William Whitaker '73, L.H.D. '97
May 18, 2008
Thank you President Gearan for those kind words. Of course you all know Mark Gearan is one of the Wise Men of Democratic politics. I was going to tell President Gearan that I'd do this speech for him only if he'd explain to me what in the world is going on in that party. But then I worried he'd come back and ask me what in the world is going on with network television news? So, I decided don't ask, don't tell was the best policy.
Thank you to the board of trustees, faculty and staff for inviting me here today. To the graduating class of 2008, Congratulations! You did it! And to you moms and dads out there this is your day too - and I don't just mean because you paid for it. A few weeks ago I interviewed Craig Ferguson, the host of television's "The Late, Late Show" and he said something that, as a parent, I found poetic and poignant. He said, "When you have a child, you find out what it's like to walk around the rest of your life with your heart outside your body." Today, all of you parents now know what it's like to have that heart bursting with pride. Congratulations to you too.
I am deeply honored to share this momentous day with you on this lovely campus. I was here a few weeks ago on a beautiful spring day, walking across this quad. Students were sunning themselves, throwing Frisbees and I had just one thought: Folks, you had better be enjoying this . because, after today, no more sunning or Frisbee on lawns you don't have to cut. From here on out it's jobs, stress, taxes, mortgages, your children's tuition. You know, the good life
And it's customary, as you are about to commence your life beyond this beautiful cocoon, for someone like me stand before you and dispense sage advice. I too got advice about what to say today. Everyone said keep it short. Piece 'o cake. I work in TV news. Brevity is my stock in trade. Following the controversial verdict in the OJ Simpson murder trial (when you guys weren't yet 10), the anchorman of the CBS Evening News asked on live national TV, "in the 10-seconds we have left, what does this verdict mean to the American judicial system?" The question took five seconds. Today I have 15 whole minutes. I can go wild.
I got some more advice. Some students I met here a few weeks ago said, "you have to do some shout-outs." Well, I didn't know that. So, for keeping me current and hip and real: a shout-out to Faderera (Fadi), Carina, Tara, Amanda & Ruben. Are you out there? Congratulations to all of you.
Someone else told me: stay away from cliches. Well, that I can't do. I mean, what's a commencement speech without cliches? I have to tell you to "go forth and find your passion in life." You will go forth from this place, whether you want to or not and I urge you to find your passion in life just as I found mine in journalism. I also have to tell you it's your time to make the world a better place. That's a commencement speech requirement - because we old folks always hope and pray that if we motivate you just right, you'll go out there and fix all the stuff we messed up. And we are sending you out into a messy world. I've spent my career looking into exactly how messy. I work in news. You read, watch or listen to the news every day. You do, don't you? So you know the litany: terror, global warming, food shortages, racism, sexism, war . and that's just in the Democratic presidential primary. But there's no denying this is a crazy, mixed-up world you are inheriting . from us. We didn't go forth from our graduations planning it that way - so Sorry!
A cynic might say it is ever thus. During my four years in college here, as during yours, there was a war going on. It was Vietnam in the 70s. There was deep political polarization too and Hobart and William Smith were right in the thick of it. An incident here on campus my Freshman year - a radical, rabble-rouser unmasked as an undercover law enforcement agent - made the national news. There was the rise of international terror - notably the Munich Olympics massacre.
Still, after all these years, I'm no cynic, just the opposite in fact. I have been fortunate to have a job that has taken me around the world and in my travels I have seen my share of horrors: Tienanmen Square, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. But I've seen so much more: the beauty and quiet dignity, the pageantry and centuries old tradition of the enthronement of the Emperor of Japan. I saw black South Africans lining up for blocks and blocks for up to 24 hours for the chance to vote for the first time for the president of their country and the peaceful transfer of power from the Apartheid government to the government of Nelson Mandela. I saw the births of my children. Nothing tops that. I've seen so much that is beautiful and good - too much to be cynical. Over and over I've seen ordinary people do extraordinary things. One man, standing alone in the middle of the street to block - to face down the line tanks of the People's Liberation Army rumbling in to secure Beijing after the massacre at Tienanmen Square: a courageous, outrageous act of defiance seen on live TV around the world. After Katrina, our own federal government failed miserably, but the American people excelled in rallying to help. The devastation was overwhelming, but the immediate, unselfish outpouring of help and support, including by students right here at The Colleges, was even more overwhelming. I saw people who'd lost almost everything share what little they had with neighbors who had even less. I met three people who rented an empty truck in Minneapolis and with nothing more than faith, a cell phone and a roadmap, set out to help Katrina's victims. They called ahead to churches and organizations along their route, asking for donations and by the time they got to the Gulf Coast, their truck was overflowing with needed supplies.
There's the mess, but there's also the majesty. It's never just black or white. Just a short while ago I was in Memphis for the 40th Anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination. I met a man there, 76 year old Elmore Nickelberry. He's a trash collector today, just as he was 40 years ago when King went to Memphis to march with the sanitation workers union fighting for fair wages and dignity. That turned out to be King's last march. But there I was 40 years later interviewing Mr. Nickelberry about those days - a time when he said the city paid them a pittance and white bosses would call the grown black men, "boy." I asked him what had changed over four decades. He looked at me, shook his head and said sadly, "truth be told, not much." He said he still doesn't have a city pension, and there are still people around here who'll call you boy. Then he paused and recalled an incident just a few days earlier. He said he was in a store and these two children, one white, one black, about eight years old, came over to him. He figured they approached him because he's old. They told him they were studying Martin Luther King in school and they wanted to know if he had marched with King in Memphis? He to told them, "yes." One kid, wide-eyed, poked the other, and said almost in awe, "he's a hero." Then they both asked excitedly, "Can we have your autograph?" Mr. Nickelberry broke down crying telling me that story. In that moment he realized that he, a garbage collector, had indeed helped change those children's world.
