The day before 2011 graduation, the Idaho State University Speech and Rhetorical Studies Department held a buffet luncheon for students and one special doctoral honoree: two-time Grammy winner Jakob Dylan, who listened quietly as the chairman extolled his work and upcoming honor.
With a little gray in his sideburns and dressed in a black jacket and black pants, Dylan sat quietly, a polite unassuming man with a low-key but striking presence. If his life story is ever made into a film, Johnny Depp would be perfect to play the lead.
Dylan sat for questions and photos, and then Professor Nancy Legge, who nominated Dylan for the honorary degree, collected him to meet other teachers and students. The inevitable question about Dylan's famous father surfaced when one instructor asked if his early band, The Wallflowers, was named after a song by the old master.
"That was a coincidence," Dylan said.
More pictures were taken, more hands were shaken and then Dylan was gone.
The real show came at the commencement ceremonies at the Holt Arena the next day. The program listed Dylan's accomplishments, awards and albums, noting that he was more inspired by W.H. Auden than Buddy Holly. In the program notes, Dylan wrote, "I don't think I've ever worked with the lexicon of rock and roll ... I gravitate toward something else. I wouldn't necessarily call it poetry, but I love the sound of language, the cadence, the way words lock together."
He also added comments about his debut solo album, 2008's Seeing Things: "I think the concept of war is timeless. There's physical war and there's emotional war and the imagery is boundless. I come to it not from a political perspective but as a human concern."
There are those who question if Dylan deserves an honorary degree--he is the first person to receive an honorary doctorate from ISU's newly established College of Arts and Letters. Critics have been divided on Dylan's work. Scott Gould of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Seeing Things was "probably his best work, certainly his most graceful, with a range of imagery--of grown-up love and grasshoppers on a country road, but also of darkness and war--achieved only by gifted storytellers."
Another critic dismissed Dylan as a "decent but unremarkable songwriter."
That last critic would get an argument from ISU. At the ceremony, Kandi Turley-Ames, dean of ISU's College of Arts and Letters, introduced Dylan:
"Mr. Dylan's songs are substantive, meaningful and comprised of beautiful poetry. While he has the vocabulary of a poet, his ideas are fresh and evocative. His is a voice of reason that provides perspective and balance in ways that so many contemporary songwriters do not."
Wearing dark glasses, Dylan thanked the university and wished the graduating students good luck.
"I couldn't be more proud of this opportunity and this recognition for doing something I really enjoy doing ... to have it recognized by an institution like this is beyond most of my dreams," Dylan said.
Then came a surprise. Removing the academic gown and picking up an acoustic guitar, Dylan sang his haunting "Nothing But The Whole Wide World" from his second release, 2010's Women and Country. The choice was perfect, a simple but poignant song that fit the occasion: "Nothing but the whole wide world to gain / Nothing, nothing."
Dylan had transformed the moment as only an artist can.