Podcast: Everybody Needs to Wear Sunscreen – The True Voice

Credit Where Credit is Due

In 1997, Kurt Vonnegut delivered an MIT commencement speech that became known as the ‘Everybody needs to wear sunscreen’ speech. Or did he? Published on August 3rd, 1997, it was apparently one of the first written pieces to go viral in the late ’90s, just about the time going viral became possible outside of a disease.

The words were recorded by Baz Luhrmann in 1999, and the YouTube video also went viral. Many thought he wrote it. Did he? Listen to my podcast now if you want to guess if the true voice behind the words is male or female.

Who’s Ever Heard of Mary Schmich?

I first heard the words when they were voiced by Baz Luhrmann and so I immediately attributed them to him. Later, I heard it was someone called Kurt Vonnegut, an American author. 

On being questioned, MIT confirmed that Kofi Annan gave the actual graduation speech the year ‘Wear Sunscreen’ was attributed to Kurt Vonnegut. Funny, the words in the podcast are not those of the former secretary-general of the UN either.

After chatting with someone earlier this year, I did a little digging, and I was surprised, then a little indignant, that Mary Schmich, the name of the original female author, had been buried, and this wisdom was being attributed to men!

Giving it Back to a Female Voice

So, in the spring, I made my podcast to honour Mary Schmich for the article’s 21st birthday. It’s a little playful, and I’ve used Phil Coulter’s music to accompany it. What do you think?

Where Did Mary Get the Idea From?

Mary Schmich explained in a Telegraph article last year where she got the idea.

“It was a Friday, I was on my third column of the week and I was out of ideas. But I was walking to work along Lake Michigan and I saw this young woman out sunbathing. And I just thought, “I hope she’s wearing sunscreen”. I kept walking and I thought, it’s graduation time, I could write a mock-graduation speech for my column. I was 43 then, an age where I thought I had all this advice I would like to administer to young people. So I sat down and I wrote what I would tell 18 to 24-year-olds.”

Baz Luhrmann rewarded her for the recording, and Kurt Vonnegut never claimed the writing was his. But would you agree that her name is still not known as widely for it as it should be?


I’d like to dedicate this blog post to the graduates born in August 1997, when columnist Mary Schmich’s hypothetical commencement speech, ‘Everybody Needs to Wear Sunscreen, ‘ was originally published in the Chicago Tribune.

This includes my eldest son. He started his first job in London last week, and I couldn’t give him better advice (which will probably be ignored) than a summary of Mary’s famous article:

You hold a life in your hands - yours! Embrace it.
You hold a life in your hands – yours! Embrace it.
  • Appreciate and look after yourself.
  • Don’t worry!
  • Have a go!
  • Be kind and appreciate others.
  • Be humble and do your best.
  • Value life, people and places.
  • Live!
  • Wear sunscreen.
  • And finally, do one thing every day that scares you.

In my experience, life has a funny way of sending you scary experiences on a daily basis without much effort on your part. Personally, I aim to do something scary once a year!

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