Thank you very much. Dean Halfond, members of the faculty, distinguished guests, friends, family, and the graduates of the Class of 2012. Congratulations! I am honored to be with you today at this ceremony. I am especially humbled to receive the Distinguished Alumni award. I sure hope I can live up to it.
This is a particularly significant day for me, because like you, I too graduated from Metropolitan College, albeit some years ago. I received my M.S. in Business Administration in 1993 while studying at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Regrettably, I could not be here for the College’s convocation ceremony because of my military obligations. So, in a way, your momentous day is—in a small way—also my day: a long-delayed time to celebrate an educational milestone in my life, and in yours.
In preparing these remarks, I sought the advice of my family, friends, and colleagues. The top three responses? First, keep it short. Second, keep it short. And a close third—don’t be boring. I guarantee you that I will heed the first two suggestions; I also know that I am the only person standing between you and your diplomas! As for the third piece of advice, Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury fame once noted that “Commencement speeches were invented largely in the belief that outgoing [university graduates] should never be released into the world until they have been properly sedated.” I will do my best to prove him wrong, but please be gentle!
When I enrolled at Metropolitan College, I was a parent with a young child and a full-time job. I understand those are not atypical demographic markers for this class—indeed, many of you completed your degrees as working adults, having to juggle a myriad of professional, family and other commitments. That you are here today is a testament to your self-discipline and will to succeed, and to the strong support you received from your families.
In the roughly two decades since my graduation from this University, my life has changed in ways that I could scarcely imagine. For starters, I am older, a bit grayer, and my clothes have this inexplicable tendency to shrink. The young child in 1989 is now a graduate student and my younger daughter is now a rising college senior. On the professional front, I sit today as a judge on a United States Court of Appeals, after receiving the honor of a nomination by the President. If someone had floated that possibility by me twenty years ago, I might have suggested that she have her head examined!
The world also has undergone substantial change since 1993; a few examples from the field of technology will I think make my point. Just two years before I received my degree from the College, the World Wide Web launched. In late 1992, Windows 3.1 was released, helping to power a new wave of what were then considered state-of-the-art 386 processor PCs. During the mid-1990s the typical hard disk drive for a PC had a capacity of about 1 gigabyte. Today, I carry a zip drive that can store up to 20–30 times that amount of data.
In 1993, there were about 12.4 million cell phone subscriptions; today, that number is about 5.6 billion. In 1993, DVDs were about three years from being introduced as a video medium. Today, with the advent of online streaming video, they are at risk of suffering the same fate as VHS movie players. I see a lot of blank stares out there, but the gray hairs in the audience, I’m sure, remember VHS players.
In 1993, Steve Jobs was on the outside looking in at the company he created. Four years later, Apple brought Jobs back to serve as its CEO. When Jobs passed away last October, he left behind a company whose products are ubiquitous and whose value exceeds the GDP of Poland, Belgium, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, and Taiwan combined.
What I’ve just described is merely the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the changes the world has experienced in the last 20 years. We can only begin to dream of what lies ahead over the next two decades; but what is particularly exciting for me, and for all those who came here today to celebrate your wonderful achievement, is that, by virtue of your education, each of you now has the capacity to be a change agent in this world. Your education is the key to achieving your dreams, whether in this country or around the world. We all hope and expect that you will use your keys wisely, and turn them toward improving not only your lot, but the lot of others less fortunate than you.
Having turned fifty a few years ago, I’ve begun to reflect on my life. I’ve been blessed with a wonderful education, fascinating work, and abundant opportunities to serve. Truth be told, though, the law was not my first career choice; far from it. Rather, my first choice was—with apologies to Red Sox Nation—to be the next Mickey Mantle. Unlike the Great Mick, however, I could not (and still can’t) hit a curve ball, and so that dream remains on hold. While in high school, I turned my sights on being a military pilot, but that dream too was derailed when I got these extra pair of eyes. Next, I gave some thought to the priesthood, that is, until I met my soon-to-be wife in college. Believe it or not, I was an engineering major when I began college; but the thought of introductory physics and chemistry quickly brought me down to earth, and I chose to transfer to the Wharton School of Business, where I received a degree in economics. It was there, during my junior year, that I took an undergraduate legal studies course, which piqued my interest in the law. Two years after graduating from college, I entered law school. The rest, as they say, is history.
What does that say about me? Well, to some it might suggest, as publisher Alfred Knopf once noted, that my undergraduate work and chosen profession have trained me in the art of stating the obvious in terms of the incomprehensible. Others might say that I can’t hold down a job, or that I have failed at a great many things.
But what I hope you gather from my experience is that there is no conventional path to success, and there may well be a few twists and turns along your journey. Don’t sweat it. Or as Abraham Lincoln put it, perhaps a bit more eloquently: “My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.” Life inevitably brings with it challenges and triumphs. You should certainly savor the latter; in fact, that’s why we are here today. But it’s equally important that you learn and grow from the former.
Passing the mid-century mark has also prompted me to think about my legacy. That question came into especially sharp focus for me when our neighbors recently had to euthanize their dog after she became ill. It was a traumatic event for them and gave me pause to think, both about my life and our dog. You see for over 11 years now, our family has lived with Oliver, a ten-pound Maltese who believes the world revolves around him, but who loves us more than we deserve.
Recently, Oliver has begun to show his age. His gait is slower, his hearing is not what it was, and the whiskers on his face have begun to grey. In short, Oliver is winding down into the sunset of his life. As I contemplated that inevitable fact, I reflected on what it is about this dog that has made him so special. And then it hit me—it’s the way Oliver has lived his life that has made all the difference.
With apologies to those cat lovers in the audience, dogs have a way of living that is simple yet inspiring, and that we humans would do well to emulate. Oliver, for example, never holds a grudge, no matter how angry I get with him. Rather, each day when I come home from work, he runs to greet me and jumps with joy at my return. His days consist of long naps, stretching exercises, and frequent walks—things many of us never find time for, but would be better off if we did. He can’t speak a word, but his eyes often say more than most of say in a lifetime. Most importantly, he loves unconditionally and is always ready to listen.
An anonymous dog lover once said, “My goal in life is to be as good a person as my dog already thinks I am.” You, I am proud to say, have taken a very important step toward that goal, for a good person is one who seeks to make a difference in the world and in the lives of others. Your degree, and the intellectual foundation that you have built in your time here at Metropolitan College, have prepared you well to make that difference—in short, to be that good person. Oliver would be very proud.
But of course, now the real work begins, because all of us will in the end be judged not by our good intentions, but by our acts. A respected leader and friend back home in Charlotte once noted that when we pass from this earth, those who know us best will likely have one of three reactions: The first possibility: “Boy, I’m glad he’s gone!” It’s fairly obvious what impact you will have made if that is the response. On the other hand, people might say: “I did not know he was gone.” Not quite as bad as the first, but if you did not spend at least part of your life trying to effect change for the better, then what was the point? Finally, the reaction might be this: “I’m so sad that he’s gone.”
Don’t let your time on this earth pass without making a lasting positive impact, so that others will notice when you are gone and mourn your loss. And for those of you who may doubt your ability in that regard, take to heart the following words from this University’s most revered son:
“Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve . . . You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., never had any doubt about the power of a single individual to make a difference. Neither should you.
In keeping with my promise when I began, I’m about to sit down. I leave you with these words from Mark Twain:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off your bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sail. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Members of the graduating Class of 2012, thank you for allowing me to share this wonderful day with you. Congratulations! God speed, and smooth sailing!