Sunday - May 21, 2006 - 10 a.m.
Gov. Edward Rendell's Commencement Address to the Class of 2006
Thank you very much, President Mitchell. It was a pleasure to receive the Award of Merit, particularly from Bucknell trustee and alumnus William Graham who has been a big help to me particularly in turning the city of Philadelphia around.
And it’s a pleasure to be here and be asked to give the commencement speech at Bucknell University, one of our nation’s finest academic institutions and the UCLA of the East in basketball.
Although I have to admit, whenever I am asked to be a graduation speaker, and it started shortly after my election to the position of mayor in 1992, I always wonder why we even have graduation speakers. Truth be told the parents and families and students want to get up here and get the diploma and get on to partying or whatever they’re going to do.
And it doesn’t seem to me that graduation speakers have a particular role. In fact when I first got invitations to speak, I thought as hard as I could, trying to remember who my graduation speaker was in 1965 at Penn and I couldn’t recall who it was. I said this at some graduation in the late ’90s and an enterprising graduate emailed me the next day with the name of my graduation speaker; I subsequently forgot it again.
And I think graduation speakers make a mistake by trying to use this as a forum to sketch out some important policy that’s confronting them in their job, usually something that most people in the audience don’t have the slightest bit of interest in. So I will try my very best to make this interesting and relevant to the graduating seniors. You know Gary Trudeau, the famous columnist who authors Doonesbury, once said "Commencement speeches were invented largely in the belief that graduating seniors should not be released into the world until they were properly sedated." So here goes.
I’m going to give you four pieces of advice today; the first may be the most practical of all. You graduates really don’t understand the sense of pride and the sense of relief that your parents are experiencing today. This would be an opportune time to ask them for money.
My second piece of advice is slightly more serious. And that is, as you go through your careers, as you build your lives, all of us want to succeed. But the most important thing that you can do is to not let other people define success for you. You must stake out the criteria that will indicate to you whether you’ve succeeded or not.
In American society in 2006 we tend to describe success as the accumulation of great material wealth or the accumulation of fame notoriety or celebrity. During my time as mayor, as chairman of the National Democratic Party or as governor, I’ve gotten to meet some of the richest people in the world and some of the most famous and I can report that you that many of them are very unhappy.
Who’s more successful? A business man who buys and sells companies, and has accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars or fortune by buying those companies, laying the workforce off, selling the , who’s been married and divorced three times, whose children won’t speak to him? Or the 11th grade biology teacher, who coaches 6th grade girls basketball, has a wonderful relationship with his/her spouse, and has four children who dearly love him. You know the answer to that; it’s not even close.
So you set the criteria, you set the bar for success in your life and each and every one of you should have a different definition of success and it should be yours and only yours.
Secondly it’s very, very important that you don’t let people tell you what you can’t do. You know in this lifetime, people are always telling us what we can’t do. A little liberal arts university from mid-state Pennsylvania could never beat Kansas, you could never achieve that goal, you’re too small or you’re too short or you’re not fast enough. People are always telling us what we can’t do.
But it’s important for all of you to have dreams, to have a vision, to know where you want to go and to reach for the stars. You cannot be afraid to fail. Literally everyone here today, your parents, myself, the trustees, everyone (with the possible exception of President Mitchell) has failed at doing something in life. There’s no disgrace in failing. The only disgrace is if you don’t try you’ll regret it all your life.
You know there’s a bandleader your parents will know very well but none of you have ever heard of called Les Brown. And Les Brown said, "Shoot for the moon; even if you miss you’ll fall in the stars." So whatever it is you want to do, go for it.
Confucius said, "Wherever you go, go with all your heart." My successor as mayor in Philadelphia, John Street, who was my city council president for my eight years as mayor, in the 10th grade he was told that he wasn’t college material by his guidance counselor.
When he related that story to me, he told me for the next four or five days he was in a horrible depression. And then he decided he wasn’t going to let one person tell him what he couldn’t do. So he studied harder, got into college, did well in college, got into Temple University Law School, graduated from law school, went on to be a successful lawyer and elected city councilman, city council president, then mayor of the sixth largest city in America, so don’t let others tell you that you can’t do it.
But when you strive for your vision ,when you reach for the moon, if you do fail perhaps you should go back to the old adage that if at first you don’t succeed, do it exactly like your mother tells you.
