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University of Oklahoma Commencement

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Norman, OK, Friday, May 13, 2011

To the members of the University of Oklahoma Class of 2011: Congratulations.  I know that most of you are thinking one thing at this point: I hope he keeps this short.  Don’t worry, having presided over 39 commencements when I was at Texas A&M, I learned the importance of brevity on occasions such as this.  I also know that I stand between you and a great party—and for some, the continuation of a great party.

To friends and family members – a special thanks for the love and support you have given to these young people over many years.  To the parents: you must be welling up with pride at the achievements of your children.  Having put two children through college, I know there are many sighs of relief as well, and you are probably already planning how to spend your newly re-acquired disposable income.  Forget it.  Trust me on this.  If you think you’ve written your last check to your son or daughter, dream on.  The National Bank of Mom and Dad is still open for business.

Iguess today I’m supposed to give you some advice on how to succeed.  I could quote the billionaire J. Paul Getty, who offered sage wisdom on how to get rich.  He said, “Rise early, work late, strike oil.”  Or, Alfred Hitchcock, who explained, “There’s nothing to winning really.  That is, if you happen to be blessed with a keen eye, an agile mind, and no scruples whatsoever.” 

Well, instead of those messages, my words of advice for success today come from two great women.  First, opera star Beverly Sills, who said, “There are no short cuts to any place worth going.”  And second, from Katherine Hepburn, who wrote, “Life is to be lived.  If you have to support yourself, you had bloody well find some way that is going to be interesting.  And you don’t do that by sitting around wondering about yourself.” 

The example I’d set before you of a life well-lived has to be your own President David Boren, one of the great public servants of his generation.  He set the gold standard for bi-partisan congressional oversight of national security, and I’m deeply honored that he asked me to be here tonight.  

I have a great deal to thank David for – he’s been a mentor and friend for nearly three decades.  I got to know him well when I was at CIA and he was a member, and later chairman, of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.  He was involved in getting me my two government jobs – he played a critical role in my confirmation as Director of Central Intelligence, and he also introduced me to the Senate Armed Services Committee when I was nominated for Secretary of Defense.  Some days in Washington I wonder if I should really be thanking him for that.

Seeing David here fills me with no small measure of envy.  He and I worked together a lot in the government, but where we really bonded was as fellow university presidents.  When David was offered the presidency of OU in 1994, he asked me to come see him and talk it.  We batted the idea around for about an hour, until I finally asked him the critical question:  “When you’re in the car or on a plane day-dreaming, are you day-dreaming about what you could accomplish in the United States Senate or what you could accomplish as President of the University of Oklahoma?”  He laughed and said, “Well if you put it that way, it’s an easy decision.”  And as they say, the rest is history. 

Tomorrow, David will stay here in Oklahoma, guiding one of the nation’s great land-grant universities, the kind of institution that’s made American higher education the best in the world, as he has for seventeen extraordinarily productive and influential years.  I, on the other hand, get to return to a town built on a swamp, and in so many ways, still a swamp.  But as you may have read in the newspapers – ask your parents what those are – my swamp dwelling days are numbered.

I know David’s job isn’t all sunshine and roses.  I remember when he came to OU with all these academic aspirations, and what’s the first thing that faces him?  Firing the football coach.  And I called him, I said David, I don’t know anybody in America who knows less about football than you do.  Except maybe me.  So I get to Texas A&M a few years later and, what do you know, after the first season, I had to fire the football coach.  I told the press at the time, I’ve overthrown the governments of medium-sized countries with less controversy.      

I came today above all to urge you graduates to follow David Boren’s remarkable example and consider a life of service.  I say to each of you, as someone who started out as just another kid from the plains, that you too can shape history.  I’ve served eight presidents and traveled to countries than I can count.  Most recently I’ve held the great trust, my greatest honor since entering public service 45 years ago this summer, of guiding and protecting those who defend us.  They fight to protect the freedoms and opportunities that all Americans enjoy—freedoms and opportunities that can take any one of you wherever you choose to go.  But only if, as President Obama put it a few years ago, you have the courage to “put your foot firmly into the current of history.”

The path has been prepared for you by those who’ve come before.  Your last commencement speaker, the great historian David McCullough, urged graduates to remember that there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman.  He was talking about the debt we all owe to our teachers, but I’d like to ask you to remember that debt extends to all those public-service minded forefathers and foremothers that, in a thousand different ways, made our lives today possible.

The story of your university’s founding is a perfect example.  In 1890, when the Oklahoma legislature approved the establishment of a University here in Norman, it was just a year after the residents of the tiny town had first been given the right to stake out homesteads.  This was no established community.  As one historian put it: “In Oklahoma,…at a certain day… Uncle Sam shot off a pistol, and the preacher, salesman, carpenter, college graduate, illiterate, lawyer, horse thief – everyone –just            made a run and staked down lots…and out of the conglomeration, Oklahoma was formed.”

