CHAMPAIGN — It may not have been what finals-weary University of Illinois graduates wanted to hear, but commencement keynote speaker Nick Offerman urged them to be lifelong learners if they really want happiness and success.
"Maintain the attitude of a student. Every single day is another opportunity for learning improvement," said the 1993 graduate, former starving artist, and now nationally recognized actor, author and woodworker.
Using self-deprecating humor — his sentences were often punctuated by a staccato sinister chuckle suggestive of "I know something you don't" — the Minooka native appeared poised during his 34-minute speech.
The temperature at the start of Saturday’s ceremony in Memorial Stadium was about 65 degrees but increased to well over 70 by the time Offerman had finished talking to thousands of graduates and their families fidgeting under a cloudless sky on arguably the best weather day of 2017 in East Central Illinois.
Offerman, who was chosen to speak when the UI was unable to land former President Barack Obama, said he was "sincerely humbled" by the invitation.
"Back in the salad days, I endured two brief stints in the Urbana jail for minor tomfoolery and somehow managed to still be invited to speak to you today," he said.
Offerman said when he graduated, he recalled being "cocky for 17 minutes or so, till cold, hard reality set in."
"It turns out I had schooling yet to learn," he said, going on to credit the teachers who have influenced him most in life.
He began with Professor Emeritus Shozo Sato, an internationally renowned Japanese master of Zen arts and founder of the UI's Japan House.
Offerman shared how Sato, at the age of 7, witnessed first-hand the devastation caused by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima that helped bring an end to fighting in the Pacific during World War II.
"That left a deep impression ... and launched him on a lifelong search for peace by way of the arts," he said of his mentor and friend who immigrated to Illinois in the late 1960s.
It was Sato who first taught him to be open to learning daily.
He also praised Dr. Robin McFarquhar, a UI professor of movement, "who taught me to fight with swords" and who "also taught us courage."
A professional fight choreographer, McFarquhar has been teaching for 34 years, including "the likes of Mark Ruffalo, Denzel Washington and me, the big three," Offerman said, again with the deep-throated chuckle.
Offerman said McFarquhar attends workshops every summer to improve his craft, showing by example that the easiest way "is seldom the right way."
Kentucky farmer, environmental activist and writer Wendell Berry was the third teacher Offerman praised as having inspired him.
"Browse in the great public library of life," he said, urging the students to read a book not assigned to them but also imploring them to read one of Berry’s works.
Weaving in references to woodworking with Berryisms, Offerman told the graduates "if you’re not making mistakes, you are not living."
"Afford yourself the time and materials to make mistakes. Your walnut tables will prosper every time," he said.
The last teachers he hailed were his parents, joking that it’s "pretty cliche" to bring up your mom and dad in a commencement address.
"I’ve never claimed to be anything but pedestrian in my thinking," he said.
The best thing they taught him, he said, was to "get up and help another person," something they’ve been doing all their lives.
"Tell the truth, treat people with the best manners, and work hard. If you’re going to do a job, do it right," he said of the life lessons preached in his boyhood home.
"After I tried the alternatives, I realized the great value in their lessons and I strapped in," he said.
Winding down, Offerman rhetorically asked:
"What is behind all these nuggets I’ve imparted today? The answer has always been love. Figure out how best to love and be loved.
"It all turns on affection. The main thing that has driven my teachers and yours has been simply affection for others and the good works that they might in turn undertake," he said. "You can always be looking for teachers. Surround youself with smart, funny, interesting people from different places who have seen different things. I got one of the foxiest teachers I ever met to marry me," he said of "Will & Grace" star Megan Mullally, his wife of 14 years.