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Blue Valley Northwest High School Commencement

Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Overland Park, KS, Sunday, May 23, 2010

Thank you Ambika.  That was certainly a nicer introduction than recent a CNN correspondent’s description of me—as an elderly white -haired ruthless gentlemen.  I really objected to the elderly part.

When I was President of Texas A&M, I always used my authority to make sure I never spoke after a student speaker, they are always really hard acts to follow.  Derek was in that same vein.

So thank you for the opportunity to be here tonight.  Believe it or not, nearly a half century ago – yes, I am that old – I was in a similar position to where you are now, at another Kansas high school, waiting – indeed begging – for the graduation speech to be over.  So I will keep my remarks brief, keenly aware that I am probably the main obstacle between you and a great party.

First, to the class of 2010:  Congratulations!

Congratulations on being one of the six finalists – out of more than 1,000 applicants – for the President’s Race to the Top Commencement Challenge.  This is indeed truly an impressive group.  With roughly 95 percent of you going on to college, your academic performance is truly outstanding.  But from what I have been told, what makes Blue Valley Northwest such a special place are the intangibles, the values and spirit that bond this class to this school and the wider community.

Collectively, you have given up thousands of your hours to community service, not as a graduation requirement, but because it is the right thing to do.  You are the proud host to a Special Olympics event with more than 600 participants, and many of you devote time to tutoring other students with special needs.  Your annual diversity assembly and urban exchange program broaden your cultural horizons and foster a greater understanding of those around you.  From your production of “The Outrage” to programs such as the football team’s “First Downs for Down Syndrome”, you take the initiative and the opportunity to educate and assist where it is needed most.  You learned what true friendship and courage are through the late Alex Glaros and his battle with cancer.

Over the next ten minutes – and that’s a promise – I’d like to impart some of what I learned growing up and being educated here in Kansas, and then through the personal and professional experiences that followed.  I would start here because in my life’s journey, my high school experience – in my case, Wichita High School East – played a major role.  Indeed, much of what I have done I trace back in many ways to a half dozen of my high school teachers who I have never forgotten.  They opened my eyes to the world and to the life of the mind, and they were role models of decency and character.  And I only hope that half a century from now, you will look back on your time here at Blue Valley Northwest with such fond memories and, above all, remember the amazing teachers you will come to realize who played a similarly major role in shaping your lives.

After graduating from high school, 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 pretty good grades in high school so I thought I was pretty smart.  Well, first semester of my freshman year I got a ‘D’ in calculus.  I got a long distance call from my father, he said “tell me about the ‘D,’” I said “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 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.

So for all of you who are on your way to college, don’t be intimidated or frustrated if you find yourselves not doing so well at first in your classes.  Just work harder, learn better how to learn, and don’t let the challenges stop you from reaching outside your comfort zone to consider new subjects or try new things.  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 on to college or take another path, should be prepared to take your life in a direction you hadn’t necessarily planned for.

When I went to graduate school in Indiana, 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.  Well, at first, 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 three disreputable-looking gentlemen – 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.  I – and CIA – decided that I really wasn’t cut out to be a spy, and so I became a CIA analyst – one of those who assess and interpret all the information that comes in.  That led to 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.  But, 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 have probably already 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 may work.  These opportunities have placed you in a position to show responsibility or influence others.  And since you are all potential future leaders, I thought I might share a few thoughts on what my experience tells me are the qualities needed by good leaders.

One of the things you must have, in fact, the foundation stone, 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’ve got to 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, courage:  the courage to do what is right and not just what is popular.  The time may come when you see something going on that you know is wrong.  You may be called upon to stand alone, and say, “This cannot be allowed.”  Don’t kid yourself – that takes courage.

Third, real leaders treat other people with common decency and respect.  Too often, those in leadership position demonstrate their power by making life miserable for their subordinates – just to show that they can.  President Truman had it right when he said:  “Always be nice to all the people who can’t talk back to you.”  In America today, we badly need leaders with these three traits: integrity; courage; and common decency.  We need real leaders in all walks of life.

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, and, in that respect, this school has set a national example.  There are many ways to serve:  at school, in your community, for your church, or elsewhere.  As Secretary of Defense, I lead 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.  People who have set aside their dreams in order to protect yours.  Those of you on your way to military service academies will learn that soon enough, and for your commitment you have my thanks and my respect.  It has been the sacrifice of those willing to step forward at times of crises and conflict, in times of war, that has made it possible for Americans to live free and secure – to be able to make the choices about our own lives that I’ve just been talking about.  Our democracy is not just about our rights – it’s also about our responsibilities and our 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 the opportunity of this country that made all things possible for me, that made possible my journey from East High School in Wichita 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.  And so for all of you, tonight, with this graduation, the door to opportunity opens – for you to serve and for you to lead.

Good luck, and God bless.

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