Filmmaker Ken Burns will speak to the Class of 2004 this May on Class Day.
Burns’ selection is the result of a yearlong process, Senior Class Secretary Joshua Secrest ’04 said. Secrest said the selection committee chose Burns because it wanted an “engaging and eloquent” speaker.
“I think whatever he touches on will be significant as far as our class fits into history,” Secrest said.
Burns is famous for his documentaries on the Civil War, baseball and jazz music. He has also made films about Mark Twain, Huey Long and Thomas Jefferson.
In an election year, Secrest said, a political figure would not have been appropriate.
“It was definitely on our minds,” he said.
Secrest said the class day speaker should bring the senior class together. Burns has shown Americans “how we became the way we are,” Secrest said.
Burns will be able to speak on important events that have occurred during the Class of 2004′s time at Yale, such as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the War in Iraq, Secrest said.
But some seniors said they were not familiar with Burns or his work.
Andrea Albertson ’04 said she had not heard of Burns.
“I don’t even know who that is,” she said.
Albertson said she had heard a rumor that Jon Stewart was coming and that she would have enjoyed hearing him speak.
Marissa Ain ’04 said Burns’ name sounded familiar, but she had anticipated that the committee would choose “a certain [current U.S.] president.”
“Not who I would have expected,” she said.
Dan Iancu ’04 said he does not know who Burns is but also does not care who speaks on Class Day.
While Brennan Hackett ’04 said he thinks Burns is a good choice, he said he would rather have heard a head of state speak. Though he once bought Burns’ films for his father, Hackett said, if it were up to him, Secretary of State Colin Powell would speak.
Secrest said Burns is well-known and that the selection committee wanted to make sure to pick a speaker who has excelled in his or her field.
“I would argue that Ken Burns is incredibly prominent,” Secrest said. “No matter who you pick, you have to assume that some people will not know who they are. But the Class Day chairs took the responsibility to make sure [the speaker] had a message that can stay with us for years after graduation.”
When asked if Burns has the same name-recognition as other figures such as Michael Jordan, British Prime Minister Tony Blair or U.S. President George W. Bush ’68, Secrest said it “depends who you ask.” Secrest declined to name any people other than Burns who were considered as prospective speakers.
Burns’ daughter, Sarah Burns ’04, is a student in Pierson College. Neither Ken Burns nor Sarah Burns could be reached for comment Monday night.
— Contributing reporter Zack O’Malley Greenburg contributed to this report.