And the last piece of advice that I want to impart to you is whatever you do, whatever career you stake out, make sure you find some time to give something back. Now you always hear that and it is important. The power of volunteering, the power of public service, can do so much and can change so many people’s lives. But the best thing about it is not the substantive good that you can do, it’s the way it makes you feel, it’s the reinforcement that you get, it’s the psychic income.
You know all of us cannot be as lucky as I’ve been; I’ve been out of law school for 38 years. I’ve spent most of that time in public service, as an assistant DA, as district attorney, as mayor, as governor. I’ve never made what our society would categorize as real money and I’ve never missed it for a day. I’ve never been unable to do something that I wanted to do, I’ve never been unable to buy something that I really wanted to buy. And yet each and every day I get up knowing I’m being paid to make people’s lives better.
You know a graduation speaker by the name Nelson Henderson said, "The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you never expect to sit." And John Wooden, that great teacher at UCLA, said "You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you" and it’s true.
You know one of the things that I insisted on when I became governor is that we spend and invest hundreds of millions of dollars in early childhood education because I believe that building a good foundation for our young students, starting with pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten and tutoring was so crucial. We battled with the legislature until December 21st before passing a budget that included some $3 hundred million dollars for all of those programs including tutoring.
Well a suburban Pittsburgh school district did something very unusual. The teachers voted, even though the tutoring money wasn’t arriving until September, the teachers voted to begin tutoring that January because of what we had done without getting paid for it. And so when September rolled around they had a ceremony to thank the teachers who had volunteered the semester before and they asked me to come and I did. There were about 200 people there and three TV cameras. The superintendent spoke and the principal spoke and the teachers spoke and the parents spoke. And then it came time for a student to speak and they had chosen a 5th grader or actually it was a 6th grader. He had just finished his fifth grade and he was a big awkward kid about 6 feet. He sort of ambled to the podium and he got up to the microphone and he stood silently for 10 seconds, for 20 seconds, for 40 seconds, and you know what 40 seconds of silence at a microphone can be like, it’s like an eon.
Well I was sitting right where Judge Crawford is sitting and I was about to get up to encourage the young man when I saw him gather himself, almost from the soles of his feet I could see him pull himself up, and he got close to the microphone and he said, he didn’t even introduce himself, and he began by saying, "Last year I was stupid, but then Mrs. Parker started working with me, myself and four other kids, after school four days a week" and he stopped again. This time he paused for about 25 seconds. And then he stepped up to the microphone again and his face broke into this big grin and he said, "Now I’m not stupid again."
We all know that he was never stupid; he may have been slightly slower to learn than his classmates, he may have been experiencing trouble at home, his parents could have been going through a divorce, there are myriads of reasons that children don’t achieve at the same level that the classmates do in the early grades but he was never stupid.
And I thought to myself two things: one, how right I was to hold out and take all the political abuse to get all the money for tutoring but two, I thought how lucky Mrs. Parker is. She just was sitting there and I actually never got to meet her but she was sitting there and heard from a young man that she had changed his life. There was no question that if that young man hadn’t gotten tutoring he would have fallen farther and farther behind, he would have become frustrated, he would have dropped out of high school. And his life would have been non productive and bitter.
But you could tell by the smile on his face that he just didn’t reach proficiency in reading and math, he reached proficiency in self-esteem and self-value and Mrs. Parker did that by volunteering four days a week to teach that young man the things he needed to succeed.
Well you don’t have to be a mayor or a governor, you don’t have to work in public service, you don’t have to be a teacher. You can give 5-10 hours a week of your time tutoring someone in reading in an early grade, being a big brother or a big sister to someone who has lost their way. You can change lives and when you do, it’s an awesome feeling.
Another graduation speaker by the name of Charles Hopi said something, which I think, is a good credo for all of us to think about as you’re launching your careers, as you want to contemplate what value your life is going to have, and the things you do are going to have.
He said, "I hope my achievements in life shall be these: that I will have fought for what is right and fair, that I will have risked for what matters, that I will have given help to those in need, and that I will have left this earth a better place for what I’ve done and who I’ve been."
Graduates of the Class of 2006, we need your energy, we need your optimism, we need your vision, we need your hopefulness, we need all of the good things you can bring to us, so go out, don’t look back, do great things.
David H. Van Wagener, Class of 2006, Class Response Address
Scott A. Breon, President, Class of 2006, Class Response Address