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Morehouse College Commencement

As Prepared for Delivery by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Atlanta, Georgia, Sunday, May 16, 2010

Thank you, President Franklin, for that warm introduction.  Members of the board, families of the graduates, faculty, distinguished guests – it is a true honor and privilege to be with you today.

Let me start by singling out my fellow recipients of honorary awards and degrees.  Dr. Walter E. Massey, president emeritus of Morehouse and chairman of the board of Bank of America; Dr. Benjamin Franklin Payton, who is retiring as president of Tuskegee University after 28 years at the helm; and Congressman Sanford Bishop, a veteran of the U.S. Army who has demonstrated untiring support of our men and women in uniform – especially our nation’s military families.

There are so many others here to thank.  Chief among them are all the family members who have joined us.  It is an awesome sight to behold from this stage:  as far as I can tell, at about 10,000 strong, you outnumber the graduates by twenty to one.  That is a testament to how important you have been on this journey – to how much your graduates have relied on your network of love and support these past few years.  Brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends – stand up so you can be recognized.  Graduates, give them a round of applause.

And, finally, to the Class of 2010:  Congratulations on this great achievement!

I know that most of you are thinking one thing at this point:  I hope he keeps this short.  Having presided over 39 commencements when I was at Texas A&M, I learned the importance of brevity on occasions such as this.  To paraphrase President Lincoln, I have no doubt you will little note nor long remember what is said here.

I guess today, as you finish one chapter in your life and move on to the next, I am 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 only 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 truth of the matter is that there really are no tricks or shortcuts – or straight lines.  In fact, it’s often those times when you think you know exactly what you’re doing that a new opportunity comes along and disrupts all your well-laid plans.  I have a lot of experience with this.

When I started college in 1961, I wanted to be a doctor – a career choice that lasted only until the end of my first semester, when I received a “D” in calculus.  My father called long-distance to ask about it.  I said, “Dad, the ‘D’ was a gift.”  Dr. Franklin tells me I’m in good company:  while here, Martin Luther King Jr. got more “C”s than anything else.

Though there may be no straight paths in life, you will nonetheless need to have some anchor points – a set of inner values or a higher purpose to guide you.  Here at Morehouse, you have discovered those.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays, you have learned about the storied history of this great institution.  From mayors, congressmen, and civil-rights leaders to filmmakers and titans of industry, Morehouse men are making an impact on their communities – locally, nationally, and globally.  I would note here that this is the first class to graduate Hopps Defense Research Scholars – I know recipients of this prestigious distinction will make a valuable contribution to our nation in the years to come.  President Franklin had it right when he said that Morehouse “cannot be reduced to words or data” since you are, after all, following in the footsteps of “Mays and Martin and Maynard.” 

Outside of the classroom you have also excelled in your endeavors.  Last weekend, your golf team won the Minority Collegiate Golf Championship, and the Flying Maroon Tigers won the South Region track-and-field championship as well as their fifth league title in a row, which raises the question:  do you ever plan on giving another school a chance?  Members of your class helped elect a United States president; established a charter school based on the ’House’s Renaissance skills; worked to alleviate the suffering of the Haitian people in their hour of need; and maybe even found time to stomp the Yard or snap and drive with the House of Funk.  I’ll bet that is the first time a U.S. defense secretary has ever said that.

Through all of this, 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.

That is directly related to the subject I want to speak to you about briefly:  the obligation of service and citizenship in our country. 

We hear a lot in the United States about our rights as citizens, but what we don’t hear enough about from our political leaders, commentators, and editorial writers are our responsibilities as citizens.  I know you are familiar with what Benjamin Mays said on the topic of service: “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.”

In recent years, I have been blessed to work closely with two Morehouse men who have chosen a life of service.  Both are here today.  Dr. Rodney McClendon, class of 1990, crossed this stage 20 years ago this month.  He was my chief of staff, confidante, counselor, and friend when I was president of Texas A&M.  As a senior executive at the University of North Texas, he is a rising star in that university system.  Jeh Johnson, class of ’79, is one of the nation’s preeminent lawyers.  Last year, he left Wall Street to return to the Department of Defense as the general counsel.  In that role, he is lead lawyer for the department and responsible for overseeing more than 10,000 lawyers dealing with some of the nation’s most complex legal issues.

I’m sure both of these great Morehouse men can attest to the fact that public life has its share of downsides:  whether it’s the criticism that comes from being in the public eye or the sometimes comically inefficient reality of our political system.

But, there is another aspect to public service about which Americans hear very little:  the idealism, the joy, the satisfaction, and the fulfillment.  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.  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.  In just a few minutes, I will have the great honor of commissioning seven new officers in the United States Navy and Air Force who join an inspiring roster of young Americans who have answered their country’s call.

Millions of other Americans have chosen careers in civic service:  policemen; firemen; teachers; nurses; elected and appointed local, state, and national officials; and many, many others.

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.  And optimists.  You see, we who have taken this path actually believe we can make a difference, that we can change the lives of others for the better, that we can make a positive difference in the life of our country.

Consider how much has occurred during my lifetime.  I grew up in Wichita, Kansas, in the 1940s and ’50s – not exactly a part of the country on the cutting edge of social change at that time.  But, just a couple hours away, in Topeka, there was a girl almost my exact age named Linda Brown.  In 1951, when she was in third grade, her father tried to enroll her in the all-white school just down the road.  After being denied, Reverend Oliver Brown sued the local board of education in a case that came to be known as Brown v. Board.  A few years later, it was another son of Kansas, Dwight Eisenhower, who sent federal troops to Little Rock 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.

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 44th president, the first African American commander in chief.  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.

No doubt, ours is an imperfect nation that has been 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.”

The founders of Morehouse understood that, and its subsequent leaders never flagged in their determination to elevate this college from its humble beginnings in the basement of a non-descript Baptist church to the magisterial campus you know so well – the heartbeat of one of America’s great cities.  They created out of a limited effort to educate recently freed slaves a premiere institution of higher education – a cauldron in which community and national leaders are forged.

Directly in front of me – and behind all of you – is Graves Hall.  When the cornerstone of that building was laid more than 120 years ago, the renowned reverend, Dr. C. T. Walker, said:  “Let the men who go from these walls prepared for high work publish the fame of this institution . . . by their fixedness of purpose and their earnest desire to bless fallen humanity and write their name in bright letters in the temple of fame.”

You entered this place as men of Morehouse – and, very shortly, you will become Morehouse men.  Do not ever forget what that means.  Do not forget the legacy you are charged with upholding.  Just look around you.  We gather within shouting distance of buildings named after towering figures who made your presence possible:  White, Robert, Graves, Kilgore, Hope, Archer, Sale, Douglas, Dubois, King.  And you are about to graduate under the watchful eyes of Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, whose likeness appropriately stands in our midst.

The bodies of these men may have passed from this world, but their spirits remain in this place.  And they remain in each and every one of you.  Forever more, they will ask and demand that you live a life of honor and character and service – that you publish the fame of this great institution by your devotion to causes larger than yourself.

I will close with a quote from President John Adams, from a letter he sent to one of his sons on this very subject.  He wrote:  “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?

Thank you, congratulations, and good luck.

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