By BOB JACKSON
As actor Ed O’Neill looked out at the hundreds of capped and gowned college graduates waiting to hear what advice he had for them in life, he could only shrug his shoulders and smile.
“I mean, who am I kidding?” he said. “You guys just did something I was never able to do, which is graduate from college.”
The comment drew laughter and was the launching point for O’Neill’s remarks at Saturday’s spring commencement ceremonies at Youngstown State University.
O’Neill, a Youngstown native turned Hollywood star of TV’s mega-hit shows “Married... With Children” and “Modern Family,” was the main speaker for the undergraduate ceremony, while retiring university President Dr. Cynthia Anderson gave the address for the graduate-degree ceremony later in the day.
The university awarded 1,228 degrees during the two ceremonies.
Scott Gisewhite, 24, of Warren will use the marketing degree he received Saturday in his new job at Fastenal in Warren, where he’s working in sales support.
“It took six years, and I’m happy to be done with college,” he said, smiling.
Gisewhite said he hopes to eventually go back to school and pursue a master’s degree, although he’d also like to live and work overseas.
“I did a study tour in Dublin, Ireland, last year and loved it,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind working overseas for a while.”
Karla Kovalchick of Youngstown, 23, said she plans to take her registered dental hygienist degree to Washington, D.C., and work in a dental travel program.
Participants work short-term jobs in various parts of the country under limited contracts, she said.
“I’d like to end up someplace warm,” she said.
Warm weather was also on the mind of Kingsley Ansah, 24, who came to Youngstown from Ghanna, West Africa, to attend school. His cousin had come here as well and graduated from YSU three years ago, which is how Ansah learned about YSU.
“Let me tell you what I don’t like about Youngstown,” said smiling Ansah, who was the 2012 YSU homecoming king.
“I don’t like the weather. Everything else I love, but I don’t like the weather.”
Ansah received a marketing degree and plans to take a year off to work and save money so he can return to school for a master’s degree. He hopes to one day open his own family-operated gym and intends to remain in this area.
“I’ve applied for my U.S. citizenship,” he said. “I want to stay here.”
“I needed to get back here anyway,” said O’Neill, explaining why he agreed to be the keynote speaker. “It’s been a while since I’d been to Youngstown.”
During his 15-minute speech, O’Neill entertained the graduates and guests with stories of his Youngstown youth, and drew knowing nods and murmurs from those in the audience who remembered the local landmarks to which he referred, like Lamppost Lounge on Belmont Avenue, where he worked as a bartender, Royal Oaks on the East Side and the Golden Dawn restaurant on Logan Avenue.
Perspective often is critical in gauging success, he said.
“I got cut from the Pittsburgh Steelers on the same day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon,” he said. “Good day for him. Not so good day for me.”
He told of the string of failed jobs he held before eventually discovering his passion for acting, starting with roles in local theaters and at YSU. He’d fallen in love with acting, and had come to realize that if he actually wanted to make it a career, it wasn’t going to happen in Youngstown.
“I didn’t want to go. I loved Youngstown,” he said. “But I sold my car, got on a Greyhound bus and rode to New York.”
It was there, while playing the role of Lenny in “Of Mice and Men,” that he was discovered and recruited for the role of Al Bundy in “Married... With Children,” a new show that was being pitched on the then fledgling Fox Network.
“I didn’t think it would go anywhere,” O’Neill said of the show, which lasted 11 seasons. “I mean, who wants to see a show about a family as screwed up as yours and mine?”
He went on to star in several other films and TV programs, and is humbled by the success he’s found.
“It’s been 37 years since I left Youngstown and, honestly, when I think of all that’s happened, I’m a bit stunned,” he said.
His message to the graduates was to persevere, even when the going gets tough.
“Never give up on yourself,” he said. “You find a way, or you go down swinging.”
O’Neill’s presence accounted for the huge attendance at Saturday’s ceremony.
“My dad loves ‘Modern Family,’ so he’s really excited to see [O’Neill],” said 20-year-old Whitney Sommers of Hartville, who received a bachelor’s degree in combined science. She now plans to attend medical school at Northeast Ohio Medical University in Rootstown
and hopes to one day work as an emergency room doctor.
“I like the fast-paced environment and always expecting something new every day,” she said.