The territory was so new that there was no government system – or money – for education.  But these new-minted Sooners, from a thousand different backgrounds, recognized that education was the only way forward.  They organized their own school districts, built their own school houses, and taught each other’s children what they could.  They raised the then-extraordinary sum of ten thousand dollars to establish the University here.  At first, there were no students ready to study at the college level, and some not even at the high-school level, but, as one of the first professor put it “it was the policy …to take the young people as we found them…we were building for the future.” 

Those early faculty and students, men and women with rough hands and usually little more than the shirts on their backs built this beautiful University.  Your illustrious alumni, world-class research institutes, and all of you students graduating here today are the future they built for.  And while we may not be braving the wild frontier, nonetheless we are living through challenging times – certainly not for the faint of heart.

Some of you have already proved your courage and made the commitment to serve, as Army, Navy, and Air Force Cadets about to receive your commissions, and I honor you for it.  I’d particularly like to recognize those of you who have already served and sacrificed as enlisted men and women, in some of the toughest assignments of these wars – Tikrit, Kandahar, Fallujah – and yet have chosen to dedicate yourselves to your studies here, gain new skills and knowledge, and then devote those skills once again to the defense of your country as officers, as leaders.  Cadets Kim, Panak, Charqueno, Grant, Foster, Benson, Hernandez, Guillen, Jones, and Corbin, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

The OU class of 2011 joins a brave and distinguished company, OU alumni whose diverse careers demonstrate the plethora of ways you can serve your country and community over the course of lifetime.  Men like Carl Albert, class of ‘31 – native of McAlester Oklahoma, OU Army ROTC alum, veteran of World War II, Congressman, and finally, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives.  There are those who’ve distinguished themselves and made a difference far from Washington’s corridors of power. 

Colonel Charles Brantley, class of 73, began his military career as distinguished graduate of OU Army ROTC.  An infantryman and airborne ranger by training,  Brantley joined and would later command the Golden Knights, the U.S. Army’s premier parachute team.  It was during one unlucky demonstration jump that their aircraft’s engines stalled while in mid-air.  Brantley ordered the rest of his team to bail out as he stayed behind to help one of his injured comrades.  Both Brantley – whose nickname was “Banzai” – and the aircraft survived intact.  After retiring from the military Brantley would distinguish himself as a child protective services officer, looking out for the neediest and most vulnerable among us.  

Looking ahead, as you consider some form of public service, I acknowledge that the current state of our politics isn’t exactly the best marketing scheme for attracting new talent.  The pay and working conditions can be difficult.  Government is, by design of the Founding Fathers, slow, unwieldy, and almost comically inefficient.  As Oklahoma native Will Rogers used to say: “I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.” 

And all too often, in the public spotlight, the main reward of your labors is criticism, more criticism, and maybe a dash of character assassination thrown in.  But we shouldn’t delude ourselves: Political life has always been a rough business in this country.  John Adams was once called a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”  They don’t talk like that anymore.

But, there is another aspect to public service about which Americans hear much less: the idealism, the joy, the satisfaction and fulfillment.  It was at CIA, throughout the long years of the Cold War, that I first had a chance to observe public servants at all levels, in various agencies and departments, from administrative assistants to great statesmen.  And after dealing with governments all over the world, I came to believe Americans have the most dedicated, capable, and honest public servants anywhere.  I have seen, in political appointees and career civil servants alike, an extraordinary number of people of the highest quality acting with steadfast integrity and love of this country and what it stands for.

And I urge you to be aware of a truism that both David and I discovered as we moved from the halls of DC to a University President’s office.  Some of the most fulfilling, lasting, important public service there is takes place a long way from Washington.  To serve our country you don’t need to deploy to a war zone or a Third World country or be buried in a windowless cubicle in a gothic structure by the lovely and fragrant Potomac River.  You don’t have to be a CIA spy or analyst or Navy Seal who tracks down and brings to final justice the most notorious terrorist in history.

The pressing need for committed public servants extends throughout the country at every level.  Everywhere there are children to be taught, veterans to be healed, roads to build, and communities to strengthen, especially in these challenging times.  In building a good business and staying involved in your community, you also render great public service on multiple levels.

Each person in public service has his or her own story and motives.  But I believe, if you scratch deeply enough, you will find that those who serve – no matter how outwardly tough or jaded or even egotistical – are, in their heart of hearts, romantics and idealists.  And optimists.  We actually believe we can make a difference, that we can improve the lives of others, that we can better the future of this country and of the world. 

I am reminded of a letter from Abigail Adams to her son John Quincy Adams.  She wrote him: “These are the times in which a genius would wish to live.  It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. . . . Great necessities call out great virtues.”  And we live in a time of great necessities.  

Less poetically but more practically, John Adams wrote, “Public business, my son, must always be done by somebody.  It will be done by somebody or another.  If wise men decline it, others will not; if honest men refuse it, others will not.”

And so I ask, will the wise and the honest among this University of Oklahoma class of 2011 come help serve the American people?

Congratulations and Godspeed!

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