Thank you, Katherine.
It’s good to be home again. Nearly a half century ago – and yes, I am that old – I was sitting where you are now. I remember what it is like to be in the position of waiting – no, begging – for the graduation speech to be done with. The other day I was looking at the yearbook supplement for our East High commencement ceremony in 1961. It had a line that said: “Remember. . .[our graduation speaker] – and the tremendous message he had to offer?” Well, actually, no. I have no illusions of doing any better in your memories decades from now. But I am delighted to be here nonetheless. And I am well aware that I am the main obstacle between you and a great party.
One of the nice things about being invited to give this commencement has been catching up with East High. From your academic accomplishments, to running across the country to raise awareness about genocide, to correcting the spelling on a state writing test, the students of East High are certainly impressive. When I was here, if you had asked me what an International Baccalaureate was, I probably would have thought it was some kind of French pastry.
Given the job that I hold today as Secretary of Defense, I am deeply gratified to see that an impressive number of you are going to be attending one of America’s military service academies or have earned an ROTC scholarship. Some of you will enlist right away in our armed forces. I admire you and I thank you all, on behalf of the American people.
About a hundred years ago, Harper’s Magazine ran a profile of Kansas. It described the “courage, sand, and grit of the people, their nervy faith in fortune.” As I often tell people, I believe 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. In many ways, for all the places I have gone, 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.
I grew up in a neighborhood not too far from here. My dad sold automotive parts. After I went off to college, my mother worked as a secretary here in the Psychology Department here at WSU. My brother and I were the first in the whole history of our family to earn college degrees. My brother – who was the principal for a number of years at one of your rival high schools here in Wichita – and I often visited our grandparents in Pratt, about 70 miles west of here. Our grandfather worked at the train depot in Pratt, and when I would visit him, I’d watch the trains come and go and think about seeing the world. Back then, I would never have imagined just how much of that world I would eventually see.
In my life’s journey, East High played a major role. Indeed, much of what I have done I trace back in many ways to six teachers at East I have never forgotten. They opened my eyes to the world and the life of the mind, and they were role models of decency and character. They were: Elfrieda Shellenberger, who taught English literature; Julia Emery, international relations; Nell Westacott, honors English; Ermal Lindquist, government; Nancy Millett, English; and Gerald Tague, human physiology.
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 there who played a similarly major role in shaping your life.
After graduating from East High in 1961 along with friends I’m happy to see tonight, and against the wishes of my parents, I did not follow in the footsteps of my brother and go to K-State. Instead, I went to the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
I had gotten good grades at East so I thought I was pretty smart. Well, during my freshman year of college I got a ‘D’ in calculus. My father made a long distance call from here in Wichita to ask how such a thing was possible, and I told him, “Dad, the ‘D’ was a gift.” Years later, as president of Texas A&M, I would tell university freshmen that I learned two lessons from that ‘D.’ First, even if you’re fairly smart, you won’t 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 out of yourself.
I started out in college as pre-med: biology, chemistry, calculus and so on. After the calculus disaster, I soon switched from pre-med to history. I used to say God only knows how many lives were saved by my becoming director of the CIA instead of a doctor.
So for those of you on your way to college this year, don’t be intimidated or frustrated if you find yourselves not doing so well at first in your classes. Just work harder. And don’t let the challenges stop you from reaching outside your comfort zone to consider new subjects or try new things. And statistically, most of you who go to college will change your major at least once – so welcome to the club. All of you, whether you go to college or take another path, should be prepared to take your life in a direction you hadn’t necessarily prepared for.
When I went to graduate school, I ran into a recruiter from the Central Intelligence Agency, an organization I had never considered working for. I thought I was going to be a history professor. Now, at first, the CIA tried to train me to be a spy. However, my efforts were less James Bond and more Austin Powers – and I don’t mean that in a good way. One of my first training assignments was to practice secret surveillance with a team following a woman CIA officer around downtown Richmond, Virginia. Our team wasn’t very stealthy, 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 much earlier than they had. I – and CIA – concluded pretty quickly that I wasn’t cut out to be doing operations in the field, and instead I became a CIA analyst – one of the people who assess and interpret all the information that comes in. That led me into a career that allowed me to witness amazing moments in American history. 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. So, keep at it.
In the years since joining the government, I’ve been privileged to work for eight presidents. As a result, I’ve learned a few things about service, and a few things about leadership. Many of you already have found opportunities, even at a young age, to exercise leadership in different ways – in athletics, extracurricular activities such as student government, your church, or wherever you happen to work. Opportunities that have placed you in a position to show responsibility or have an influence over others. And since you are all potential future leaders, I thought I might share very briefly a few thoughts on what my experience tells me are the qualities needed by good leaders.
One of the things you must have is integrity – I’m talking about honesty, telling the truth, being straight with others and yourselves. In a movie, John Wayne once said: “There’s right and there’s wrong. You gotta do one or the other. You do the one, and you’re living. You do the other and you may be walking around, but you’re as dead as a beaver hat.”
Second, moral courage: the courage to do what is right and not just what is popular. The time may come when you will see something going on that you know is wrong. 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.” Don’t kid yourself – that takes real courage.
Third, 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. President Truman had it right when he said: “Always be nice to the people who can’t talk back to you.” In America today, we badly need leaders with these three traits. We need real leaders in all walks of life.
Finally, we also need people to step up and be of service to others – to their community and their country. No life is complete without such service. There are many ways to do this. Some of you already do this at school, in your community, through your church, or elsewhere. Of course, as Secretary of Defense, I lead an organization – the United States military – where that kind of service, that kind of dedication, patriotism, and sacrifice are on display every day – by people who in many cases are your age or not much older. 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 – and 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 – it is also about our responsibilities and obligations.
Which brings me to my final point: I’ve noticed that too often people in this country get so absorbed in their own needs, and their own problems, that they lose sight of how blessed we all are, how blessed you are, to live in the United States of America. It is the goodness and opportunity of this country that made all things possible for me, that made possible my journey from Wichita High School East to the corridors of power in Washington and around the world. It has been my privilege, and the honor of my life, to give something back in service. For me, it all started at East High. And so for all of you, tonight, with this graduation, the door of opportunity opens – for you to serve and to lead.
Congratulations, and good luck!