Share the challenges you've overcome, Craig T. Nelson tells graduates

graduates celebrating at commencement

About 4,000 graduates and 33,000 guests attended the University of Arizona's 160th Commencement on Friday, May 12. President Robert C. Robbins conferred about 8,000 degrees at the ceremony.

Chris Richards/University Communications

One of Craig T. Nelson's first acting gigs, during his time as a University of Arizona drama student in the 1960s, went off the rails when his two front teeth flew from his mouth.

Nelson's actual teeth were missing, and a prosthetic took their place. It came dislodged as his character hit just the right consonants during his performance, Nelson told graduates in Arizona Stadium on Friday night during his address at the university's 160th Commencement.

Craig T. Nelson giving remarks at a podium

Actor and UArizona alumnus Craig T. Nelson urged students to share their stories of struggle amid moments of achievement. "I think we all share the deep desire that we want to make a difference, that we want to affect change," Nelson said. "And I think we do that by sharing our hearts, our hopes and our aspirations with each other in a deeply personal way."

Chris Richards/University Communications

"They landed in the second row in some guy's lap," Nelson said as the crowd erupted with laughter. "I improvised and grabbed them from him, and yelled, 'Give me back my teeth!'"

"So, anyway, that's how it all started," he added. "It really hasn't changed much."

Nelson's career, of course, has changed – much – as the crowd of about 4,700 students and 33,000 guests already knew by the time they heard the flying teeth story. A video reel highlighting Nelson's career played before he took the Commencement stage, showing him in his iconic Emmy-winning role as Hayden Fox in "Coach," as Zeek Braverman in the TV show "Parenthood," in his starring role in the 1982 film "Poltergeist" and – prompting cheers from graduates – as the voice of Mr. Incredible in the animated film "The Incredibles."

All of those roles came after Nelson's time on campus, where he learned from Peter R. Marroney, the legendary former director of the theater department for whom the university's Marroney Theatre is named. After a couple years at the university, Nelson left for Hollywood before graduating to pursue a professional acting opportunity.

Years later, his name now finally appears on a University of Arizona diploma – Nelson was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from the College of Fine Arts.

"It's extraordinary to be a guy that's now got a robe – I'm not sure I can get on a plane like this, but what the heck?" he joked. "And I can write prescriptions now!"

Before Nelson's address, attendees heard remarks from university President Robert C. Robbins, as well as Interim Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Ron Marx, college deans, Associated Students of the University of Arizona President Alyssa Sanchez and others. 

Lillian Gorman, associate professor and director of the Spanish as a Heritage Language Program in the College of Humanities, gave the ceremony's greeting in Spanish. Christina Bell Andrews, executive director of the Wassaja Carlos Montezuma Center for Native American Health at the College of Medicine – Tucson, read the university's Land Acknowledgement, first in O'odham and then in English.

Robbins conferred about 8,000 bachelor's, master's, doctoral and professional degrees at the ceremony.

"We've been through a lot as a community, and I know the past few years have had their challenges," Robbins said in opening remarks. "But we keep coming back because all of us believe in you, in your hopes and your dreams. Tonight is an opportunity to celebrate you and all of the people who work with you every day to help you reach this moment."

'Talk to just one'

Losing his teeth live onstage during his time as a student was just one experience in a series that led Nelson to become one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood. 

"What I received here was a love for words, a feeling of being accepted, a feeling of being encouraged, a feeling – even though I failed – that I could get up, I could do this, I could make something of myself," he said. "I had this dream, this vision, of celebrity and stardom and making a living by doing that and being something when inside I really felt like not much."

There were other challenges along the way. A film producer led Nelson and his family to Hollywood on a false promise of the stardom he sought. Years later, he worked to overcome drug and alcohol addiction.

Nelson's career tells the rest of the story.

"A life that had become a disaster had been transformed, and at least I'm able to communicate on a level I never thought possible, which is to tell you in the language of my heart how deeply moved I am by what you have accomplished and how important you are," Nelson said, emphasizing the pandemic and other challenges the class of 2024 has faced in the last four years.

In telling his stories of struggle, Nelson had a message for graduates – to share their own stories, especially as they mark moments of achievement like graduation.

"I urge you, from the bottom of my heart, to take what you've learned and to do for one what you would do for many, and that is sit down, take the time as you're pursuing your dreams, as you achieve your goals, to talk to just one. Share your experience, strength and hope with them, and plant a seed that one day may become a life worth living and not a destiny," Nelson said. 

"I think we all share the deep desire that we want to make a difference, that we want to affect change," he added. "And I think we do that by sharing our hearts, our hopes and our aspirations with each other in a deeply personal way."

Student award winners, honorary degrees

During Friday's ceremony, seven graduating seniors were recognized for their outstanding achievements and contributions. The Provost Award went to Taylor Cavallaro (plant sciences); the Robie Gold Medals went to Shinhye Chloe Park (biochemistry) and Noah Weaver (physiology and medical science); the Robert Logan Nugent Awards went to Andrew Prouty (physiology and medical sciences) and Larissa Lazaro Roncador (psychology); and the Merrill P. Freeman Medals went to Nguyen Dang (food safety) and Bao "Tintin" Nguyen (physics, astronomy and mathematics).

In addition to Nelson, the following five honorary degrees were also awarded:

  • Ricardo Jasso, a cultural scholar, community leader, mentor and advocate who has spent more than five decades identifying and addressing barriers to the prosperity of Mexican Americans in the United States and has helped improve health and social service approaches among providers throughout Arizona and around the nation. (Doctor of Humane Letters from the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and College of Science)
  • Steve Kerr, an NBA champion, award-winning coach, social justice advocate, philanthropist and former standout basketball player at UArizona. (Doctor of Humanities from the College of Humanities)
  • Humberto S. Lopez, graduate of the Eller College of Management, longtime university supporter and co-founder of HSL Properties, one of Arizona's largest owner-operated apartment and hotel property management companies. (Doctor of Humane Letters from the Eller College of Management)
  • Bruce Taylor, chairman and CEO of Taylor Fresh, the largest producer of fresh-cut vegetables in North America, and longtime supporter of the university. (Doctor of Science from the College of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences)
  • Ann Zwicker Kerr-Adams, coordinator for visiting Fulbright scholars at the University of California, Los Angeles, who teaches students about U.S. interests in greater Middle East diplomacy and perceptions of U.S. foreign policy abroad. (Doctor of Humane Letters from the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences)

A video of the ceremony is available to watch on YouTube