Gates Calls on Graduates to Live Lives of Service
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May. 16, 2010 Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates spoke of the satisfaction of a life of service during graduation exercises at Morehouse College in Atlanta this morning.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates stands with faculty members of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga., during the college's 126th Commencement ceremony on May 16, 2010. DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jerry Morrison
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
“You have learned and lived values this school prides itself on: caring beyond self, devotion to one’s community and fellow citizens, and preparedness to serve – all fundamental to our democracy and this great experiment we call the United States of America,” Gates said at the all-male, historically black college.
The secretary, who has served the nation since 1966, spoke of the obligation of service in America .
“We hear a lot in the United States about our rights as citizens, but what we don’t hear enough about … are our responsibilities as citizens,” he said.
The secretary quoted former Morehouse President Benjamin Mays who said, “It is not what you keep, but what you give that makes you happy. We make our living by what we get. We make our life by what we give.”
Americans hear of the problems with public service, but they don’t often hear of the rewards, and the idealism, joy, satisfaction and fulfillment that those who serve experience, Gates told the graduates.
“My own views have been formed by what I have seen and experienced since entering government 44 years ago this summer, and especially in the last few years at the Defense Department,” he said. “Every day, I have the great honor of interacting with men and women who have volunteered to serve our nation during a time of war – setting aside their dreams to protect yours; putting the security of their countrymen above their own lives.”
Millions of Americans have chosen careers in civic service as police, firefighters, teachers, nurses or elected or appointed officials. “If, in an unguarded moment, you asked the public servants I have known what their motivation was, you’d learn that – no matter how outwardly tough or jaded – they mostly were, and are, in their heart of hearts, romantics and idealists,” he said. “And optimists.”
Public servants believe they can make a difference, and change the lives of others for the better. “That we can make a positive difference in the life of our country,” he said.
Gates told the graduates of his own experience. The secretary grew up in Kansas in the 1940s and 1950s. In Topeka , Kansas in 1951, Linda Brown tried to enroll in an all-white neighborhood school. She was denied. Her father, the Reverend Oliver Brown, sued the local board of education in a case that came to be known as Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education. The landmark case went to the Supreme Court, which knocked down the idea that education of blacks and whites in America could be separate but equal.
A few years later, it was another son of Kansas , President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who sent federal troops to Little Rock , Ark. , to enforce that Supreme Court decision – and tear down once and for all the pernicious belief that a two-tiered society could ever be separate but equal.
Gates also spoke of Eisenhower’s decision to send troops to Little Rock to uphold the Supreme Court’s integration decision.
“I think about that multiple times a week, when I cross the Potomac River to visit the White House, a building originally constructed in part with slave labor – and serve at the pleasure of our nation’s forty-fourth president, the first African-American commander in chief,” Gates said. “I can tell you it is an incredible and humbling experience – made possible only because millions of ordinary citizens fought for generations to uphold a truth we hold to be self evident: that all men truly are created equal.”
The United States is an imperfect nation, the secretary said, “and will always be a work in progress. And so it falls to your generation to ensure that we continue along the path of progress. As President Obama has said, you must put your foot firmly into the current of history.”
Morehouse was founded in 1867, just two years after the end of the Civil War. It began in the basement of a Baptist church and has since grown to become an international icon, and is often called one of the “Black Ivy’s.” Many, many “Morehouse Men” have served America nobly, including current Defense Department General Council Jeh Johnson, Gates said. He urged the graduates to continue the tradition.
Gates quoted a letter from President John Adams to his son: “‘Public business, my son, must always be done by somebody or other. If wise men decline it, others will not; if honest men refuse it, others will not.’ And, I would add, if Morehouse men turn away, others will not.
“And so I ask you, Morehouse College Class of 2010, will the wise and honest among you come help us serve the American people?”
Some already have made the commitment. Following the graduation, the defense secretary presided at the commissioning of seven graduates into the U.S. Navy and Air Force.