by Bill Robinson / Register News Writer / May 2006

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and actor Lee Majors, an Eastern Kentucky University graduate, received honorary doctorates from EKU on Saturday, before addressing degree candidates at separate commencement ceremonies.

Both speakers drew laughs with their self-deprecating humor.

Referring to Majors and his two most popular television roles, McConnell quipped at the morning ceremony: “I’m sorry you didn’t get ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’. Instead, you got the ‘Fall Guy.'”

Then, at the afternoon ceremony, Majors said students who heard that a Hollywood star with Kentucky roots would be their commencement speaker might be disappointed.

“The girls were probably expecting George Clooney and the guys Ashley Judd,” he joked. “At least you didn’t get the senator,” Majors said to much laughter.

McConnell received an honorary doctor of laws degree, and Majors received an honorary doctor of humanities degree.

The two ceremonies honored 1,669 degree candidates – 1,178 bachelor’s degree candidates, 371 master’s degree candidates and 120 associate degree candidates.

Six students in Eastern’s Reserve Officer Training Corps were commissioned second lieutenants in the U.S. Army.

McConnell, who addressed degree candidates in the Colleges of Arts & Sciences and Business & Technology in the morning ceremony, talked about the “values of determination, focus and tenacity” he learned from his mother, who helped him overcome polio as a toddler. “The most important word in the English language is focus,” he said.

He also urged the graduates to remember what EKU, which is celebrating its centennial this year, had done for them.

“Every one of you can be a part of (the university’s second century of opportunity) by serving as ambassadors of EKU’s excellence,” McConnell said.

Majors, who grew up in Middlesboro as Harvey Lee Yeary and earned degrees in history and physical education from Eastern in 1962 before going on to fame in Hollywood, addressed candidates in the Colleges of Education, Health Sciences and Justice & Safety.

“The key,” he said, “is to plant the seed in your mind that says you can do anything. Each of you has so much potential, and you’re going to accomplish great things.”

Majors echoed McConnell’s message of focus and determination. “I knocked on a lot of doors before I got my first audition,” he told the graduates. “I did a lot of auditions before I got my first role.”

Best known for portraying the “bionic” Steve Austin in “The Six Million Dollar Man” television series, Majors said he “never forgot where I came from. I’m proud to be a graduate of Eastern Kentucky University.”

Like “most football players,” Majors said he did not “graduate on time.” His diploma “came in the mail,” and Saturday’s ceremony was his first college commencement.

“When I get back to California, I’m going to tell all my friends that they’ll have to start calling me Dr. Majors.”

The 67-year-old Majors said he had not been back to Richmond “for about 25 years.” He was winding up a two-week visit to Kentucky with his commencement address. Before coming to Richmond for EKU’s commencement, he had attended the Kentucky Derby and visited his hometown to attend Middlesboro High School’s athletic banquet. The school’s football stadium is named for him.

“Kentucky hasn’t changed much,” Majors said as he met briefly with reporters after the ceremony. “It’s still the same beautiful place it always was.” The EKU campus has changed a lot, he said. “There are a lot of new buildings.”

He promised to visit more frequently in the future.

Majors said a football teammate dared him to try out for a play at Eastern. He tried out for the lead in “The Crucible” and was “scared” to be chosen for the role. He was even more scared on opening night when he saw many football players and their dates in the audience.

In the play, based on the Salem witch trials, the wife of Majors’ character was to be burned at the stake. As his character agonized about the fate of his wife, Majors noticed that many women in the audience had tears in their eyes. “Even some of the football players’ eyes were a bit moist,” he said. “That’s when I realized I might be on to something.”

That summer he acted for the Pioneer Playhouse in Danville, and then it was on to Hollywood where he went on to star on both the big and small screens.

Majors said he continues to work, “mostly is independent films.” His most recent shoot was in Alabama, he said.

EKU President Joanne Glasser advised the graduates to be a “pilgrim” rather than a “tourist” on their journey through life.

“A tourist’s purpose is merely to see and enjoy, but a pilgrim’s purpose is to receive, absorb and reflect and to leave this world a better place,” she said. “While a tourist deals largely in surface superficial, for the pilgrim, it’s all about the inward journey of self-discovery. While the tourist arrives back home basically unchanged, a pilgrim journeys to understand and to be transformed.”

A tourist is concerned with distance, but a pilgrim is concerned with the depth of any experience, she said.

When Glasser asked the graduates who were the first in their families to graduate from college to stand, nearly two-thirds of them rose and were applauded.

While the commencement program booklet listed Richmond, Berea, Irvine and Winchester as the hometowns of many graduates, some place names found only in Kentucky were sprinkled throughout the list. These included Mousie, Fisty, Busy, Bimble, Thelma, Kettle Island, Vicco and Viper. Several graduates hailed from some other exotic locations such as Morocco, Kenya, Nepal, India, Turkey and Japan.

Distant states as far as Washington, Idaho, Texas and Wisconsin were represented, as well as neighbouring states in the South and Midwest

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