YOUNGSTOWN - Spring graduates of Youngstown State University received more than their degrees Saturday as the university heard from actor and Youngstown native Ed O'Neill.
"I hope I don't show him up," quipped student speaker Luke Politsky as he gave his student reflection speech at the beginning of the morning ceremony.
The stands of Beeghly Center's gymnasium were filled nearly to capacity, with friends and family members of graduating students the only ones permitted in the anticipated event for the community to hear from one of YSU's favorite sons.
Comedian Ed O’Neill talked to the media about his days growing up in Youngstown, where he worked at the Pub on campus. Photo by Bonnie Hazen
More than 1,200 degrees were issued, along with an honorary doctor of arts presented to O'Neill, who stood proudly in a black cap and gown as he relived tales of his past and told graduates not to quit on their dreams.
O'Neill spoke fondly of days spent in Youngstown, where he grew up on the North Side about a block away from Wick Park. He recalled attending area schools such as Ursuline High School, Ohio University and YSU, as well as his days playing football in the Mahoning Valley, signing briefly with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"I was a little bit nervous," he said after the ceremony concluded. "That's a little bit of a different deal than what I do." He added that he thought the speech went well and accomplished what he set out to do: Make them laugh.
O'Neill spoke candidly about his success, saying that he had a lot of help from friends along the way. He also recalled working at the Pub in Kilcawley Center on campus, and making a meager salary of $10,000 at the age of 30. That's when he knew he needed to get serious if he wanted to be an actor, he said.
After busing tables, managing bars and taking acting roles whenever he could, O'Neill sprang to fame with the hit series, "Married ... With Children," and has starred in numerous films and Broadway shows. He currently has a role on the hit sitcom "Modern Family."
"It all started here," O'Neill said. "All my interest in the field. I read a lot of plays, I watched a lot of films. So when I went to New York, I had a certain amount of confidence because I did so many plays around Youngstown."
O'Neill received a standing ovation from the crowd at the conclusion of his speech.
"It was very entertaining," said professional writing and editing graduate Chelsie Hazenstab of Boardman.
"It was Al Bundy," exclaimed Tim Hancher of Youngstown, who received a bachelor's in biology. "It's impressive for Mr. O'Neill to demonstrate the stick-to-it-iveness that's necessary in life. I was impressed to have such a speaker on campus," he said.
Hazenstab said there is at least one thing she will take away from O'Neill's speech. "Not to give up because I tend to doubt myself," she said.
After receiving her bachelor's in nursing, Erika Hricik of Sharon, Pa., said she appreciated O'Neill's references to area businesses such as the Golden Dawn.
"He's a real native. I think it's really nice that somebody from the community would come back and support us," she said.
O'Neill said although the campus had changed a lot since he'd last visited, he still recognized it, and said his next visit will hopefully come soon.
"Youngstown was the only thing I ever knew. I love how green it is here. It's beautiful. That's one of the things I miss. And I miss the Italian here," he said with a smile. "Youngstown really shaped my sense of humor. I just took that with me."