Last week, Gawker contributor Miles Beard asked a straightforward question: Was Stephan Jenkins, the lead singer of Third Eye Blind and briefly one half of the ‘90s rap duo “Puck and Natty,” the valedictorian of his class at the University of California-Berkeley in 1987? It sounds like a mystery that could be settled with a simple yes or no. And several sources, primarily Wikipedia, and the “dozens” of other outlets that repeated the claim, perhaps from looking at Wikipedia, seemed to think the answer was yes.
But Beard did some online gumshoeing — digging up the earliest traceable reference to Jenkins’s educational accomplishments in this 2003 SFGate interview, when the singer said it himself. That piece, somewhat spuriously, also cited his friendship with “gritty novelist JT LeRoy, a former prostitute,” as the writer put it, though LeRoy was later revealed to be a long-con hoax from the author Laura Albert. Other reasons for doubt: the Wikipedia editor who added the detail to Jenkins’ page in 2005 had only altered two pages ever — the one for Oberlin College and Jenkins. Some confirmation came from the university itself, which does not name valedictorians and told Beard that they had no records of any awards related to Jenkins.
Unfortunately, Jenkins did not respond after his reps asked about the nature of Beard’s piece. Today, however, Stereogum got closer to the bottom of things. In an interview with Jenkins, writer Rachel Brodsky asked him point blank:
BRODSKY: So … did you see the allegation that you lied about your valedictory status at Berkeley?
JENKINS: I didn’t see it. I really just don’t want to participate in that narrative.
But Brodsky had obtained a copy of the 1987 Berkeley graduation program, in which Jenkins is listed as giving a “Valedictory Address” for the undergraduate English department. She followed up:
BRODSKY: Do you recall how a valedictory status was determined in the Berkeley English department? Is it all determined by grades?
JENKINS: No, it’s just [decided by] professors. I think there’s probably some misunderstanding. There’s the citation winner, which has the highest grades, and I wasn’t even close to that. And then there’s the valedictorian, which was for the department. We don’t have school-wide graduations. It’s just the department. I wasn’t up against physicists.
The actual commencement speaker, it turned out, was the author Isabel Allende. Jenkins suggested, somewhat confusingly, that she was the citation winner — though Allende is 79 years old; attended primary and secondary school, at various points, in Bolivia, Lebanon, and Chile; and did not go to college. She also doesn’t mention speaking at Berkeley in the thorough timeline on her personal website until 2007. And because the university doesn’t maintain a complete list of graduation speakers going back to 1987, the only online record we could find of a commencement address that year is for Professor of Architecture Spiro Kostof. It’s possible he meant her second cousin, Isabel Allende Bussi, the first female president of the Chilean Senate, but she is 77 and did not go to Berkeley. Here’s how he put it:
JENKINS: Isabel Allende was the commencement address speaker. I got to meet her. She was the one who got the citation, which was the highest grade point average. And then there was me.
Jenkins went on to explain that he had qualified for the departmental address by submitting a writing sample about institutions and collective idealism. “Studying English, studying literature,” he said, “is a really good way to figure out what you think. And to really have possession of your own thoughts.” For all its goodness, Jenkins said he decided to ditch English and institutions after he left school, and as a result, “never used [the honorarium] on a job application or anything like that.”
So, was he valedictorian or not? We’ll stick with “no.” Jenkins did not explain what happened to his friendship with JT LeRoy. But if you know, drop a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.