Date: May 24, 1999
Contact: Alicia MacLeay
Phone: (207) 872-3220
Colby College, 178th Commencement
May 23, 1999
Governor King, President Cotter, distinguished guests, graduates.
It's a great honor for me to be here to share this happy day with you graduates and your families and to share this platform with the distinguished honorary degree recipients. I've followed a lot of skillful politicians to the podium but I don't think I've ever followed one any more skillful than Ezra Dyer. Ezra, I think after the program you ought to come up and say hello to the Governor, maybe get yourself invited down to the Blaine House. Take a measurement of that because I think we've seen a future governor up here today.
I feel very much at home since Waterville and Colby have been integral parts of my family's life. As just about everyone knows, I'm not the most famous member of my family‹that's my brother John. He's been the assistant basketball coach here at Colby for 30 years, and he'd never forgive me if I didn't ask him to stand and be recognized.
We grew up here in Waterville on Front Street, just a short walk from the old campus. The move to this campus was a great step forward for the College, but it was a sad event for me and my friends because in those days it was a long trip to Mayflower Hill, nobody owned a car, so we weren't able to attend as many Colby games as we had at the old campus. In my senior year in high school, my father lost his job. It was a devastating experience for him and for our family. After a long and painful year he was hired as a janitor here at Colby. It transformed him.
He loved this institution so much that when he talked about it he sounded like a member of the founding family rather than a newly hired janitor. Between my junior and senior years in college, I attended another unnamed institution in Brunswick. I spent the summer working here. With a couple of fellow workers I built that beautiful lawn over in front of Foss Hall. So the next time any of you walk by it, take note of the grace and symmetry of those terraces and then think of me pushing hundreds of wheelbarrows full of dirt up that hill.
I graduated from Bowdoin the next June and I was subject to being called into the military on two weeks notice. So while I waited, I returned to Colby and worked on the grounds crew. For seven months I planted trees‹some of them you can see here now‹and painted windowsills. My father took great delight in bringing visitors over, pointing to me and saying, "You see that boy over there, the one mowing the lawn? He just graduated from Bowdoin." He used to say that Colby had reached such a state of excellence that you'd need a Bowdoin degree to get a job on the grounds crew here.
These graduation ceremonies are a lot of fun and colorful. They have a long history. The first one took place in Italy about 800 years ago. The first American commencement occurred in 1642 at Harvard. For those of you already worrying about how long I'm going to speak, you'll be interested to know that at that first American commencement there were nine graduates and they were subjected to three commencement addresses: one in Hebrew, one in Greek and one in Latin. That took all morning, and then in the afternoon they had to listen to a long debate on philosophy, conducted in Latin. So I begin by assuring you that I speak only English, and the one thing I remember about my own graduation is that it was too long. So I'm going to be brief and I hope to stop speaking before you graduates stop listening.
For over three years, I had the privilege to work for peace in Northern Ireland. Last year the governments of Britain and Ireland, and most of the political parties there, reached an agreement that could end centuries of conflict. In a free and open election, the people of Ireland‹North and South‹overwhelmingly voted in favor of that agreement. It was an historic step forward, although by itself the agreement does not provide or guarantee peace‹it makes peace possible even though there are many difficult decisions ahead.
The people of Northern Ireland remain divided along sectarian lines and they mistrust each other. But they share a desire not to return to the violence which for so long filled their lives with death and destruction and with fear and anxiety. They are trying to create the conditions in which each individual can live a full and meaningful life. That should be the goal for every society including our own.
We're fortunate to be Americans, to be citizens of the most free, the most open, the most just society in all of human history, despite its imperfections. From our society each of us receives many benefits. With benefits come responsibilities. Every person in this nation has an obligation, a positive duty, to participate actively in improving the American way of life, and that's especially true for those who, like you graduates, have had the good fortune to receive an advanced education.
There's a lot for all of us to do. If you believe as I do that every American child is entitled to a good education regardless of background or family wealth, you must oppose any effort to deny them that opportunity. If you believe as I do that we have an obligation to leave for future generations the very basics of healthy human life on earth, clean air, pure water, unpoisoned land, you must demand public policies to honor that obligation. If you believe as I do that every American is entitled to good health care, especially those in the vulnerable early and late years of life, then you must support policies to meet that objective. And if you believe as I do that every American is entitled to equal opportunity and equal justice, you must speak out against all forms of discrimination and injustice. If you remember one thing I say here today remember this: in the presence of evil, silence makes you an accomplice.
The education you've received is important, even necessary, but it is not a guarantee of self-worth and it is not a substitute for a life of effort. What you do is important. How you do it is just as important. If you take pride in what you do, you will excel. If you do not take pride in what you do, you cannot excel.
John Gardner said it best when he wrote, "an excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because it is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water."
Whatever you do, be sure you don't do what the young Irish student did when taking his final exams just before Christmas. Frustrated by the difficulty of the questions, he wrote in answer to the last one, "God alone knows the answer to this question. Merry Christmas." A week later he got his paper back and it read, "God gets an A, you fail. Happy New Year."
Well, your exams are behind you but your life now stretches before you. In it you will find that real fulfillment will come not from leisure, not from idleness, not from self-indulgence, not from the accumulation of tangible things and wealth. Rather, real fulfillment will come from striving with all of your physical and spiritual might for a worthwhile objective that helps others and is larger than your self interest. I hope that each of you is fortunate enough to find such an objective in your life.
Congratulations. Good Luck. God bless each of you.