For the 152d commencement, graduate ceremony, McDaniel College, May 21, 2022
President Jasken, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, honored guests and graduates, parents and significant others, friends, Professor Smith and any dogs that might be in the audience. . . .
I thank McDaniel College for this honor, and I congratulate all of the 2022 graduates on their achievement, reaching another milestone in your lives, affirming, with commitment to your studies, that education lights a path brightly for you and all who will benefit, on the road ahead, from your knowledge and talents. . . I have the privilege of standing here and wishing all of you success in your careers and in reaching your personal goals. . . .
When I was a kid, I remember – maybe all of us remember – being asked: What do you want to be when you grow up? And, when you’re six and Uncle Ralphie asks that question, there’s not a lot of pressure to come up with a definitive answer . . . Saying you wanted to be a firefighter or a baseball player, a figure skater, Elton John’s costume designer or a YouTube star – that was fine. Uncle Ralphie wouldn’t hold you to it. . . . But, as you grow up, get to high school, get to college, that’s where the roads diverge in a yellow wood and you have to make decisions – cheese or no cheese, tattoos or no tattoos, iPhone or Android, nursing or teaching. Some of you have already made those choices. We all have to decide, if we are to be self-sustaining human units, what we want to be now that we’ve grown up.
Some of us make that decision early on – eighth grade, ninth at the latest, right? Others are not so sure and need more time. Some of us get lucky and land on the road to bliss. “If you follow your bliss,” said Joseph Campbell, maven of myths and mythology, “you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”
Finding work that you’re passionate about – it’s like falling in love.
I had that good fortune. I decided on a career in journalism pretty much the first day I walked into a newspaper city room filled with smoke, barking editors in white shirts and ties, hard-bitten men and women pounding away at devices called typewriters, people yelling, phones ringing, police and fire radios crackling, wire machines clattering, and a guy with coffee-stained teeth screaming at me in a British accent to answer a phone, any phone, and bring me a cup of coffee and a blueberry muffin, and be quick about it!
It will be 50 years ago next summer that I landed my first newspaper job, and one of the first things I had to do in that job was write obituaries. It sounds like a morbid assignment, writing about the recently departed. I worried that people in mourning would feel disturbed by a call from a newspaper reporter. But I learned quickly that people who had just sustained a loss, the next of kin, appreciated the attention the local newspaper gave to a parent, grandparent or sibling who had died. Relatives welcomed the opportunity to speak of the loved one who had just passed.
When you write an obituary, trying to capture someone’s life in 500 to 1,000 words, you’re writing an epitaph, a brief chronicle of things remembered about a person.
And while every obituary noted the deceased’s career path, his or her professional achievements – and sometimes those achievements were extraordinary and the dominant narrative of a person’s life – as in the case of a scientist or author, professor or business owner – but most were remembered for things that had nothing to do with making money or headlines: the great pies they baked for neighbors, how they taught others to play chess or ride a horse, their dedication to organizing basketball and soccer leagues for children, the dinners they hosted for immigrants and refugees, their mentoring of young people, their acts of kindness and generosity, the wisdom they shared with their students or coworkers, their big-hearted nature or their quiet, steady, selfless service to their communities. Those are the things people remembered about them.
Over the years, especially when I was still finding my way, I frequently heard from elders this advice: Don’t worry about what others think of you, do your own thing. And there’s wisdom in that. You have to follow your bliss, take the road that seems right for you and don’t worry about what others think of your choice.
But I’ve thought about that, and what others think of you does matter.
In a cloudy, confusing and cynical world, there are still ideals we can list and describe: Character still counts, integrity counts, honesty counts, courage counts; selflessness is not the stuff of suckers and snowflakes, it’s the stuff of real community heroes; respect for truth and justice, decision-making based on facts and objective reality, care for the democracy and the common good, civility, decency, generosity, empathy – these are the traits of the good woman, the good man, the solid citizen, the moral leader, the salt of the earth.
I’m not speaking in the abstract or theoretical. Having been in journalism in Baltimore for so long, I have met dozens — check that, hundreds — of people who, in addition to having jobs and raising families, worked tirelessly to make their neighborhood, their county, their town, their city and state in some way a better place. They fed poor and homeless people. They helped inmates coming out of prison find jobs. They helped people in recovery from drug addiction stay in the recovery lane. They taught children to read. They demanded action from their government.
Not everyone is cut out to be a role model. That sounds like such a big responsibility; it comes with pressure to be perfect in all things. But to build a better country, a better civilization — and that’s what I think we’re all here for — we all need to be role models – however incomplete or inadequate we feel, if not officially, at least in the way we walk through this life.
It does matter what others think, especially those who follow us – kid brother, kid sister, the boys and girls we coach or teach, the children we raise, the grandchildren we love. We want them to see the best of us. We want to inform their hearts and minds with optimism, idealism, realism and responsibility. We want them to see all that in us. Those are the building blocks of a better world, a civilized society, a progressive nation – men and women who, while optimistic and idealistic, see the reality of problems (climate change, threats to our democracy, the insane violence that eats away at our nation) and take responsibility for them.
You do this in big and small ways – charting a grand plan in your career to make a difference in the lives of others, and/or dedicating yourself to a life of purpose and meaning – being a volunteer, being generous with your time, lending a hand to someone in need, doing things, large or small, that others will remember when they write your epitaph.
Graduates, you already know what you want to be. You’re already there — you’re here — and I’m sure wherever he is today, Uncle Ralphie is proud of you, especially given your decision to get an advanced degree at McDaniel and advance your careers. Just remember that what others think of you does matter, and that you will be remembered, and so think about what you’d like to be remembered for.
In recent years, with the bitter politics and the pandemic, I’ve found myself thinking about this a lot: What does it take? What does it take to get to a better place? If each of us took vows, in the quiet of conscience, to be kinder, smarter, informed by facts and not conspiracy theories, if each of us made a duty of decency and carved out one place to make a difference in the lives of others, we might get somewhere. We might faster solve some really big problems. We might have the country and the world we want and deserve.
Graduates, I congratulate you on earning your valuable degrees and I wish you good luck and a bright road ahead.