Actor Michael O’Neill shares ‘The Unexpected’ during Auburn University’s December commencement address

Published: December 14, 2019
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Auburn University alumnus Michael O’Neill is no stranger to being in the spotlight—having acted out many roles, including that of “Larry Mills” in the upcoming NBC drama series Council of Dads, set to premiere in March.

On Saturday, though, O’Neill took center stage not as an actor but as the commencement speaker for Auburn’s 1,900 newest graduates.

“Mr. O’Neill is a true Auburn man who puts our institution’s values into action every day,” said Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Bill Hardgrave. “He is proof that working hard and following your passions can lead to great success.”

A renowned actor, O’Neill graduated from Auburn in 1974 with a degree in economics. His role at Saturday’s commencement wasn’t just as the speaker, though.

“All you really need to know about me is I’m an actor, and I’m your commencement speaker,” O’Neill said.

“I’m a graduate of this university, but my most important role today is that I’m a parent of a young woman who is going to walk across this stage and get her degree.”

O’Neill’s daughter Ella graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in history.

It was his daughter’s accomplishment that made him especially honored to be speaking at this weekend’s ceremonies.

“I feel uniquely qualified in speaking for all the parents here when we say ‘We’re immensely proud of you on this day of all days,’” he said. “Ella, I love you, I’m proud of the citizen you’ve become and I’m very appreciative that if we averaged our GPAs, yours elevates mine considerably.”

O’Neill continued to use humor throughout his speech, titled “The Unexpected,” to share advice with the graduating class.

He talked about two signs in his house—one is taped over his shower door where he does much of his thinking. It reads, “It’s not going to happen the way you think.” The other is taped over the front door and reads “It’s not going to happen that way either.”

He emphasized that the path to success can be unexpected and winding. When he left Auburn and went to California to give acting a try, he met an important teacher: no.

“I don’t want you to miss the importance of that word,” he said. “...It will challenge you to improve in areas you need to improve in, but more than anything else, it will force you to define your worth.”
His other teacher was mistakes.

“I suggest you make some. Make a lot of them. And if they’re big enough, you can go apologize for them,” he said. “I can hear the parents out there thinking, ‘We paid good money for this education’ and the students are thinking ‘We worked hard for this degree’ and all this fellow said is to go out and make some mistakes.”

O’Neill shifted gears to talk about the degrees the students were earning.

“There’s a scroll with your name on it, a degree that you’ve earned,” he said. “Wherever you go, no one can ever take that away from you. When you open it up and look at it, I want you to take a look at the background. We think of it as blank. It’s not. There’s so much written there that we can’t even read it. That was the education that Auburn gave us.”

He said Auburn teaches its graduates about decency, listening, exploring new ideas, critical thinking and, perhaps most importantly, loyalty.

“Auburn didn’t tell me I could take my economics degree and go be an expert in something,” he said. “What it did tell me was that I could take my tenacity and learn.”

O’Neill will soon be seen as “Larry Mills” in the new NBC drama series, Council of Dads, and as “Chaplain Kendricks” in the critically acclaimed feature film, Clemency, which won the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize. His most recent role is “Senator Mitchell Chapin” in season two of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan on Amazon. Read more about O’Neill online.

Auburn awarded 93 doctoral degrees, 375 master’s degrees, 14 education specialist degrees and 1,418 bachelor’s degrees. The bachelor’s degrees by college and school are: Raymond J. Harbert College of Business, 333; Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, 266; College of Liberal Arts, 255; College of Sciences and Mathematics, 165; College of Education, 112; College of Architecture, Design and Construction, 100; College of Agriculture, 92; College of Human Sciences, 66; School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, 23; and School of Nursing, six.

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn's commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact. Auburn's mission to educate, discover and collaborate drives its expanding impact on the world.