2008 Charter Day and Benjamin Hale Dinner Celebration
Garry Mendez '96, Alum Adress
April 19, 2008
I’m so glad to be here today. It’s an honor to speak to you, and I just want to thank you all for having me today and especially Dean Baer for inviting me. As many of you know, my father, Garry Mendez Jr., graduated from Hobart in 1958. My father is “Mr. Hobart” in the Hobart Athletics Hall of Fame for Football and Basketball, he’s a Medal of Excellence Winner, he speaks regularly on campus, he might as well just rent an apartment here in Geneva since he’s here every week speaking or receiving an award.
So I got a voicemail from Eugen asking me about coming to speak at Charter Day, and I didn’t get to my voicemail until late in the day so I decided I’d have to call him back the following day. For about 24 hours I was thinking, “This is going to be embarrassing when I have to tell him he found the wrong Garry Mendez and that Garry Jr. is my father.” So you can imagine my surprise when I called and the first thing out of Eugen’s mouth was “So I know it’s been 12 years since your last Charter Day but how would you like to come and speak this year?” I was so convinced that he was looking for my father, I hadn’t really prepared to answer the question.
My first thought was “Me? What do I have to say?” I figured I must have something to offer or I wouldn’t have been asked. So I thought back to what I would have wanted to know when I was about to leave Hobart. I kept coming back to the two ideas I’d like to talk to you about today, the first is what I call the Hobart way of life, which is really a personal thing for each of us, and the second is a change in the way we live and work that I call trading in the currency of freedom. These two things go hand in hand so let me start with a story to explain what I mean by the Hobart way of life.
One day during my sophomore year, I had three classes to attend, Political Economics, Intro to Geoscience and Photography. In the morning, I went to the Economics course, and we discussed the chapter of our text that focused on the dust bowl and the political and economic impact of people migrating from places like Oklahoma to California. Later in the day, I went to the Geoscience course, where we learned about the ways that sediment and weather can work together to wreak havoc on crops. To illustrate his point, the professor gave the example of the geological impact on the dust bowl in Oklahoma and Kansas. Finally, I went over to Houghton House for my photography course. With all of these ideas from economics and geology swirling in my mind, I had forgotten all about what I had done for my photography course. When I got there and took my photo out to put on the wall, it all made sense. It was a photo of a group of silos over by the Thruway that had been hit by a small tornado a week earlier. I had titled it “Surrender Dorothy” because it looked like the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. Someone in the class said that it looked like what would have happened if the Emerald City had been dropped on Dorothy in Kansas and right into the middle of, you guessed it, the dust bowl.
Walking back from Houghton House I thought, “Where else could you touch on the same topic on the same day from the point of view of an economist, a scientist and an artist? This was not a normal experience. This was not the kind of thing my high school friends were talking about when they came home for break. No, this was a specific experience, and a specific type of education. I decided on that day that I wasn’t going to allow the end of my four years to be the end of the time when I thought this way. I decided to live what I now call the Hobart way of life. It meant that I would never get so narrowly focused on one thing that I wouldn’t be able to make the connections. It meant that if I was to become an artist, then I would understand economics; if I was to become a scientist, thenI would understand art; if I were to become an economist, then I would understand the impact of the natural world on the economy.
So I’m here today to encourage you to hold onto the Hobart way of life after you graduate. It will help you in your career because it will make you more marketable and in-demand, but more importantly, it will help you live a richer life.
The Hobart way of life is rooted in a liberal arts education, and the term liberal arts leads me to the second thing I want to talk to you about. I was an English major so I have a penchant for looking things up in the dictionary and dealing with words. I looked up “liberal arts” and found that the root of the term is the Latin “artes liberalis.” As I said, I was an English major, not a Latin major, so my translation may not be exact, but what I found was that artes means “subjects of study” and liberalis means “proper to free persons,” in other words, an education for free thinkers.
This idea of gaining freedom through education got me thinking about freedom as a currency. Businesses are changing, and since much of our lives are consumed by working, changes in the culture of our businesses means changes in our culture as a whole. A big change that’s occurred recently is that now we exchange freedoms in our work. It used to be that you would leave Hobart, go off to work for one company, put in your 30 or 40 years and retire. You’d go in every day, work 9-5, maybe it wouldn’t be the most exciting thing in the world, but it would pay for a comfortable living and you could grill on the weekends, play some golf, go fishing or whatever, and that would be enough.
Those days are over. I would encourage all of you as you are leaving this campus, not to look at work as “looking for a job,” but instead, look for a freedom that you can offer. With your Hobart way of life you will certainly have something to offer. Maybe you are a writer who can take complex topics and break them down into bite-sized pieces. This kind of writing is a difficult thing to deal with for many employers. You can liberate them from the worry/hassle of technical writing, and as you find ways to do this, you will get more freedom in return. You’ll be able to choose what you work on, for whom you work and eventually when and where you work.
Finally, as you heard in my introduction, I work in marketing and some of my career has been spent helping people figure out how to make more money. But I have also put my Hobart way of life to work helping people who are less fortunate liberate themselves from social, economic and political problems. Would I have preferred to be at home on a Tuesday night at 9:00 p.m. when I was in a community center in the Bronx helping low-income people file their taxes online? Of course, but I was trading in freedom. Those people get the financial freedom of knowing that they would never have to depend on strangers and pay people to do their taxes. The fact that the next year those same people did their own taxes online and got credits and took a step out of poverty gave me a kind of freedom in my heart that I hope you can all attain someday.