OXFORD, Miss. – Gov. Phil Bryant warned the University of Mississippi’s 2014 graduating class that they will weather some challenges in their post-college years and they must carry on like Mississippi has during hard times throughout its history.
Bryant gave UM’s commencement address in the Grove, as more than 10,000 students and their families gathered under sunny skies. That number includes nearly 4,500 applicants for undergraduate and graduate degrees from August and December 2013 and the 2014 spring semester. The governor’s talk came less than two weeks after 18 damaging tornadoes struck the state, killing 14 people and inflicting more than $100 million in property damages.
The state’s response to disasters over the years is a good lesson about the perseverance of the human spirit during the darkest of times, he said. The governor noted that Mississippi has had many rough periods to overcome, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which is the most destructive natural disaster in American history, as well as the Civil War, the Great Depression, segregation and other struggles. But the state has moved forward each time.
“Mississippians are a tough, determined people,” Bryant said. “The storms of the dark days of segregation blew hard against this state, one citizen against another. We’ve come through that storm because we’ve realized that as the storms are part of life, there is a beautiful day ahead and the sun shines through. It will now. It will evermore.”
He quoted poet William Butler Yeats, who said, “Every trial endured and weathered in the right spirit makes a soul nobler and stronger than it was before.”
The most recent example is how Mississippians have pulled together after the April 28 tornadoes that caused damage in 24 different counties, destroying 1,140 homes and 88 businesses across the state, Bryant said. Damage for those storms could exceed $100 million. The governor’s wife, first lady Deborah Bryant, tirelessly worked through those storms to comfort and aid victims.
Bryant also quoted the hymn “Amazing Grace,” telling the story of the writer’s survival of a storm at sea, which caused him to give up his career as a slave trader and commit his life to the ministry. He also quoted the lyrics to the Credence Clearwater Revival hit “Who’ll Stop the Rain.”
“Long as I remember, the rain been coming down,” Bryant quoted the lyrics. “Clouds of mystery pourin’ confusion on the ground. Good men through the ages tryin’ to find the sun. And I wonder still, I wonder, who’ll stop the rain.”
Bryant challenged graduates to prepare themselves for the storms of life and know they will have to persevere.
“We have been blind at times in our beloved Mississippi,” he said. “Now, we see a wonderful and bright future that lies ahead for us all. After Katrina, after Yazoo County (tornadoes), after April 28, we could have stayed down, but we simply chose to rise. With your help and dedication, we will continue to rise together.”
The governor has placed job creation and efficiency in government among his top priorities during his time in public office. Bryant is a former Hinds County deputy sheriff and state legislator. He also served as state auditor before being elected lieutenant governor in 2007. In 2011, he captured 62 percent of the vote to become Mississippi’s 64th governor.
Bryant, a native of Moorhead, is the son of a diesel mechanic and stay-at-home mother who raised three boys. The governor says his parents taught him the value of hard work, and also the importance of education. He is the first member of his family to graduate from college and holds an associate’s degree in criminal justice from Hinds Community College and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern Mississippi. He holds a master’s degree in political science from Mississippi College, where he served as an adjunct professor of government before he assumed his duties as governor. The Bryants have two adult children, Katie, who is an Ole Miss law school graduate, and Patrick.
Chancellor Dan Jones thanked the governor for working with him and Dr. James E. Keeton, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, to enlarge the medical school to produce more doctors. Jones believes increased access to health care in Mississippi will be one of Bryant’s legacies.
“All of us can learn from Gov. Bryant’s example of a collaborative spirit,” Jones said. “I encourage you to listen and carefully consider how you, too, can help make this state, this country and the world a better place for all people.”
At the ceremony, poet and UM professor Ann Fisher Wirth was honored as the recipient of the 2014 Elsie M. Hood Outstanding Teacher Award. Two were honored with the Thomas Frist Student Service Awards: Denis C. Goulet, lecturer and coordinator of laboratory programs in the Department of Biology and Carol Forsythe, senior secretary in the Department of Legal Studies. Robert A. Van Ness, professor of finance and Tom B. Scott Chair of Financial Institutions, was honored as the recipient of the university’s 2014 Distinguished Research and Creative Achievement Award.
Matthew Todd Keifer, president of the senior class and a public policy major from Meridian, said the class is now “turning pro and heading to the big leagues.” Now is the time for graduates to make childhood dreams come true, he said.
“Do not let your 5-year-old selves down,” Keifer said. “Channel those dreams and that passion to help others. Choose to be the warrior who fights for what is right in whatever career path you choose. Be a hero to those around you, embodying honor, integrity, justice and compassion. It is not the easy road, but it is the right road.”
UM Alumni Association President Jimmy Brown challenged the class as they go out into the real world to remember what the university and members of the Ole Miss community have done for them.
“My fellow alumni, before you leave this beloved place you’ve grown to love and have spent the last four or more years here, don’t forget your roots and reflect on what Ole Miss has meant to you,” Brown said. “Remember your professors, your classmates and anyone in and around this campus who has helped you get to this point. Ole Miss is where you planted your seeds in the rich soil on the grounds of this university, where you grew and were nurtured with the knowledge to develop into the person you have become.”