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Gates Urges High School Alma Mater’s Graduates to Lead, Serve

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 27, 2009 – Service, leadership and goals were the main themes of a graduation speech Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates delivered today to students of his alma mater, Wichita East High School in Wichita, Kan.

“A Kansas upbringing imparts qualities that have been a source of strength for me over the years: an enduring optimism and idealism, a love of country and dedication to citizenship and service,” Gates told the graduates. “In many ways, for all the places I have gone, and all the jobs I have held, and all the notable people I have worked with and met, I will always consider myself first and foremost just a kid from Kansas who got lucky.”

The secretary said he is gratified by the number of graduates in the audience who will attend the service academies or have earned an ROTC scholarship. “Some of you will enlist right away in our armed forces,” he said. “I admire and thank you all, on behalf of the American people.”

Gates admitted he can’t remember who spoke at his own graduation from East High, but he said he clearly remembers six teachers at the school who played great roles in his life.

“They opened my eyes to the world and to the life of the mind, and they were role models of decency and character,” he said. “I only hope that half a century from now you will look back on your time at East High with such fond memories and, above all, remember amazing teachers who played a similarly major role in shaping your life.”

The secretary told the students he got a “D” in calculus when he attended the College of William and Mary in Virginia. “Years later, as president of Texas A&M, I would tell university freshmen that I learned two lessons from that ‘D,’” he said. “First, even if you’re fairly smart, you will not succeed if you don’t work hard. Second, I am standing proof that you can survive a ‘D’ as a freshman and still go on to make something of yourself.”

He also told the graduates that it is all right to change majors in college, and that all should be “prepared to take your lives in directions you hadn’t necessarily planned for,” he said.

The secretary also spoke about his CIA intelligence training. “My efforts were less James Bond and more Austin Powers – and I don’t mean that in a good way,” he said. “One of my first training assignments was to practice secret surveillance with a team following a woman CIA officer around downtown Richmond, Va.

“Our team wasn’t very stealthy,” he continued, “and someone reported to the Richmond police that some disreputable-looking men – that would be me and my fellow CIA trainees – were stalking this poor woman. “My two colleagues were picked up by the Richmond police, and the only reason I didn’t get arrested was because I had lost sight of her so quickly.”

So instead of being a spy, the secretary became an analyst. “That led me into a career that allowed me to witness amazing moments in American history,” he said. “So it may take you a few missteps and even embarrassments before you find the thing you’re really good at, whether you go to college or not. But, keep at it.”

Gates spoke about being a good leader and cited integrity as the core of good leadership. Good leaders have the courage to do what is right, not what is popular, the secretary said.

“You may be called to stand alone, and say ‘I disagree with all of you and, because I have the responsibility, this is what we will do,’” he said. “Don’t kid yourself – that takes courage.”

The secretary also said real leaders treat other people with common decency and respect. “Too often, those who are in charge demonstrate their power by making life miserable for their subordinates, just to show they can,” he said. “President Truman had it right when he said, ‘Always be nice to all the people who can’t talk back to you.’”

America needs leaders, and it needs people to step up and be of service to their communities and their country, Gates said. “No life is complete without such service,” he told the graduates. “There are many ways to do this. Some of you do this already at school, in your community, through your church or elsewhere.”

As secretary of defense, Gates said, he leads an organization in which “dedication, patriotism, and sacrifice are on display every day – by people who in many cases are your age or not much older,” he said. “It is their sacrifice, and the sacrifice of so many others in every generation, that has made it possible for you and for me to live free and secure – to be able to make the choices about our own lives that I’ve been talking about.

“Our democracy is not just about our rights,” he said. "It’s also about our responsibilities and obligations.”

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