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OU alumnus, judge selected as 2017 graduation commencement speaker by committee for broad worldview, educational experience

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Robert Henry

Robert Henry is the president of Oklahoma City University. Henry will be the speaker at OU's spring 2017 commencement.

It was 1974, and Judge Robert Henry was sitting in his graduation gown listening to John Kenneth Galbraith, noted economist and U.S. ambassador to India, deliver his commencement address when a gang of naked cyclists rolled into the stadium. Galbraith paused his speech and shielded his eyes.

"They did a couple of figure eights and exited with great speed as all sorts of constables were headed in their direction," Henry said. "I believe they escaped."

The nudist ambush is just one of the many fond memories Henry has of OU, an institution the former Oklahoma Attorney General credits for so much of his success.

Henry currently serves as the president of Oklahoma City University but will soon deliver the commencement address to the 2017 graduates of OU, his alma mater. 

"The education I received here was literally life-changing," Henry said. "To be able to come back and speak at a place that has been so special to me is the most meaningful honor of my life."

Henry joins Galbraith as one of many in a long line of accomplished men and women whose words will welcome graduates to the real world.

Past OU commencement speakers have been a diverse mix of educators, journalists like Katie Couric, politicians like John McCain, businessmen and trailblazers in their respective fields, but rarely alumni.

As a distinguished graduate, Henry was an easy choice, not only for his experience as an educator and a legal scholar, but for his unique perspective from his time abroad, said Becky Heeney, director of the OU graduation office. 

Speaking engagements are often not an act of charity but a service rendered in exchange for a generous payment or donation. This year, Henry declined compensation, Heeney said.

Heeney also serves as chair of the commencement committee, a team made up of representatives from dozens of departments across campus, from the President's Office to Parking and Transportation Services. The committee's responsibilities include, among other things, selecting who will be the commencement speaker, a process that begins just days after the previous year's graduation, Heeney said.

Heeney said the committee tries to look at a variety of different disciplines, as well as seek individuals who can offer an informed perspective on current issues.

"It always seems to me that the commencement speaker we have is so timely," Heeney said, referencing Henry's time on the Federal Judicial Center's International Judicial Relations Committee. "(It's timely) that we do have someone who is such a distinguished legal and foreign relations scholar when foreign relations right now is such an important issue." 

Ed Kelley, dean of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, remembers first meeting Henry in the late '70s. The two OU graduates never crossed paths on campus then, but they ran in similar circles outside of it and quickly became colleagues before becoming friends. 

"I was the editor of The Oklahoman and was on staff of The Oklahoman for a long time, so the intersection of him being in politics and me covering politics, we ran into each other," Kelley said. "We have a lot of common interests and that pulled us together initially a long time ago."

Like Heeney, Kelley said he believes Henry has a broad worldview and is a timely choice for commencement.

"We hear President Boren talk a lot about how he wants students here at OU to get a passport and spend a little time while you're here at OU somewhere else to really broaden your horizons," Kelley said. "I think Judge Henry, President Henry, is an example of an Oklahoman who has done just that."

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