The following is a condensed version of the commencement address I delivered on May 14 at Ashland University.
It is a high honor to be invited to your big day. My belief is that almost everyone who has walked across a stage and received a degree, whether high school, college or graduate school, remembers something of that day, their excitement, their hopes and dreams, their accomplishments, their optimism.
Your parents share in all of that. And in the enormous relief that comes with the end of writing tuition checks. So let me echo what was said earlier. Very few of you got here on your own. Most of you relied on mom or dad or both, on grandparents, other family and friends. Today as I will note at the end of these remarks, is a day made for gratitude, and giving abundant thanks to God, parents, spouses, friends, family, and for a few of you, children.
Now about commencement addresses. I have attend more than 25 commencements. Two as a graduate. Three as parent. More than a score as a member of the faculty of my Fowler School of Law at Chapman University or as an invited guest or speaker at others. I have, as a result, heard a lot of commencement speeches.
The two that marked my own graduations from college and law school each ran longer than an hour. Now, perhaps that will worry you since I work on air in three-hour increments.
But the presidential debates of the last year have taught me the value of brevity and focus. In his new memoir, The Long Game, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says “focus” is the most important word in English language. So I thought I would look back at all those commencements I have sat through, focus on them, and give you a “best of” commencement addresses.
There is always something to be said for very long speeches. My undergraduate commencement speaker was Alexander Solzhenitsyn. A famous speech actually, the “Decline of the West” speech in which he predicted that the Soviet Union would defeat America and the West. So he was both long and wrong. It was also raining. The point is, though, that commencement addresses and pessimists generally are often indeed usually wrong.
My law school commencement address was delivered by then-FBI Director Judge William Webster, who had been a distinguished federal judge. He went on to lead the CIA. A great American. But that day in Ann Arbor long ago he went very long. I don’t know if he was wrong as I fell asleep. As did many. It was indoors and warm. But that taught me to keep it short.
So I will focus and borrow from the commencement addresses of my three children. One went to Northwestern, one to Miami of Ohio, one to the University of Colorado.
Now my daughter’s commencement speaker in Evanston was Julia Louis Dreyfuss of “Seinfeld” fame. Her best advice, and I quote her, was, quote, “Don’t be an ass.” This was succinct if jarring, and I think it is universally recognized as trustworthy advice.
My son at Miami had an alum of that great university. Ambassador Kenneth Merten, who was then ambassador to Haiti. It was an extraordinary speech as he told the graduates that day that as an undergrad he took French, French, French and prepped for the foreign service exam so he could be sent to Paris and live the diplomat’s life. And he indeed passed the foreign service exam and was hired by the State Department and became a diplomat. But he wasn’t sent to Paris. He was sent to Haiti as a first assignment, and then again and again and again. And finally as ambassador, just as the earthquake a few years ago devastated the country, and he was able to render service of the most urgent and fulfilling sort.
His message: You have many goals and hopes, but you in fact have no idea where you are going. Be prepared to be prepared. And take joy in every unexpected twist. There is a plan. If you trust in God and good judgment you will be at the right place at the right time.
Ambassador Merten was memorable and inspiring, but he only gets the silver. For my youngest son’s graduation had Dame Julie Andrews as commencement speaker. I had interviewed her once, and that was one of the two times I was genuinely nervous in 27 years of broadcasting. I prepared a lot for that interview and was rewarded by one of the ultimate compliments an interviewer can receive: “I’ve never been asked that before.”
I had asked Dame Andrews of all songs she had song, which was the most demanding, physically I said, as a matter of physical effort. She thought a bit and replied “Just You Wait Henry Higgins,” explaining that she had to scream in the song and had to do it eight times a week for the many months “My Fair Lady” played on Broadway. Another lesson there: The hard things you will do are memorable and interesting to people. Not the easy things you will do.
But the genius of her remarks a few years back was not about her singing. It was in fact about her not singing. Even as that magnificent career on Broadway and in film soared, she developed throat nodules that required routine surgery. Except it did not turn out to be routine. The procedure went bad, as things often do and will do in your life. When she woke up, sadly, she could no longer sing. This amazing talent, this star of stars, had lost her singing voice.
She was, as she told the audience, knocked hard on her bum. But, she said, her daughter looked her in the eye and said “Mum, you will just have to find a different voice,” which she resolved then and there to do and proceeded to do, writing extremely successful children’s books and engaging in a host of good works which her resolve allowed her to pursue. No self-pity for Julie Andrews.
Her message was explicit. Every single graduate that day, and every single graduate here at Ashland today, and every single human being, will get knocked flat on your back or as Dame Julie said, hard on the bum in life. It is a certainty. The question will be, will you get up? Will you find a new voice? Will you walk again though perhaps with a limp, or speak again though perhaps with a pause or a twitch?
Nobody gets the perfect package. In every life — no matter how famous or obscure — there are best days and worst days. Hopefully this is one of those best days for you. There will be an equal number of very hard days.
No matter how many days you are allotted, they can eventually be lined up from worst to best. At the end of those “worst days,” you have the choice that Julie Andrews gave: Do you get up off the floor and figure out what the plan is, so you can end up where you need to be, where you are intended to be, to do the most good? You make that choice. No one can make it for you.
I close where I began, with a few words about gratitude. I am grateful to be here. I am sure you are grateful I have not gone on too long. But there is a deeper sort of gratitude — a gratitude to God, country, parents, coaches, family, friends, teachers and neighbors — which, if you are even remotely talented at self examination, you will recognize you need to express to those who have helped you along the way. There’s a list in your head of those to whom you ought to express thanks. The list is there even if you haven’t written it down.
Make that list. Then find and thank those people. Update that list every so often and keep on going back to the original. There is nothing like expressing gratitude to feel gratitude, nothing like giving thanks to prepare to receive them. It is the doorway to humility, and every great man or woman I have met or studied is a monument to humility. If even one of you puts your hands on some shoulders today and says “Hey, I really really mean this, thank you,” I will count these remarks a success.
So thank you, godspeed, and press on.
This column was originally posted on WashingtonExaminer.com.