David Letterman waves to the crowd of Ball State students after delivering a Top 10 list during the dedication of the David Letterman Communication and Media Building.
A student proclaims his devotion to David Letterman.
Oh, and he thought the $21 million, leading-edge instructional building the university just named for him was a nice thing, too.
"I am truly thrilled for the students and faculty of Ball State to have this wonderful facility. And I am honored to have my family's name attached to it," Letterman, a member of the Class of 1969, told an estimated crowd of 5,000 that attended the outdoor, public ceremony. "Most of all, I am deeply appreciative."
The late night television host's remarks were the much-anticipated highlight of a late afternoon ceremony that included a formal ribbon cutting and the unveiling of a bronze plaque acknowledging Letterman's professional success, as well as his continuing commitment to Ball State students as long-time benefactor of the David Letterman Scholarships. President Jo Ann M. Gora, acting on behalf of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, also presented the celebrated entertainer with a citation proclaiming the native Hoosier a Sagamore of the Wabash, the state's highest civilian honor.
"He might not readily agree with my description of him as a great role model for our students, but that's what he is," said Gora, who escorted the university's esteemed guest on a personal tour of the newest addition to Ball State's academic infrastructure prior to the formal dedication. She noted, in particular, Letterman's 97 Emmy nominations and 16 statuettes, as well as his more than 30-year record of giving back to Ball State that began with an initial gift of $10 in 1976, just seven years after he graduated.
Since 1985, Letterman has provided annual scholarships of $10,000, $5,000 and $3,333 for three telecommunications students in the College of Communication, Information, and Media (CCIM) who submit a short film, screenplay, series of storyboards or other creative project in order to qualify for one of the much sought-after awards. He also was a financial force behind the establishment of WCRD - for "Cardinal Radio Dave" to the campus radio station's all-student staff, now housed in handsome new studios on the second floor of the Letterman building.
"He has a very special place in his heart for Ball State University, and he cares deeply about our students. His interest in the building centers on how it benefits our students," Gora said. "And [they] care deeply about Dave."
Under leaden and threatening skies during the late afternoon ceremony, Gora won the mostly student-packed crowd when she opted to suspend her formal remarks in order to accelerate Letterman's appearance at the podium. Although, in tune with the cheerful occasion and with his mother, Dorothy Mengering, and other members of his family looking on, she did take a few moments to allude to one or two bits of "Letterman lore" from the guest of honor's days as an aspiring radio and TV broadcaster on campus (like his famous weather report of a severe storm moving through Indianapolis with predicted "hail the size of canned hams!").
Chided Gora: "If you talk to people who knew Dave as a student here, it is true they will recount occasions when he, shall we say, pushed the boundaries a bit - sometimes even resulting in the occasional firing from WBST."
But, she added, what most people who knew Letterman as a student remember about him is his creativity.
In fact, Letterman was recognized at Ball State as a highly creative writer with an impeccable sense of timing long before he was noted as a talented entertainer on the national scene. Given his subsequent success, generally little attention is paid to his earliest days in network television. But, those in the know remember that the young Ball State graduate - newly arrived on the West Coast from an affiliate news job in Indianapolis - first gained a foothold in Hollywood as a writer for several then-popular sitcoms.
Decades later, the comedian's sense of timing is only more keenly honed, as he proved when he accepted the microphone from Gora and declared to all of those casting at least one wary eye to the clouds that, "I will not be eliminating my remarks. Screw the weather!"
He even brought a special Top 10 list: the top 10 "Good Things About Having Your Name on a Building" that climaxed at No. 1 with, "Unlike me, it should still look good at 60" (which Letterman turned in April).
After also remarking on how his son - Harry, only 4 - was enthralled that Ball State has a "big, dancing parrot" (Charlie Cardinal), as well as about how proud his late father would be of the Letterman name now forever becoming a part of Ball State history, the university's most prominent alumnus concluded by saying that he was "proud to be a part of this."
"You people are lucky," said the clearly touched Letterman. "You who come to teach and learn on this campus are truly blessed."
All about the students
As reflected in his brief comments on stage, the major part of Letterman's focus during his first "official" return to Ball State since 1979 (when he spoke at Homecoming) was on what the university is doing to inspire and prepare today's students for the real-world challenges of the 21st century.
Prior to the public portion of his time on campus, the famously reticent celebrity spent nearly an hour in an informal exchange with about 25 students gathered in the comfortable screening room of the new Letterman building. During an earlier tour of the dynamic facility with Gora, he also met with the student executive board of WCRD and even spent a few minutes live on-air with DJ and station general manager Joe Lacay
Members of Ball State's various student news organizations, including the Ball State Daily News and NewsLink Indiana, also were granted special access to Letterman during his visit at his request. Coverage of the dedication by newspaper, radio and television reporters and photographers that converged on campus from as far away as Chicago was largely confined to the public ceremony.
"It was really great to have an opportunity like that," said senior Al LeVine, executive producer of the student television program "Something Else," who was among the students who got to meet with and ask questions of Letterman. He actually got to ask two.
"It was pretty amazing," said LeVine, "to get that kind of insight directly from someone who has done so much and is so well-known professionally and in the media."
Thoughts of naming the university's latest high-tech teaching and learning facility for Letterman first arose among members of the Ball State Board of Trustees shortly after construction of the building was approved. It was not until this past July, however, that Gora was able to announce at a special board meeting in Indianapolis that the Ball State favorite son had agreed to accept the honor.
At Friday's dedication, Board President Tom DeWeese also praised Letterman for helping to extend the university's already well-established renown for an innovative and interdisciplinary approach to the study of communication issues of the day.
With the opening of the Letterman building, "it is poised to become even better recognized for those efforts," DeWeese said.
The building's $1 million post-production editing suites alone should attract significant attention, agreed Roger Lavery, CCIM dean.
"For many years, Ball State has been at the forefront of integrating the latest technologies into our labs, classrooms and studios," Lavery said. "Our new facilities have the same equipment found at major recording studios and film sound studios in New York, Hollywood or London.
"As a result of incorporating the newest communications technologies, our students are receiving an education that is second to none. They will be able to graduate from Ball State with a wealth of talent and practical experience that should allow them to go on to highly productive careers."