Tim Russert's commencement speech
to the Centre College Class of 2007
RELEASED: May 24, 2007
Distinguished honorees, distinguished guests and the Class of 2007:
Before all else—congratulations! You finally made it.
I said, "Mr. Perot, that is right, it is the deficit. That's the problem. You've identified it. You're now a candidate for president. What's the solution?"
He said, "What?"
I said, "What's the solution? You're running for president."
He said, "Now then if I knew you were going to ask me those trick questions, I wouldn't have come on your program."
I caught a flight from Washington to New York right after the show. The flight attendant ran down the aisle and said, "That interview with Ross Perot was unbelievable. What do you think of him?"
I said, "Ma'am, I never comment about my guests or their positions on the issues. I try to be objective down the line, but I'm endlessly curious. As a viewer, as a voter, and as a flight attendant, what did you think of Ross Perot?"
She paused, put her head down, looked up and said, "He strikes me as the kind of guy that would never return his tray table to the upright position."
Now, however, before you can begin to move on to the next phase of your lives, you must undergo the last grueling hurdle in your career here at Centre College: the Commencement Address.
Let me be honest with you about my experiences with commencement addresses. I've been through several of my own, and I've sat through dozens of others. And I can't recall a single word of phrase from any of those informed, inspirational and seemingly interminable addresses.
This is the second most humbling day of my life. The first was in 1985. I was granted an extraordinary opportunity—a private audience with the Holy Father, the late great John Paul II.
I'll never forget it. The door opened and there was the Pope, dressed in white. He walked solemnly into the room. At that time it seemed as large as Yankee Stadium. I was there to convince his Holiness that it was in his best interest to appear on the Today show. But my thoughts soon turned away from Bryant Gumbel's career and NBC's ratings toward the prospect of salvation. As the Pope approached me, you heard this tough, no-nonsense moderator of Meet the Press begin our conversation by saying "Bless me Father!" He took my arm and whispered, "You are the one called Timothy." I said, yes. "The man from NBC." "Yes, yes, that's me." "They tell me you are a very important man."
Somewhat taken aback, I said, "Your Holiness, with all due respect, there are only two of us in this room, and I am certainly a distant second."
He put his hands on my shoulders…looked me in the eye…and said…"Right."
It's not often you have a chance to talk with people who share the same background and values. So let me skip the temptation of lecturing to you. Instead, let me take just a very few minutes to have a conversation with you.
Like each of you, my life changed forever on September 11, 2001, at 8:46 a.m.
The English language does not yet include the words we need to express our sorrow for what happened on that day when most of you were high school juniors. Only in our hearts can we give full and complete expression of our grief and the shocking sense of personal loss and the agony of seeing our nation so violated. And yet we learned much about ourselves that day, about the fragility of life, about our deep love for our country, and about our real heroes.
I decided to write a book about my hero, my dad, Big Russ. He was a truck driver and a sanitation man. He worked two jobs for 30 years, and he never complained. And that was after he nearly died when his B-24 Liberator went down in WWII. That is the story of his generation. He never graduated high school, but he taught me more by the quiet eloquence of his hard work, by his basic decency, by his intense loyalty. He taught me the true lessons of life.
The response to the book was enormous. I received tens of thousands of letters and emails from daughters and sons who shared stories and lessons about their own dads. I used those letters to write a second book, Wisdom of Our Fathers: Lessons and Letters from Daughters and Sons.
I am the first person in my family to have the chance to go to college. I attended John Carroll University, where I received a superb education.
And so, too, with you. You chose a school that was different and you made the choice deliberately. The education you received at Centre College isn't meant to be the same as you could have received at a score of colleges, public and private, in Kentucky or across the country.
You've been given an education that says it's not enough to have a skill. Not enough to have read all the books or know all the facts. Values really do matter. Its only justification for existing is because it has a special mission: training young men and women to help shape and influence the moral tone and fiber of our nation and our world. And that means now you have a special obligation and responsibility.
You think you've had it bad. You should try being a Buffalo Bills fan in Washington! I actually took Meet the Press to the Super Bowl a few years back. At the end of the program, I looked into the camera and said, "It's now in God's hands. And God is good. And God is just. Please God, one time. Go Bills!"
