These are the people, he said, who form a "thin little crust of society" that stifles enthusiasm and creativity. They lurk in city agencies and newspaper editorial boards, prepared to give "four automatic answers" when confronted with innovative ideas.
O'Malley told the college's 553 graduates that they're likely to hear these responses as they enter the workplace or continue their careers: "That won't work in Baltimore. That costs too much. We've tried that and it didn't work. We're already doing that.
"None of those responses is valid," the mayor said. "They're not valid in city government, and they're not valid where you're going.
"Don't lose the confidence you have today," O'Malley said. "Don't let the 'box people' take it away from you. It's too hard to get it back."
O'Malley received an honorary doctorate from the predominantly female Roman Catholic college, which graduated its first class in 1899. His address opened with stand-up-style humor, shifted to a somber tone and ended with a standing ovation.
After conspicuously adjusting his mortarboard as he approached the rostrum, he asked, "Were you all laughing at my hat-head?" And then, "Where is Alvin Gillard's lovely bride?"
Brenda B. Gillard rose tentatively, and O'Malley announced that the woman receiving a bachelor of arts degree was married to the director of the Baltimore Community Relations Commission, the city's anti-discrimination agency. "He now owes me 10 bucks," the mayor said.
O'Malley poked fun at his own record at the University of Maryland law school: "I had a difficult time with that elusive academic concept called 'attendance,'" he said.
But he took a serious turn, pointing out that many things can't be learned in school. He said he realized, after attending the funerals of five city police officers who died while on duty - "dear, brave dead men," the mayor called them - that there is no preparation for "how emotionally raw this job would leave you."
Forced by driving rain from an outdoor setting into the college's gymnasium, relatives and friends cheered the announcement that Spanish major Sara Amanda Marie Rosas had been upgraded Friday from alternate to Fulbright scholarship recipient, and will head to Madrid to study Spanish feminist literature. They chuckled when Joan Godwin Nurse received a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing that will allow her to be called, appropriately enough, Nurse Nurse.
And they clapped when Jo Ann M. Brukiewa, 51, and Stacey L. Durkovic, 26, received back-to-back Leadership in Teaching master's degrees. Brukiewa and Durkovic, who are mother and daughter, both teach in the Baltimore County public school system and took all but four classes together - sharing notes and collaborating on papers and projects.
"Some professors made us break up. They said, 'You guys know each other too well,'" said Durkovic, a Perry Hall resident. "My mom and I are pretty close, so it was more fun that not."
A second honorary doctorate degree was awarded to Del. Casper R. Taylor Jr., speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates and a graduate of the better-known Notre Dame, the Roman Catholic university in South Bend, Ind.
Three other Maryland colleges and universities held commencement ceremonies yesterday.
At Western Maryland College in Westminster, Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell and USA Today chief foreign correspondent Jack Kelley received honorary degrees. Diplomas were handed out to 394 graduate and 391 undergraduate students, and featured speakers included Barry E. Wyche Sr. of Owings Mills, the father of graduating senior Rasheeda George.
The college also honored a popular art history professor, Julie Badiee of Westminster, who died May 20 of cancer at age 54.
Salisbury State University conferred 923 undergraduate and 83 graduate degrees, and the featured address was delivered by Julia Nelson Harper, an alumna who was named Delaware Teacher of the Year in July. The university gave an honorary doctorate to Samuel W. Seidel, 78, an insurance executive whose name is attached to the School of Education and Professional Studies because of a $1 million gift he and his wife, Marilyn, gave in 1997.
Frostburg State University awarded degrees to 510 undergraduate and 123 graduate students. The featured speaker was former state Del. Betty Workman, an Allegany County Democrat and Frostburg alumna.