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  • 03.20.15

Why Steve Jobs’s Legendary Stanford Commencement Ceremony Almost Never Happened

Stay hungry, stay foolish–and try to always put your keys in the same place.

Why Steve Jobs’s Legendary Stanford Commencement Ceremony Almost Never Happened
[Photo: Flickr user Linus Bohman]

Although he was a master at public speaking, Steve Jobs rarely gave speeches. “If you look closely at how he spent his time, you’ll see that he hardly ever traveled and he did none of the conferences and get-togethers that so many CEOs attended,” says Tim Cook. “He wanted to be home for dinner.”

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But Stanford—the site of his legendary commencement address in 2005—was a different story. The university didn’t hand out honorary degrees (Jobs thought it would be funny to get his PhD in a day), but it was less than 10 minutes from his home in Palo Alto. And though he was a college dropout himself, he deeply respected the institution’s strong ties to Silicon Valley. “He was only going to do one commencement speech,” says Laurene Powell Jobs, “and if it was going to be anywhere it was going to be Stanford.”

In the new biography Becoming Steve Jobs by longtime Jobs interviewer Brent Schlender and Fast Company executive editor Rick Tetzeli, we learn that the legendary Stanford commencement speech almost never happened thanks to a series of mundane setbacks that morning. For one: Steve couldn’t find the keys to his SUV, so Laurene had to drive him instead.

…then he decided he didn’t want to drive anyway—he’d use the short ride to rehearse once more. By the time the family piled into the SUV, they were late. Laurene drove as Steve tweaked the text again. Steve was sitting shotgun, with Erin, Eve, and Reed piled into the backseat. As they made their way toward the campus, Steve and Laurene fumbled through their pockets and Laurene’s handbag, looking for the VIP parking pass they’d been sent. They couldn’t find it anywhere.

Over twenty thousand people were already piling into the stadium, and many of the roads were closed to accommodate the heavy foot traffic. After a series of setbacks, “Steve was getting tense—he thought he might miss the only graduation speech he’d ever agreed to give.” As the family neared the final roadblock separating them from the stadium, they were signaled to stop by a policewoman, who approached their car and told them they couldn’t go through.

“You can’t go this way, ma’am,” she said. “Theres no parking here. You’ll have to go back to Paly [Palo Alto High School], across El Camino. That’s where the overflow lot is.”

“No, no, no,” Laurene said. “We have a parking pass. We just lost it.”

The policewoman stared at her.

“You don’t understand,” Laurene explained. “I have the commencement speaker here. He’s right here in the car. Really!”

The officer dipped her head and looked in through Laurene’s window. She saw the three kids in the back, the elegant blond driver, and a man in the shotgun wearing tattered jeans, Birkenstocks, and an old black T-shirt. He was fiddling with a few pieces of paper in his lap as he looked up at her through his rimless glasses. The officer stepped back and folded her arms.

Really?” she said, raising her eyebrows. “Which one?”

Everyone in the car broke out laughing. “Really,” said Steve, raising his hand. “It’s me.”

About the author

Chris is a staff writer at Fast Company, where he covers business and tech. He has also written for The Week, TIME, Men's Journal, The Atlantic, and more.

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