By People Staff
June 07, 1976 12:00 PM

This is my first attempt at delivering a commencement address,” explained Johnny Carson to the 286 graduates of Norfolk High School’s 88th senior class, “but presuming this is also your first time, you won’t know whether I’m good or lousy.”

The school’s most famous graduate, Class of ’43, had waived his customary fee of $5,000 and flown on a chartered jet to the little Nebraska town (pop. 16,607) at his own expense. At the airport Johnny and his third wife, Joanna, held a brief, emotional reunion with his mother and father. Local residents didn’t seem to mind that Johnny hadn’t visited Norfolk in 10 years. “Hell, if I had all that and Joanna, too,” said one old-timer, “I don’t believe I’d care to spend much time here either.”

After a quick visit to the white frame four-bedroom house where he grew up (his mother and father, a retired utilities manager, have moved to Columbus, Nebr., 47 miles south), Johnny rode in a parade to the high school. “It’s so nice that the youngsters can see him,” said one young mother. “When I was growing up, I thought there was no way out of Nebraska. Somebody like Johnny can be an inspiration.”

Inside the school (tickets were reportedly scalped for as much as $20), Carson spoke on “How to Get to Be Fifty Years of Age Without Going Bananas,” then fielded questions. One graduate begged him to quit referring to Norfolk on TV as a hick town. Later, Johnny chatted with his algebra and English teachers, both now in retirement. (Carson got “B” in both subjects.)

Before handing out diplomas, he warned about putting too much stock in fame. “That can be dangerous,” Johnny said. “I could have also been the most famous graduate of Norfolk High if I had gone to the electric chair.”