Commencement 2006

President's Valedictory Address, President Mark D. Gearan

May 14, 2006

A gifted minister reminded me this past year that sometimes it takes a death to remind us of the importance of life. I’ve thought about that this past year and while we all certainly realize and appreciate the importance of life and good health—I want to reflect a bit on the lessons from lives well-lived. On the importance of leading a life of meaning and consequence. On leading a life that will make a difference.

While it may seem strange and remote today on your college commencement, the time will inevitably come when you will sit back and reflect on your life since you left Geneva. Perhaps it will be here on this Quad in 50 years when you return to celebrate your 50th Reunion. Perhaps in 20 years or sooner.

So today I want to reflect on the lives of three people we lost this year whose lifetime examples are worthy of note. Three individuals who shared a common purpose to make this world a better place. Three people who understood the importance of community and through their actions changed the future of our world, these Colleges and our community. Their journeys were different, their backgrounds varied—but the common thread, I would argue, is their commitment to making a difference.

They are three people who prepared themselves and seized opportunities for positive change. In many ways, they were visionaries of space—one, in taking a bus and seeing it as a place for activism; another in seeing a dining room and making it a place to build community; and the third in taking a pre-school art class and using it as a force for international understanding and cross-cultural communication.

I speak, of course, about Rosa Parks, whose courage on a Montgomery bus galvanized the Civil Rights movement; Bill Scandling, who graduated from Hobart College and built a successful company for dining and hospitality that prized both its workers and customers; and Tracy Spates, the beloved wife of Professor Jim Spates, who through art class taught young children about the world and whose important presence on this campus while accompanying our students around the world certainly made a difference. Three lives well lived. Three individuals worthy of note.

One of the many interesting things to me about Rosa Parks was her 12 years of involvement and activism before that day when she refused to give up her bus seat that prompted her arrest and focused international attention on the Civil Rights movement. 

The writer Paul Loeb correctly notes that this history “in no way diminishes the power and historical importance of Park’s refusal to give up her seat. But it reminds us that this tremendously consequential act, along with everything that followed, depended on all the humble and frustrating work that Parks and others undertook earlier on. Park’s real story conveys a far more empowering moral. She begins with seemingly modest steps. She goes to a meeting, and then another, helping build the community that in turn supported her path. Hesitant at first, she gains confidence as she speaks out. She keeps on despite a profoundly uncertain context, as she and others act as best they can to challenge deeply entrenched injustices, with little certainty of results.  Had she and others given up after her tenth or eleventh year of commitment, we might never have heard of Montgomery.”

Bill Scandling studied here in many of the same halls as you have, went on to build an enormously successful food service business with a corporate culture of care and pride, amassed a significant fortune and tended to his alma mater in important ways.

While this institution is certainly grateful for his leadership as Chair of the Board of Trustees and the significant philanthropic support he gave to these Colleges — we are most appreciative for the personal and engaged presence he had on this campus. Over the course of his decades of service to Hobart and William Smith, Bill Scandling reached out to students, faculty and staff and, in so doing, sent a profound message of caring and engagement at the highest levels of our community. It was not uncommon for a student to receive a handwritten note from Bill following an event or award. Telephone calls to a coach after a game, staff member during an illness, or to a faculty member following a published work. All were typical for Bill Scandling.

What is the lesson here? For me, it's that whatever one’s position – you have a role to build community. Bill Scandling worked hard and achieved considerable success. But he utilized that success to advance people and causes important to him. He reached back across the decades of his life to assist and secure Hobart and William Smith and provide access to an education for generations of students. 

The first time I met Bill Scandling was when I was still living in Washington before moving to Geneva and he invited me to visit him on his yacht docked in Baltimore.

The next time I met Bill Scandling was on campus in the back kitchen of the Scandling Center. He would arrive for Board meetings and first go to the Scandling Center, enter thru the rear door and sit and visit with our dedicated food service colleagues. In this second encounter I happened upon Bill in a small, crowded office with staff swapping stories. For me Bill Scandling is an example of someone who did well and did good. He took a bold idea to create a different type of food service industry and he led a life of consistent service to his alma mater while never, ever forgetting all the many individuals who make up this community.

And finally, Tracy Spates—an active presence on our campus and in the Geneva community. As an art instructor at Children’s Hours Pre-School, she showed children the world through art. Her gift to transport children from their classroom to creative endeavors while teaching them about other peoples and cultures was a transformative experience.

On campus, she opened up her nearby home as a gracious and welcoming host to students, faculty and staff. Her dinner table nourished our bodies, minds and spirits. For young children in her classroom they learned about other nations and peoples. Long before Tom Friedman’s book, Tracy Spates taught 4 and 5 years olds that the world is flat. Now paint it.

How I wish the three of them could be here today. I know they would celebrate your graduation and success. They would recognize your families and friends for their important role. But they would also remind you of your responsibility. Undoubtedly, Rosa Parks would urge your duty to work for social justice since you now have what only 1% of the world enjoys – a college degree. She sat down on a bus 50 years ago, now you must stand up for causes you hold dear.

Bill Scandling would proudly stand and toast his fellow Trustee and Honorary Degree Recipient Tom Poole and rejoice in the prominence of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. But he would also remind you of your responsibility to the Colleges – to refer a student here, to continue your hold on campus, to support those who will come here as others have done for you. 

And Tracy Spates would lovingly stand with her life’s partner on this platform and urge you to build bridges of understanding across continents and racial, ethnic and religious divides that separate far too many of us.

Bill Shore, founder of Share Our Strength and a President’s Forum speaker, spoke about the opportunity we all have to make a difference when he said: “We tend to think that creating change requires an array of external resources and support; acts of Congress, great sums of money, large standing armies, technology, vast research capabilities, or powerful lobbyists, relationships and networks. Of course, all have their place. But often the most sweeping change results from a single individual with none of those at his or her command, but instead with the courage to follow his or her conscience.”

And that is my valedictory to you. Your life’s journey is now ahead of you. And whether the future brings fame, celebrity, wealth, or a more simple life — my hope is that you will make that bus, that dining room, that art classroom your opportunity to make a difference.

Your faculty, coaches, staff all wish you lives of meaning and consequence. We have endeavored to prepare you for this exciting century. We thank you for allowing us to be a part of that journey — and I thank you for the difference you have made for Geneva with your community service. From Geneva Heroes, to Boys and Girls Clubs, Community Lunch Program, Hurricane Katrina Relief to picking up furniture at the end of the year for charity, you have served this community.

But now it is time to say goodbye. And we do so with confidence in your abilities, with great anticipation of your success and with gratitude for the difference you will make in the years ahead.

Good luck and Godspeed.