Commencement 2015: Bob Woodruff

May 18, 2015

President Bravman, first of all, it sounds like my wife wrote that for you ... the members of the Board of Trustees and the distinguished faculty ... the parents and of course the graduates for the Class of 2015. It's an honor to be here.

I have to tell you one quick story. Last night we came here to warm up a little bit on the stage. It was raining hard and at that moment all of the sun came over the chairs and there was a rainbow that went right over the top of that clock. I don't think I've ever seen something quite like that before — maybe it's an image for you, a symbol for what you do when you graduate. I'll see that you can get a copy of it, I'll put it on my Twitter and my Facebook if you like. It's a kind of marketing.

Also, I have to say, I have to come clean — I am not a Bucknell alum.

I went to Colgate, which makes me a Raider. Some might see me as the enemy, a competitor in the Patriot League.

But there's also many similarities between our colleges if you just look around. Colgate and Bucknell have the same focus on academic excellence, the same relative size and school spirit. It's absolutely beautiful here. And I hope that you have formed the same lasting relationships with your friends here as I did 32 years ago when I graduated. And some of you will probably end up marrying each other. That happens a lot in these smaller schools.

So, believe me, I understand that I'm the only thing standing between you and your college degree and then all the parties and the celebrations that are coming very soon.

That means the greatest graduation gift that I can give to you is to be very brief. I promise I won't take much of your time.

Today, you can find everything you need to know in the way of life advice on the Internet or YouTube. You can pull up some graduation speeches or some TED talks and information on how to brew your own beer and how to change the tires on your car. So I'm not going to give you advice today or try to distill this speech into slogans or tweets that you will never remember years from now.

And I'm going to tell you a story about what happened to my very unexpected life.

Now I should tell you this, too. My graduation speaker in 1983 would prove to be really a prophetic choice for me. He was Ted Koppel, the well-known anchor of ABC News Nightline.

I don't remember a word that Ted spoke that day 32 years ago.

Then I asked him finally when I got a chance to meet him when I went to ABC. And he said he doesn't remember a word he said either. But he laughed and he said that he couldn't remember his own speaker as well. He said the only thing that he could remember during that time of his graduation back in I believe was 1961 was that he was hung over and he was half naked underneath his gown. So thank God they didn't have selfies back then. I guess his career could have been absolutely ruined. Or, who knows, maybe he could have had his own reality TV show, maybe like the Kardashians.

Those of you in the Class of 2015: We are 32 years apart in age, but in some ways, things haven't changed all that much. I graduated from high school in Michigan in 1979, determined to leave my hometown and go to find a great college far from home. No other plan, no other details.

The '70s really were a rebellious era. The Vietnam War had come to an end. We missed the era of college campus unrest, but we wanted to create a new and more inclusive culture. The fact is that we looked really silly back then in the 1970s. We had the worst clothes in the history of mankind — the disco era, as we call it — the most hideous hair ever in the history of our country including bowl cuts on the top, the long-haired hippie look or as we called it the shag. You can even go back and look at your parents' yearbooks from high school and you can have some good laughs.

We did have one great thing though — we had incredible, incredible rock and roll music. I know every generation says their music is the best but ours was the best. The worst clothes, yes, the music, the best. In fact, my kids — I had a son who graduated from Colgate two years ago and I've got a daughter who's about to graduate from Boston College tomorrow. And they actually have all of the songs memorized from the 1970s that they hear on the radio. A testament to our 1970s music!

So back to 1979. I took my Zeppelin, my Aerosmith, my Beatles, my Bob Seger records, left Detroit and drove east to Colgate to really immerse myself in a liberal arts curriculum where I could also play lacrosse and soccer.

I'll never remember driving into Colgate for the first time and it was exactly like Bucknell was when you took a look at it. There's these beautiful green grasses and I walked in and all the couches were on the front lawns in the spring up to 1979 and they're all playing Frisbee and I said, this is going to be my new home.

My senior year of college, I had no real idea what I wanted to do at all, only a vague thought that law school might be a very good foundation. But I never could have predicted my future.

During that graduation day of mine could I have predicted that I'd ultimately become a TV journalist? No.

