly it was Offerman after tweets featuring his co-star on "Parks and Recreation," Amy Poehler, and his passion for woodworking. Faculty weren't quite so tuned in. Even after a tweet showing the university seal altered to read, "City of Pawnee," the fictional Indiana town where the TV series was set, "we still had faculty calling to say, 'Is President Obama the speaker?'" Kaler said. "You could tell who was on social media and who wasn't."

-- Offerman had also been invited last fall but didn't realize it, as the message had "gotten lost somewhere along the way," Kaler said. Jones re-invited him in the spring, and he accepted. Offerman also agreed to produce a video used in the official Twitter announcement on April 25.

-- Schedules are tricky with celebrities, who get hundreds of such requests, Kaler said. Efforts to bring filmmaker Ang Lee and movie critic Roger Ebert to commencement in past years faltered because the event conflicted with the Cannes Film Festival, Kaler said. And before Hillary Clinton spoke on campus in 1994, the UI had given up on that invitation and invited another speaker until it learned just a couple of weeks beforehand that she was coming.


Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).