That reminded me of a quote by Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker, made famous by Martin Luther King: The arc of the moral universe is long, but it swings toward justice." I believe that - from gloom to light, from wrong to right.
If people had told me 35 years ago, when I was sitting on this lawn in cap and gown, that in my lifetime a woman or a black man would be the nominee of a major American party - and actually have a credible chance to be president of the United States - I would have asked them what they were smoking . or told them they were dreaming. Well, thank God for dreamers, and for those who selflessly help others, those who stand up for what is right, even when it's not easy . especially when it's not easy.
As graduates of Hobart and William Smith, these colleges with such a strong commitment to community service and excellence, dreaming and helping and standing for truth are part of your inheritance too. It's in the DNA of this place. Look, it's all around you. President Gearan has dedicated his life to service, as director of the Peace Corps; in making the concepts of service and global citizenship synonymous with these colleges. He's also proven that one can be passionate in politics without being polarizing.
Over there in bronze sits Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. After being told she'd never do it, she graduated at the top of her class in 1849, right here. She was a doctor, an educator, an abolitionist, a women's rights activist, in other words, she was a dreamer, a helper, a fighter for justice. She used her education as a shield against the slings and arrows of outrageous convention, as a sword to cut through hide-bound tradition and as a beacon to light the path for others. You are her heirs. You inherit her truth.
You follow in the footsteps of Katherine Elliott, being honored today. She told me that when she left William Smith and went to New York City in the mid-1960s, she was advised to go to secretarial school, because that's the only work women could do on Wall Street back then. Well, she didn't do what was expected of her. She chose to do the work the men were doing and became one of the first class of women to climb to the heights of Wall Street. Now Katherine Elliott is reaching back to give a hand up, gracing this campus with the new Katherine D. Elliott Studio Arts Center.
Giving: that's a legacy of these colleges too. Dean DeMeis has given 31 years of her wisdom, passion and love to students on this campus. Charlie Salisbury, also being recognized today, has given so much to these colleges to help mold lives of consequence. His masterpiece, the stunning, much-used Salisbury Center. Rosenberg, Napier, Stern, aren't just buildings on campus, they're alumni and alumnae who gave back so you could move forward. You are now standing on their shoulders. And from that perch you can reach even higher.
But please do your elders a favor. As you're reaching higher, please have some fun along the way - lots of fun. Promise us that you will travel, that you will work so hard it hurts, love so deeply it hurts, laugh so hard it hurts. Work on being comfortable in your own skin, but put yourself in uncomfortable spots from time to time. Reach too far, learn from your failures. As Eleanore Roosevelt said, "Anyone can conquer fear by doing the things he fears to do."
Some more advice - be open minded; make friends outside your group. Get out of yourself by giving of yourself: volunteer, help a child. Oh yes - make love, give love, make money, give money away - and Vote. Find your own voice. Like Elizabeth Blackwell, refuse to give into the tyranny of conformity. And this sage advice from graffiti back in my day; be realistic: ask for the impossible.
Most important of all: never ever, ever forget to call your parents.
And one last thing - stay curious. Don't miss the magic in life, because it's all around you, if you keep your eyes open and your radar on. For instance: sitting out there with you today are Jenny Quirindongo and her mother. I met Jenny when I was here in April. When Jenny was applying to college, her mother was too busy working three jobs to help her much. In the spring, her mom asked where Jenny had decided to go to college. A small school in Upstate New York, Jenny replied. Where, her mother pressed? When Jenny told her mom she had decided to go to William Smith her mother let out a scream. "What's up," Jenny asked? Her mother said, "I went there." Jenny said, "No way mom. You didn't go to college." Her mother said she had, for one year back in the 70s, but had had dropped out to help her mother who was working multiple jobs, struggling to raise a large family. Then her mother showed Jenny a scrapbook she'd kept tucked away, a keepsake of her year here full of pictures of this beautiful campus, her friends and the fun she'd had. Well, that was all the look Jenny got, because as it turned out, she couldn't come up for a visit before starting her freshman year. Her mom's pictures were her only glimpse of the world she was entering. Now today, as her mother proudly watches, Jenny is leaving here with a diploma from William Smith - magna cum laude. What her mother could only dream, Jenny is living. This day is a triumph for both. Now that is magic.
As this day proclaims, this is a beginning for Jenny, for all of you. After all the hard work, the all-nighters, the deep conversations solving the problems of the world, the conflicts and alliances, the friendships you've made for life - you are now ready for Prime Time, ready to take your places in this imperfect world. I hate to break it to you, but that little bit of fuzz gathering around the edge of your awareness is the nostalgia beginning to form. You can just catch the whiff of it: the sneaky suspicion that today marks the end of The Good Old Days. Well, take it from me, it does. But tomorrow begins something brighter, shinier and better, because it's infinite. Tomorrow begins your future. So heed my sage advice: go forth into your future . find your passions . and leave this world a better place than you found it. Please!
Thank you, for having me here today.