How good of a commencement speaker is James Franklin Sharp, ’59 ENG? The Chester, Ill., native has delivered five keynote addresses at his hometown’s grade school and high school, and he bested the draw of another noted Illinois orator—Barack Obama.
At Chester High School, “more than 1,000 people show up for a graduation class of about 80,” Sharp explains. “I like to joke that many more people listened to my talks than to Barack Obama’s, who spoke there when he was a senator. He drew only about 200.”
A half-century after graduating from Chester Grade School in 1950, Sharp gave his first commencement speech there in 2000, and was invited back for 2010 and 2020. CHS had him speak on the 50th anniversary of his high school graduation in 2004, and again in 2014.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to deliver his highly anticipated address to Chester Grade School online. “I had never even made a video before,” Sharp says, noting the change of venues.
In his New York City apartment, he and his business manager, Melissa Marks, “piled up cardboard boxes and covered them with a sheet to serve as a makeshift podium, and I wore the same cap and gown I was planning to wear before the in-person talk was canceled,” Sharp recalls. “We propped up my smartphone on my bed, and Melissa pressed the record button.”
Sharp’s first piece of advice to his young audience: “Don’t be a high school dropout.” The 83-year-old then told them he “would be giving a Chester High School graduation talk in four years, and he would check.”
A financial, accounting and investment professional, Sharp was a professor at Rutgers University, New York University and Pace University, and held management positions at AT&T. In 1986, he founded (and still runs) Sharp Seminars, a training provider to Wall Street portfolio managers and investment analysts.
Illinois prepared him well for a life of accomplishment. “After those three years, most other challenges I have had seem relatively minor,” he says.
Sharp is honored to be the go-to guy for inspirational speeches. He’s proud to be the give-back guy as well, having provided funding for CHS’s lobby and cafeteria renovations.