Nova Scotia

How David Bowie handed a Glace Bay musician his college diploma

A man from Glace Bay is remembering David Bowie today as an inspiration and as the man who handed him his diploma when he graduated from the world-famous Berklee College of Music in 1999.

Ernie Gillis says icon's speech at Berklee College of Music in 1999 still resonates

Ernie Gillis (left) of Glace Bay receives his diploma from music icon David Bowie. (Courtesy Ernie Gillis)

A man from Glace Bay is remembering David Bowie today not just as an inspiration, but as the man who handed him his diploma when he graduated from the Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1999.

Bowie died Sunday after an 18-month battle with cancer. He had celebrated his 69th birthday two days earlier and marked the occasion by releasing his latest album, Blackstar.

Among those reminiscing about the musician and his career is Ernie GIllis. Originally from Glace Bay, he now works at Berklee as the college's learning resource web manager.

But 17 years ago, he was one of a thousand young, aspiring musicians, songwriters and producers privileged to have Bowie deliver their commencement address.

Gillis recalls being dumbfounded when he learned who would speak to his class. 

"As a graduating student, you never really know who's going to be announced," he said.

"Still, when you find it out, it's always exciting — but for it to be someone like David Bowie, it's pretty iconic. I mean, there was nobody like him and it'll be hard to find someone that's like him in the future."

'Just pure awesomeness'

Gillis said Bowie was dressed in academic garb for the occasion, not as one of his many personae. 

"He was wearing the graduation gown and you're like, 'That doesn't look like David Bowie,' because you're expecting the Ziggy Stardust or some kind of flamboyancy," he said.

"It sunk in, I'm sitting in the same room as David Bowie and I'm going to shake his hand. It was just awesome, just pure awesomeness."

Gillis calls Bowie "an amazingly inspiring speaker," who spoke about the struggles he'd been through, along with the realization he could bridge and "fuse" different art forms together.

"I find it as being one of the most memorable moments of my life, just hearing that and feeling that energy and feeling that inspiration," Gillis said. "Even though it was a room filled with 1,000 of my classmates, we all felt he and I or he and them, [that it] was a one-on-one conversation."

Don't trip

Then came the moment when students were called to the stage to receive their diplomas from Bowie. Gillis said he had to keep reminding himself to actually take his diploma, and not trip and fall on the glam rock icon.

Gillis heard the news this morning that Bowie had died. 

"I just really couldn't believe it," he said. "The first thing I thought was that I was going to be listening to his album this week, because I hadn't had a chance to listen to his latest album. It seemed more surreal than anything. It still kind of does. It hasn't really sunk in."

He said music is a tough industry and it's hard to keep motivated, sometimes. Gillis said Bowie imparted a sort of never-give-up spirit to his graduating class.

"The energy was just amazingly high that day."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?