Did I imagine that I would someday be a commencement speaker here at this beautiful campus? No.

Could I have predicted that during the Patriot League lacrosse semi final game in 2015 Colgate would destroy Bucknell 18 to 5? No. But it turned out to be true (I had to do that one, sorry).

OK, so let's go back to the topic of education for a second here. After I left Colgate I went to the Michigan Law School and became a lawyer. I actually really loved that intellectual pursuit of law school and after that I really just wanted to see the world that seemed to be changing so rapidly.

In the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union was falling apart while China was loosening up some of its restrictions and isolation from the West. I became a business lawyer to do M&A, but two weeks after I started in 1987 the market completely collapsed. So there was no more merging or acquiring. I was so bored I actually asked my law firm for a leave of absence for a year in Beijing to teach young Chinese students American law.

I married my wife two days before we left, on Sept. 11, 1988. She also went to Colgate — see what I mean — and moved to the school in Beijing that had Peace Corps living conditions, no hot running water and jungle toilets in the floor. It was honestly a great, brilliant way to start my marriage with my wife.

And while the People's Republic of China was just beginning its rise out of poverty and into the 20th century, my students were completely fascinated by America. The first time I had to give a lecture to about 400 students in this large room and the topic was American law and politics. The students actually after the talk, they gave me little cards with their questions. Not one person asked a single question about law or politics. They wanted to know things like: "Who is your favorite celebrity?"

"What car do you drive?"

"Do you know Magnum PI?"

But my best, hardest question that I got was this:

They said, "If your mother and your wife were drowning in a river but you could only save one, which one would you save?"

I knew something about the culture and history of China. I said, "I would save my mother because I can always get another wife."

So I got a complete standing ovation for that.

Then at the end of that school year, in 1989, the students began protesting on Tiananmen Square and our lives and those of so many in the country completely changed. I was hired by CBS News to translate for many of the journalists who had flocked to Beijing to cover the hunger strikes. We all watched nervously as the Chinese army and their tanks were waiting outside the Forbidden City in a tense standoff. When the People's Army rolled in, I was there, near the square. The events I witnessed — and the ability of those around to share that injustice — changed the direction of my life. I was bitten with the journalism bug. At age 30 I finally understood what I wanted to do with my life.

Suddenly, it was crystal clear. I wanted to be in places where history was happening. I wanted to become a broadcast journalist, to tell stories with words and video. That was nine years after I graduated from college. The good news is that for you, there's plenty of time. That was nine years it took me.

I chucked my law career and took a six-figure pay cut with our one-month-old son. And years later, after moving around the country I wound up at ABC News. Finally I had found the path that felt right. But of course, once again, it would change.

In 2001 we were living in London and on that bright blue September 11th day — on our 13th wedding anniversary — we watched the terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., from the TV screen in the ABC's bureau in London.

My job would be covering conflicts and wars — almost exclusively — from that point on. For the next five years I covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Then, on my seventh trip to Iraq in 2006, I was reporting on the coalition forces about the progress of the U.S. and the Iraqi armies. My ABC team was with me in an Iraqi tank heading down a road when suddenly ... Boom.

An Iraqi insurgent detonated an explosive device just about 20 yards off to the left from me, hitting myself and my cameraman Doug Vogt . I spent the next five weeks in a coma, surrounded by my family and friends in the military hospital Bethesda Naval. In that first week after multiple surgeries, I was not at all expected to survive.

Sometimes life really turns on a dime. It can change in an instant. I know that some of you have already seen that or experienced that or witnessed life's curve balls and you have had to choose how to respond.

At the time of my injury, I was the anchor of ABC World News Tonight. I had taken over for the legendary journalist Peter Jennings who had just died from lung cancer and I had barely had a chance to sit in that chair when I was hit by that bomb in a war zone — my brain shattered and rattled. It would take me a year to really begin to recover and get my life back.

For years I thought a lot about what I had lost. That dream was completely destroyed in a thousandth of a second. It was painful. But at the same time, I tried to focus on the good things that had come out of something so horrific. That's the part I want to tell you about ... how you can choose how to respond in life.