My colleague, Tom Brokaw, turned to me and said, "You Irish Catholics from South Buffalo are shameless."
Well, as a I moped my way back from the stadium after the Cowboys slipped by the Bills 52-10, the first person I saw was Brokaw. He yelled across the room, "Hey Russert, I guess God is a Southern Baptist."
You have something others would give almost anything for!
You believe in something–in your God, in your country, in your family, in your school, in yourself, in your values.
Remember the message our parents and grandparents and teachers repeated and repeated, and have tried so hard to instill in us. A belief if you worked hard and played fair, things really would turn out all right. And you know, after working for senators and governors, meeting Popes and interviewing Presidents, I know they are right. It sure seems funny–the older I get, the smarter my mother and father seem to get.
The values you have been taught, the struggles you have survived, and the diploma you are about to receive have prepared you to compete with anybody, anywhere.
People with backgrounds like yours and mine can and will make a difference.
In Albania, a young girl loses her father and mother at age eight, leaves home for India as a teenager, in her own words, to care for the unwanted, the lepers, people with AIDS, believing works of love are works of peace. She became a living saint, Mother Teresa.
In Poland, it was a young electrician named Lech Walesa, the son of a carpenter, who transformed a nation from communism to democracy.
In South Africa, Nelson Mandela, former president Nelson Mandela, a brave black man who worked his way through law school as a police officer and then spent 28 years in prison to make one central point: We indeed are all created equal.
On September 11, at the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon and that field in Pennsylvania, it was our brother and sister police and fire and rescue workers who properly redefined modern-day heroism. All these men and women have one thing in common with you.
Like the past, the future leaders of this country and this world, will not be born to the blood of kings and queens, but to the blood of immigrants and pioneers.
It is now your turn. You have the chance to be doctors and lawyers, bankers, accountants, social workers, soldiers, journalists, entrepreneurs, business people, teachers, and more.
And in those vital professions, your contributions will be enormous. You can save lives, provide prosperity, record history, prevent disease, train young minds. Your family and your education and your values have prepared you for this challenge as well as anyone in this country.
And always remember it is your grandparents and parents who defended this country, who built this country, who brought you into this world and a chance to live the American dream. Will your generation do as much for your children? You know you must. Every generation is tested and given the opportunity to be the "greatest generation."
And so, too, with the Centre graduates of 2007. You were born, and you were educated to be players in this extraordinary blessing called life. But please do the world one small favor. Remember the people struggling alongside you and below you; the people who haven't had the same opportunity, the same blessings, the same Centre College education.
Eight children a day are shot dead in the streets of America. Twenty-five percent of our eighth graders will never graduate high school. We have thirty-five million adults in our country without a high school education.
If we are serious about continuing as the world's premiere economic, military, and moral force in the world, we have no choice. We need all of our children contributing and prospering. We can build more prisons, and we will, and put more police on the streets, and we should. But unless we instill in our young people the most basic social skills and cultural and moral values, we will be a very different society.
We must motivate—yes; inspire—yes; insist our children and all of us respect one another and love thy neighbors as thyself.
No matter what profession you choose, you must try, even in the smallest ways, to improve the quality of life of all the children in this country. No matter what your political philosophy, see if there isn't a child you can tutor or mentor, or just help. Some are sick, some are lonely, some are uneducated. Most have little control over their fate. Give them a hand, give them a chance, give them their dignity.
The best commencement I ever heard was all of 16 words: "No exercise is better for the human heart than reaching down to lift up another person." That is your charge. That is your challenge. That is what I believe it means to be a member of the Class of 2007 of Centre College.
For the good of all of us, please build a future we can be proud of. You can do it, but please get busy. You only have 2,300 weeks before you'll be eligible for Social Security.
Have a wonderful life, take care of one another, be careful tonight. For the rest of your life, "work hard, laugh often, and keep your honor."
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Founded in 1819, Centre College is ranked among the U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges. Centre alumni, known for their nation-leading loyalty in annual financial support, include two U.S. vice presidents and two Supreme Court justices. For more, visit http://www.centre.edu/web/elevatorspeech/
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