Not since Brooke Shields's much ballyhooed graduation from Princeton in 1987 had the hallowed groves of academe been trod by such celebrated tootsies—or stirred such a media fuss. This time, the object of all the attention—graying, bespectacled and 65—looked more like a venerated professor than a side of beefcake, but when Paul Newman flashed a smile from the podium, a wave of oohs and aahs floated through the Sarah Lawrence College commencement tent.

How does a small private school lasso Butch Cassidy into delivering its graduation address? First, it snares the daughter—and the wife. Both the actor's youngest child, Clea Olivia Newman, 24, and his spouse, Joanne Woodward, 60, who has been working sporadically toward a B.A. for more than 10 years, were among the 286 members of the class of 1990 waiting on the Bronxville, N.Y., campus to collect their degrees.

Newman, who lives with Woodward in Westport, Conn., appeared nervous as he began his oration, but his opening words earned cheers from the mostly female class. The previous night, he said, he dreamed that a woman had asked, "How dare you accept this invitation to give the commencement address when you are merely hanging on to the coattails of the accomplishments of your wife?" From there, he gave a sometimes meandering—but perfectly inflected—discourse on the value of community.

Sarah Lawrence students are not easily impressed by money (their annual fees: a sky-high $21,160) or fame (Barbara Walters is an alum; retailing scion Marshall Field VI, to whom Clea was once engaged, is enrolled), and some acted blasé about their guest. "Mostly everyone was a little worried that the whole paparazzi scene was going to get out of hand," said one newly minted grad. Besides, the students' first speaker choices were Woody Allen and writer Alice Walker. Unfazed, the Newmans repaired to a post-ceremony reception and kept the event a family affair to the last drop. Among the refreshments served? Newman's Own lemonade of course.