Much has changed in the world since he sat through his own college graduation more than 40 years ago, said Richard A. Gephardt, former U.S. house minority leader, in his May 20 address to the graduating class at Washington University in St. Louis’ 144th Commencement.
But what hasn’t changed is the uncertainty that faces recent college graduates.
“We had no idea what we were heading into as we left on our graduation day,” Gephardt told the audience of more than 12,000, including some 2,500 graduates, in Brookings Quadrangle. “Neither, I suspect do you. And it would be a reckless commencement speaker who ventured too many predictions about a world that in his own lifetime has confounded so many expectations.
“But what is clear, I believe, is how different and uncertain your time is — and how much it demands from your generation. Many of the differences are happy ones. ‘The long twilight struggle’ has yielded to a new dawn of freedom across Eastern Europe, the old Soviet empire, and all across the globe. The long nighttime of communism and totalitarianism is not over, but we are entering a new era where ordinary citizens everywhere are speaking out freely and are no longer afraid of murderous dictators.
“We have written sanctions for racial discrimination out of our laws, though it clearly remains seared in our national life.”
Gephardt, who received an honorary doctor of humane letters during the ceremony, also mentioned the progress that has been made toward equal rights for women and minorities “in our battalions and workplaces, even though serious discrimination still exists.”
He praised the advances in technology that have given the world compact computers, cell phones, PDAs and, “as I know from my own son’s experiences here at the Washington University medical school, (technology) has also brought breakthrough medical advances, so that in many cases today, as in my son’s, cancer is a survivable disease.”
But he stopped short of urging the graduates to change the world.
“In fact, I can’t improve upon John Kennedy’s straightforward call to my generation to accept the responsibilities of citizenship, along with its advantages,” Gephardt said, before turning his attention to the Richard A. Gephardt Institute for Public Service created in his honor at Washington University in February.
“This Institute will attempt to make JFK’s challenge real for students here at Washington University,” he said. “In addition, I hope this Institute will offer baby-boomer retirees the opportunity to help spread freedom, democracy, and capitalism across the globe so we can better prevent the creation of terrorists.
“Kennedy’s challenge was historic, but I want us to make history here at Washington University by getting hundreds of Americans to really accept that challenge.”
While politics, the economy and technology have made dramatic changes since the 1960s, Gephardt went on to say that some things have remained constant, such as simple rules to live your life by.
“First, treat other people the way you would like to be treated. It’s no accident that every religion in our world revolves, at least in part, around some vision of the Golden Rule. My mother taught it to me every day. It’s been the most important rule in my life. Every ultimately successful person — every person who makes something of their life, every ultimately successful leader — I have ever met in business, politics or elsewhere practices, or tries to practice, the Golden Rule everyday in his or her life.
“Second, value human relationships, above all else. No one is poorer or more lonely than the people who lack them. Our lives are short, sometimes shorter than we want, and the most rewarding, enriching aspects of our lives are the human relationships we have to enjoy. So love your families, hold them close, for they are the greatest source of security and strength you will ever know.
“Third, live your life with enthusiasm and curiosity, all born of the great incomparable joy of being alive,” he said, eliciting a shout of approval from a graduate, to which Gephardt responded: “I’m glad somebody already gets it!” He continued his speech by telling the graduates to “Find something you really enjoy doing. If you hate your job, go find a new one. Believe me, 40 years go by in a flash. And you must not settle for a life that will only produce regrets and recriminations.”
Gephardt then recounted a story from the movie “Awakenings,” which is about a man who awakes from a 40-year coma. A few weeks after awakening, he calls his doctor at 3 a.m. and asks to meet him at his office. The doctor rushes to his office expecting to find that his patient had fallen ill, only to find the man beaming with “the love of life again after reading a newspaper.”
“He says: ‘Look at all of these stories of people in trouble — don’t they understand? They’re alive — don’t they understand how lucky they are?'”
“None of us do,” Gephardt continued. “Not until our lives, or the lives of our loved ones, are threatened do we begin to see what an opportunity life is. … It is a paradox: To enjoy life to its fullest, to live without regrets, requires a discipline, a continuing reminder to ourselves of how good life really is. So work hard and play hard. Open your eyes to the beauty around you. Take time to reflect and think, go to concerts, prepare good foods, read books, look at art, notice nature around you.
“Finally, try to have courage and be willing to take risks. All through your life challenges will pop up. New jobs, new opportunities to serve others, new ventures to get into. Often these decisions will involve risks, often you will be afraid to take the risk. Sometimes your caution will be right. No one should take risks foolishly. But I think our fears too often overwhelm our courage to step out and try to change what is wrong and should be changed. You have to keep your minds open, you have to welcome change, embrace new things, and you must never accept what is — you must work for what can be.
Gephardt concluded with “There truly is an excitement and an art to living, and most of you — I hope all of you — will appreciate the power and dignity that come from being on your own and making a life for yourselves.
“So in closing, let me congratulate you — and let me congratulate your parents. Your diploma is not just inscribed on parchment, but in their hopes and their hearts. So hug them, and thank them and thank the people who run and teach at this wonderful university. You are the luckiest people on the planet. Have then a wonderful time, a wonderful party with all of your friends. You’ve earned it.”