Sunday, May 12, 2002
[Before the opening of the official Commencement Ceremony, President Mark D. Gearan offered these words for those alumni who died September 11.]
Before we proceed with the exercises of Commencement, I invite all of us here to reflect on three past graduates of Hobart and William Smith Colleges whose lives were taken on September 11 at the World Trade Center: Scott Rohner from the Class of 2001 who graduated at this time last year; Andrew Golkin from the Class of 1993; and Michael Simon from the Class of 1983.
These three graduates were involved here, excelled in their studies, involved in a great variety of co-curricular activities and left many, many friends. I call on Ms. Judy Collins to offer a prayerful reflection for the graduates that we lost on September 11 - Ms. Collins.
[Legendary Singer Judy Collins approaches the podium]
Judy Collins said, In tragedies we have to find the uplifting timeless message of spirit and courage and to all those who perished and to these three young people who are gone but not lost from our thoughts, we dedicate a moment of lyric, music, prayer and presence.
[Ms. Collins sang "Amazing Grace"]
Before we close these ceremonies and send you forth, inspired by the lifetime examples of Thomas Melly, Henry Rosenberg, Judy Collins, and the very good advice of Mark Shields, I have the privilege of what I suppose Mark Shields would say to Bob Nowak on Capitol Gang, "You have the last word."
There is a phrase in the Declaration of Independence that has always interested me - namely, the observance of "the pursuit of happiness" as an inalienable right. The pursuit of happiness. The Declaration of Independence, of course, itself is an extraordinary legal and political tract - written by a 33 year old lawyer, Thomas Jefferson. Its brilliant argument shook the ordered world at the time and served as the birth certificate of the United States. The forceful language set out the prevailing compact theory of government. With inspiration from John Locke, the founding fathers staked out natural and God-given rights. Locke's writings cited our natural and God-given rights as "life, health, liberty and possessions."
But in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson while still borrowing heavily from Locke wrote these immortal words -"We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Note the change: from Locke's "life, liberty and possessions" to Jefferson's "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness."
The Jefferson change provoked debate among the states at the time - but in the final version, "pursuit of happiness" remained. It's interesting as historian's note that the signers went home and then wrote into their separate state constitutions, "life, liberty and the acquisition and protection of property."
So it's this phrase that I have found interesting. On one level, of course, it's quite intriguing that such a heavily lawyered language in the Declaration that used such phrases as usurpations, despotism, trial by jury, Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners, the free system of English laws given all that language that "pursuit of happiness" would wind up being an important cornerstone for the new government and serve as a foundational right that they put it in the Declaration of Independence.
So today - as you graduates declare your independence from Hobart and William Smith - the question to consider is what will your pursuit of happiness be? What will be important in your life, give you meaning, satisfaction and our happiness?
Happiness is an expansive concept, and in my view is wonderful that Jefferson did not limit his revolutionary call to defense of property rights, but rather sought to invoke something far more profound - the possibilities of the human spirit.
And yet is a terrible truth that his concept was not expensive enough to encompass Americans who were not white males. Indeed, it is alien today for us to consider the concept of pursuit of happiness to only a certain segment of the population. To us, that is self-evident.
You graduate today with an enormous privilege that only a very small percentage of the whole world enjoys namely a college degree. You will live in a world and century of incredible change and progress with advances in science, in medicine, in technology and strengthened governments. You will work in a century of the global economy with a very competitive culture embodied in the billboard in Atlanta during the Olympic games that read: "You didn't win the silver - you lost the gold."
In pursuit of happiness in this hyper-speed world of instant messaging and expanding megabytes - sometimes it is good to slow down. We might even say - with a nod to Thomas Jefferson - that today that is revolutionary.
From this podium and stage six months ago in accepting the Elizabeth Blackwell Award, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recommended the development of "an inner compass to keep you steady amidst the turbulence, a kind of personal North Star grounded in knowledge of yourself."
But while it may seem distant to you graduates today, the question will inevitably come at the end of a life that I hope is well-lived: what matters the most? What has been my pursuit of happiness? Will it be the number of cars in your garage? Your social status? I don't think so. I believe that if you are able to say with honesty and conviction that you've made a difference, that you've given something back, then your pursuit will be meaningful.
Now, for some of you this may involve a professional choice of your career and that's fine. But for all of us it must be a personal choice of engagement in our community, in our neighborhood and giving back while making a difference.
On this platform today are four different examples of professional lives expert in finance, (Mr. Melly), in the energy industry (Mr. Rosenberg), in the arts (Ms. Collins) and in journalism (Mr. Shields). Different professions, but a common denominator is their commitment to service.
In his speech on this campus this year, presidential candidate Alan Keyes joined our right to liberty with the "obligation to voluntarily care for others."
So my hope today is that in your pursuit of happiness you can create space and time to serve. As you know, I take civic engagement and politics very seriously. But I would be the first to observe that we don't vote only in elections. Harold Rushner reminds us that every day: "The small decisions, the small choices we make, we are voting to determine the kind of world we live in."
Ralph Waldo Emerson may have said it best: "To leave the world a bit better whether a healthy child, a garden patch or redeemed social condition; to know that even one life has breathed easier because you lived, that is to have succeeded."
Finally - I'm afraid this is the time of the program when we must say: goodbye. As I have said to graduates in past years: Today you say goodbye to your friends and faculty, coaches and staff members you have known here.
Goodbye to downtown, to The Cellar Pub, to the Cafe. You will say goodbye to SAGA, to Betty and Anna, to Pat Heieck. Goodbye to the Statesmen and to the Herons, to the beauty of the lake, the quiet of Houghton House, to the parties and karaoke at O'Dell's, fraternity brothers, co-op housemates. You will say goodbye to good pizza and bad pizza and everything in between. But I also urge you to come
Come home to Geneva and to Hobart and William Smith and tell us of your accomplishments. Come home to tell us of your disappointments and come home to inspire future generations of students with your success and the example of your life, and your pursuit of happiness. Come home to Lake Seneca and enjoy its unique beauty that has been such a defining part of your time here in Geneva.
In closing I offer you the reflection of the poet William Butler Yeats, who drew great inspiration from his beloved Lake Innisfree, when he wrote:
"I will arise and go now, for always day and night
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart's core."
To our graduates - may you take and keep the memory of this special place in your heart's core. I wish you every success in your pursuit of happiness. I thank you for the difference you've made on this campus, in this city and in our lives. God Speed.
Valedictory and Opening Remarks to the Classes of 2002 by President Mark D. Gearan
Sunday, May 12, 2002