Notes Speeches

West Virginia University’s 135th Commencement Address

President and Mrs. Hardesty, Board of Governors, faculty, staff, alumni and dear parents: My wife and I are delighted and honored to be here to join with you in saluting the Class of 2004.

Dear graduates, congratulations! In the beginning of Thornton Wilder’s play, The Skin Of Our Teeth, the character Sabina says, “I hate this play and every word in it. . . . I don’t understand a single word of it — all about the troubles the human race has gone through, there’s a subject for you. I took this hateful job because I had to.”

“For two years, I’ve sat up in my room living on a sandwich and a cup of tea a day, waiting for better times in the theater. And look at me now. Oh! Anyway! Nothing matters! It’ll all be the same in a hundred years. My advice to you is not to inquire into why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate; that’s my philosophy.”

So, graduates, enjoy the encouragements of this, your day. Soak up every smile and pat on the back. Of all the love that comes your way, lean back and say, “Bring it on!” Linger over the celebratory meal and drink and bowl of ice cream shared with friends and family. Savor the taste because those parent-subsidized meals are going to get fewer and fewer.

This is a true, fresh, sun-filled photo op moment for the heart. It will be a photo of you that some “so-called friend” may one day say of, “Look how thin you were.” And before you know it, another “friend” will say of another photo, “You don’t look that old.” Then comes the clincher: you’re getting an honorary doctorate somewhere and someone says, “For an old-timer, you don’t look bad. Good to see you up and around.”

David Selby delivers West Virginia University’s 135th Commencement address on May 16, 2004. Photo courtesy WVU News & Information Services

So look closely at the loving faces around you, and rejoice in your accomplishment. You now know all the words of “Country Roads.” You each have your own unique voice, your own song. Listen to it, so there will be no need to try to imitate anyone — even the pure mountain high voice of the late John Denver.

In this high-tech world — where your very identity can be stolen at the drop of a credit receipt or the zap of your cell phone number — it is reassuring to know that your knowledge cannot be taken away from you. Education is the light in the dark. Our fate as human beings depends more than ever on education — wisdom.

But while education is treasured, vital and powerful, it is not the be all and end all for education can, as we know, be used for the teaching of both good and evil. As learned as you now are, you know education doesn’t end when you receive your diploma. You will search, you will struggle, you will doubt. You will question as you push this world forward. You will find solutions to our problems. You will discover new ways to make this a better world.

My first affection for West Virginia University was as a young boy, having grown up in Morgantown. I sold football programs on the island in front of Woodburn Hall. Most importantly, my affection for this school sprung from my good fortune of being accepted. I love West Virginia University and am proud I graduated from here. God only knows what would have happened to my life but for this university.

I had escaped high school with no shred of confidence and very little knowledge, which quickly exhibited itself. I was required by this university to take “bonehead” English. You needed to pass this class prior to graduation. It took me several times to accomplish this. I still have my grade report of having finally passed the English Proficiency Examination. In fact, I have saved a copy of my grade report. It is the most treasured item from my academic career, for, without it, I would not be standing here today getting to applaud and sing the praises of your accomplishments.

I am from a state with a rich history, filled with wonderful people. Some of you entering this school from the outside world may have wondered, “Where is this southern most northern state, this northern most southern state? Where is this region as old and storied as any? Appalachia, you say? I’m going to school in Appalachia?”

Back when I was a child in the dark age of the ’50s, when men were hatching the birth control pill for women, when women graduates were expected to toss aside their desires and degrees and blissfully follow their men, when racial injustice was rampant, I never knew I lived in Appalachia. I couldn’t spell Appalachia, couldn’t pronounce it. I didn’t know where it was. The joke goes, “Where’s Appalachia? Wherever the politicians need it.”

For those who discover this place on their own, like many of you who came to this campus from other states and countries, I am happy and delighted because now when you go out into the world and say you went to West Virginia University, and the world says, “Oh yes, I’ve been to Richmond,” you can set the world straight.

In my first year at this university, I felt as some of you must have felt — “under siege” — but it was here that I found the path of my life. I also found out how much I didn’t know. I made lifelong friends. The University was smaller then, but big enough for me. It was a gentle place and one that was concerned just as it is today with the moral fiber of its students.

