The children are our future, said Tim Russert to the Class of 2007 during the 146th Commencement ceremony at Washington University in St. Louis.
The host of NBC’s “Meet the Press” clarified, telling the audience of more than 14,000 that while this year’s some 2,600 graduates have done well and have the world at their feet, one of their real responsibilities is to take care of the world’s children and give them every opportunity to succeed.
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“Twenty five percent of our 8th graders will never graduate from high school,” he told the assembled crowd in Brookings Quadrangle during the May 18 ceremony. “Thirty five million adults in our country, without even a high school education. If we are serious about remaining the world’s premier economic, military and moral force in the world, we have no choice. We need all of our children contributing, and prospering and competing.
“But unless we instill in our young people the most basic social skills and cultural and moral values, we will be a very different society.
“We must motivate — yes; inspire — yes; insist our children and all of us respect one another and love thy neighbors as thyself. We must teach our children they are never, never entitled but they are always, always loved. And we must do everything in our power to make sure our schools are meaningful; skills are learnable; jobs are available; that we protect our environment, make our world their world — safe and secure.”
And he said it doesn’t matter what sort of degree the graduates receive, or how much of an effort is required. Every little bit helps.
“No matter what profession you choose, you must try, even in the smallest ways, to improve the quality of life of all the children in this country,” said Russert, who is the managing editor and moderator of “Meet the Press” and political analyst for “NBC Nightly News” and the “Today” show. Russert also anchors “The Tim Russert Show,” a weekly interview program on CNBC; acts as a contributing anchor for MSNBC; and is senior vice president and Washington bureau chief of NBC News.
Russert, who received an honorary doctor of humane letters during the ceremony, started his remarks with some humor, recounting a story about his son wanting to sell on eBay the infamous dry-erase whiteboard on which Russert predicted “Florida, Florida, Florida” as the pivotal state in the 2000 presidential election results, as well as stories of St. Louis’ “native philosopher king of the English language Yogi Berra.”
He followed that with a story about having a private audience with Pope John Paul II.
“He walked solemnly into the room, and at that time, it seemed as large as this quadrangle,” Russert recalled. “I was there to convince him it was in his interest to appear on the ‘Today’ show. But my thoughts quickly turned from Bryant Gumbel’s career and NBC’s ratings, toward the prospect of salvation.
“He took my arm and said ‘You are the man called Timothy from N B chee.’ I said, ‘I am your guy. Don’t forget this face!’ He said, ‘They tell me you’re a very important man.’ I said, ‘Your Holiness, with all due and deep respect, there’s only two of us in this room. I’m a most distant second.’
“He put his hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Right.’
Then Russert turned serious, talking about his father, “Big Russ” — whom he calls his “hero” — and invoked the names of Mother Teresa, Lech Walesa and Nelson Mandela, as well as recognizing the policemen, firemen and rescue workers following 9/11.
“(They) properly redefined modern day heroism. All these men and women have one thing in common with you.
“Like the past, the future leaders of this country, and this world, will not be born to the blood of kings and queens, but to the blood of immigrants and pioneers. It is now your turn. You have the chance to be doctors, and lawyers, bankers, accountants, social workers, soldiers, journalists, entrepreneurs, business people, teachers and more.
And in those vital professions, your contributions will be enormous. You can save lives, provide prosperity, record history, prevent disease, train young minds. Your family and your education and your values have prepared you for this challenge.”
He then issued a challenge to the current generation, while invoking the legacy and achievements of previous generations.
“And remember, your grandparents and parents, who defended this country, who built this country, who brought you into this world, and a chance to live the American dream. Will your generation do as much for your children? You know you must. Every generation is tested and given the opportunity to be the greatest generation.
“And so, too, with the Washington University graduates of 2007. You were born, and you were educated to be players in this extraordinary blessing called life. But please do the world one small favor. Remember the people struggling alongside you and below you; the people who haven’t had the same opportunity, the same blessings, the same Washington University education.
“The best commencement I ever heard was all of 16 words, ‘No exercise is better for the human heart than reaching down to lift up another person.’ That is your charge. That is your challenge. That is what I believe it means to be a member of the class of 2007, of this wonderful place called Washington University.
Russert closed his address with a message, complete with a little more of his trademark humor.
“For the good of all of us, please build a future we can be proud of,” he said. “You can do it, but please get busy. You only have 2,300 weeks before you’ll be eligible for Social Security.”
Editor’s note: For a transcript of Russert’s address, go to: http://news-info.wustl.edu/news/page/normal/9548.html. Broadcast quality footage of his address is also available by request.