Chancellor Jones, the administration and faculty, honored family members and guests – and most especially, graduates of the year 2012.
This is an incredibly beautiful day, and this is indeed a high honor for me to be here today.
I have been coming to this grove for as long as I can remember – first with my father, a 1948 Ole Miss Law School graduate, who is here today, and later as a student myself, even later as the parent of two UM graduates, and literally thousands of times in between. This university has been an integral part of my life for most of six decades. It is always special to be back on campus and is profoundly special today. So, if this is a big day for you – and it should be – it is a really big deal for this Pontotoc boy.And, of course, knowing the Ole Miss family as I do, I realize I need to say something of importance to you at this special milestone – and that I need to be quick about it so we can get on with the business at hand.Here is what I hope to impart during this little speech: You are part of a very elite group, you have a lot of people to share the credit with, and we are expecting a lot from you. In fact, we have a lot riding on your success.
Today, as college graduates, you join an exclusive group. Only 6.7 percent of the world’s population has earned a college diploma. Even here in the United States, just one-third of our population holds a bachelor’s degree. Congratulations are in order. You have worked hard and studied hard, and you are entitled to take a bow.
Those are the parents and family members applauding your bow.
I hope you will also take a moment to breathe a word of thanks to all the people – living and dead – who helped you get here. And to acknowledge how lucky we all are. You know, being lucky is nothing to be embarrassed about. Before selecting his generals, Napoleon reportedly inquired, among other things, whether they were lucky. Golfer Gary Player is one of many to have observed, “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.” So it’s okay to be lucky.
For those of us fortunate enough to be in the United States of America, let’s go ahead and admit it: We are the luckiest of all. We won the lottery without even having to buy a ticket. And no matter where in the world you’re from, someone went to a great deal of effort to get you here, someone who appreciated your potential and what this country and this university could mean to your future. So, we all stand on the shoulders of others.
I am not here today to diminish your hard work in any way or pour cold water on your achievement. I just hope you will keep this moment in perspective. Let’s avoid the hubris of having been born on third base and thinking we hit a triple.
So, if being lucky is nothing to be ashamed of, what should our response be to the realization that we are such fortunate sons and daughters?
May I suggest, first, caution, then a sense of history, which leads to a sense of obligation.
You know, a lot of people who win the lottery end up going broke. Others are sensible and make good use of their fortunes. This is true of civilizations, and it can be true of a generation. Your collective birthright can be squandered on riotous living like the Bible’s Prodigal Son, or it can be used as a foundation for greater opportunity. We are witnessing that choice right now, being made on a global scale. So be careful with the bounty that has been bequeathed to you.
And then be thankful for the people two-and-a-quarter centuries ago who put this system in place, to the founders of this great experiment.
For the visionaries who knew from experience that governments often become too powerful and who therefore devised three separate branches of government to divide those powers and limit those powers.
In 1787, after sending the Constitution to the States for ratification, the leaders of our infant nation commissioned the Great Seal of the United States, which remains unchanged to this day. The Great Seal still appears on our one-dollar bill. It contains three Latin phrases. The first is the most familiar: “E Pluribus Unum,” meaning “Out of many, one nation.” (We are still working to make that a total reality.) A second phrase says “Annuit Coeptis,” meaning, “God has favored our undertakings.” (There’s just no getting around the founders’ reliance on the Almighty.)
The final Latin phrase is perhaps the most striking because of its audacity: “Novus Ordo Seclorum” or “the new order of the age.” Just think about it: Leaders of the only popularly-elected government on the planet at that moment, representing barely 2-1/2 million souls along the eastern seaboard of North America, somehow knew that their concept of government and freedom would catch on – that it would, in fact, become the new order for everyone.
And you know what? They were right.
Now it is up to you to keep that new order going – but how? Our remarkable neighbor from Tuscumbia, Alabama, the late Helen Keller, once said, “The world is moved along not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.”
I have no doubt we have some future heroes in our midst this morning. Some of you will start Fortune 500 companies. We have experience with that among our alumni.
Someone in this outstanding collection may win another Super Bowl or two.
But it is also a certainty that more of you will establish small businesses. That is where the vast majority of jobs are created nowadays. And your athletic prowess is much more likely to be expressed coaching Little League. Tiny pushes.
Ole Miss needs best-selling authors. They make large donations and get things named after them. But we also need people to read to a child. And if you can’t be a world-famous preacher, you can teach Sunday School. If your concerts don’t sell out a stadium, there’s always community theater. We expect scientific discoveries and inventions from some of you, but we will also need judges for the science fair.
The contributions you make – as a citizen, parent, neighbor, and friend – will reflect on Ole Miss, and you will be part of an inspiring tradition.
Like the Ole Miss graduate who dedicates his time at Stewpot Community Services in Jackson. Or the successful businessman who volunteered to be a coach in inner-city Memphis because he saw champions in players who had always been known as underdogs.
There’s the recent Ole Miss graduate who is today using her education in a small Costa Rican village as a member of the Peace Corps, and the Army Captain who served in Afghanistan and wrote a children’s book about the first African American graduate at West Point.
The ways in which Ole Miss and Ole Miss’s family has already worked to make this campus, state and nation – and our planet – better are diverse and far-reaching, from big ideas to astounding contributions, simply to dedicating time and energy to an important cause. Each tiny push is moving us forward.
One of my favorite movies came out well before most of you were born. It is called “A Man for All Seasons” and was based on a play about the last days of Sir Thomas More – the Lord Chancellor of England who stood up to King Henry VIII on a matter of conscience and lost his life as a result.
In one scene, the overly ambitious Richard Rich asks Thomas More for help in obtaining a position of importance.
Sir Thomas suggests, “Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher. Perhaps even a great teacher.”
Richard responds, “And if I was, who would know?”
Sir Thomas More then answers, “Your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that … Oh, and a quiet life.”
I relate this story not just to express my appreciation for our teachers. And not to urge all of you to be teachers, although some of you will in fact be great teachers. I tell you this story to make this emphatic point: Your measure of success in life is not in the recognition you may receive from others.
Much of what you accomplish of real importance during the rest of your days is likely to go unnoticed.
Take satisfaction in the fact that you have done your part and done your best, even in a small way, and let that be your reward. As author Charles Wheelan recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “The less you think about being great, the more likely it is to happen. And if it doesn’t, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being solid.”
Which brings me to this concluding pronouncement: Ole Miss Graduates of 2012, by the power vested in me as your Commencement Speaker, I now declare that it is your turn. The new order of the age that our founders envisioned is in your hands. Be careful with it, be thankful for it, improve upon it, and remember your obligation to those who will follow.
I expect you to keep this great experiment going. And like your friends and family here today, I think you’re going to make us proud. Thank you and Godspeed.