I’ll assume I’m not looking out on a bunch of educated scoundrels and hucksters. I assume you can think more clearly now. You know the value of skepticism. You can detect the false argument. You know what to do with advice. Give it to someone else. But as the Earl of Chesterfield cautioned, “Advice is seldom welcome; and those who want it the most always like it the least.”

Now, graduates, you are free to let your ideas take their own paths guided by your hopes and fears, your loves and hates. Shall you leave West Virginia or not, take this job or not, party or not?

Choose the thing you love, remembering you have the right to change your mind. Call it creative thinking. Be curious. Be willing to “go through the wall.” Knowing what is on the other side of the hill is at times like buying a bus ticket. The man says, “Where to?” And you have no idea. “Where does the bus end up?” Sometimes choices are shrouded in mystery. Are they random or destined?

You are going forward in a dangerous and unpredictable world. But go forward you will. Part of me as a parent wants my children in this uncertain world to stay home. Yet, I know that for you, as for them, in order to find your home, you must follow your path, a path that could conceal landmines not of your doing.

All a parent or mentor can do is to ask a question here and there to, perhaps, make you more aware of what your decisions involve. Violence and greed will continue to have their day, but honesty, decency and courage — requisites for a healthy society — will have more days because of you.

Where is the light in the dark? It will be in the ideas that you pass on to your children, the ideas that they pass on to your grandchildren. The light is in each one of you. It is in the family unit that fosters and mentors foundations of grace and love.

Life is a constant audition. Life is a series of improvisations. You will find what’s important to you, what’s not. You’ll find your truth through a series of hits and misses. Your knowledge will spread wherever you go like a burr that attaches itself to your pants leg from one place and drops off in another.

We hear a lot about a lack of individual responsibility. Before you can be responsible, you have to become aware of what is going on around you. Then you must care about what you’ve become aware of. Only then will you be able to act responsibly. That is what life asks. Idealism and optimism are our responsibility.

In his poem “Tristram,” Edwin Arlington Robinson writes: “Whether you will or not, you are a King, Tristram, for you are one of the time-tested few that leave the world. When they are gone, not the same place it was. Mark what you leave.”

Be open in mind and heart. Encourage as you were encouraged; mentor as you were mentored; give what you have been given. There is the obligation to give back. When you do, you will receive a gift.

Don’t forget who you are and what you want. It is out there for you. Beware of celebrity and cynicism. Be thankful to your ancestors for they made this day possible. Keep your sense of humor.

Even though you’ve graduated, you can still be a little rebellious if the mood hits. You might not want to burn the new chair you just bought when your alma mater wins its next football game. A cartwheel or two may have to do.

Don’t inflate your résumé. Remember Abraham Lincoln’s words: “A drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.” Don’t hold a grudge. There are often things in this world that one doesn’t agree with, but you will find a way to adapt and be flexible in order to achieve a greater good.

We struggle together to find what we are supposed to be. That’s what community is, not about each tending his or her own garden, but tending the cooperative garden where we all plant and reap for the common good. We can all learn to be caregivers. We are dependent on the other, stranger and friend alike. Expect more of each other.

Demand more from your leaders, more openness, more transparency, more equality, more accessibility, more willingness to go out among the people and explain to them his or her vision. We all want our lives to count for something. The nation’s needs give a practical meaning to our lives.

One of the most practical things you can do in the coming fall is to vote — remembering that leadership is no trendy style or spinning of words. It is knowledge, character and experience, courage and devotion, oneness with the people and a vision that goes beyond the next hill. You are all potential leaders.

At the end of The Skin Of Our Teeth, Sabina says, “The whole world’s at sixes and sevens, and why the house hasn’t fallen down about our ears long ago is a miracle to me. . . . This is where you came in. We have to go on for ages and ages yet. You go home. The end of the play isn’t written yet. Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus! Their heads are full of plans and they’re confident as the first day they began, and they told me to tell you goodnight.”

And may I add: thank you Class of 2004, for this opportunity to be with you as you embark on yet another adventure, and may you go out into the world with your head full of plans and be confident that you are going to help fulfill all the glorious potentialities that we human beings possess.

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