When I felt low about myself, I thought about this quote from the Dalai Lama, who my wife and I had seen in San Francisco years before. He said, "Remember that sometimes not getting what you want ... is a wonderful stroke of luck."

I have said that there are always good sides and bad sides to tragedy. My friends and my family stuck by my side; they never gave up hope that I would come out of that coma. They never gave up hope that I would completely live the way that I did before. On that day, the soldiers on that military mission and the medics saved my life.

You know I had a chance this morning to see another inspirational story from one of your own students here. Alexandra Boni, who's a biology major. Her freshman year, she went into a coma for two straight months, twice the length of my coma. She came back — now she's going to go to med school next year after she graduates here today.

The gift of the bad thing that happened to me was something I could not have imagined; nor could Alexandra. It gave me the chance to do something to bring attention to the American veterans and their families, the less than 1 percent of our population who have raised their hands and volunteered to serve their country in areas of conflict, so that all of us are able to be present for important moments just like this.

When it was clear that I was going to recover, my wife and my brothers decided to do something with all that attention that we had received. We started the Bob Woodruff Foundation and to date we have raised and spent more than $25 million to small grassroots organizations that are helping injured veterans as they return to the home front.

If someone had told us nine years ago that we would accomplish this much, we might have been absolutely overwhelmed. But as Dalai Lama also says: "If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito buzzing around your head."

Research, in fact, shows that reaching out and doing something for someone else — giving back — is one of the documented ways to combat depression, sadness or the isolation that all of us can feel at various points in life. Helping wounded veterans has been an important component of my recovery as well as my family's.

A good friend of mine, Dale Beatty, he lost both of his legs in Iraq; he was in the Army. After he recovered and learned how to handle his prosthetics, he actually started his own organization to physically build homes for others that are more severely wounded than him. He understands this old adage that it is more satisfying to give than to receive. Someone once asked him how is it possible that you with no legs can build homes for someone else. He said, "I can't. But you can."

I had the chance this month also to talk to the Iraqi translator, Omar Aljaff, who is an old friend of mine now. He was with me in that Army tank when the bomb went off. He had worked for the U.S. Army and the Marines for four years and took a risk to his family and to himself. After that explosion, he saved my life by holding his hand over my neck to stop the bleeding from pouring out where the rock had blasted through.

Omar was forced to flee Syria after it was revealed that he was associated with the U.S. military, so we helped to get him a green card. We moved him to Kentucky and now he has a college degree in art and film. He told me the other day it looks like he will be getting a job at Netflix. What an incredible example that the American dream is still alive and well.

I told him also, you know, we made some mistakes that day on Jan. 29, 2006. We should have been more cautious, he said and maybe we should not have stood up over the top of that tank where we were hit.

And I said what would be the best thing to do next time this happens, he said, "Next time ... we'd duck." So humor works.

One of the all-time most-watched YouTube commencement speeches was given by Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, at his alma mater — Stanford. He had already been diagnosed with cancer and he was facing his own mortality.

It's worth listening to this if you haven't — but my favorite quote from that is this:

"Your time is limited so don't waste it living someone else's life. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. Stay hungry, stay foolish ... sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick ... but don't lose faith."

My own brick in the head was made out of rocks and lauched by a terrorist's explosive device but I chose not to lose faith. This is your life to live. This is your story — you will choose to look for your own path and signs.

The rest of my own story has not yet been written.

I'll tell you that I am immensely grateful for family and for friends. I have a wonderful wife and four incredible kids. I'm very excited; when I'm done here today that I'm going to get in a car, I'm going to drive up to Boston where my 21-year-old daughter, Cathryn, is going to graduate from BC tomorrow. Like your parents and your loved ones today, I'm just so eager to give my girl a huge hug and get one last kiss from her before she officially heads out in pursuit of her own dreams.

As I said in China 26 years ago, if any member of my family is drowning in the river, they are absolutely the ones that I will save first.

So look right — and look left — locate your parents and your loved ones out there in the stands.

I'm here to tell you that the only things that matter in the end are the people that you love — and who love you back.

Thank you and congratulations to the Class of 2015!