Crit Blackburn Luallen, Kentucky’s 56th lieutenant governor and a Centre alumna and trustee, delivered the 192nd Centre College Commencement address on May 24, 2015, in Newlin Hall at Norton Center for the Arts. Regarded as one of the Commonwealth’s most experienced and admired public officials, Luallen’s distinguished career in public service began with a degree and a charge from Centre in 1974 to “go out and make a difference in the world”—a challenge she passed forward to the Class of 2015.
Luallen received an honorary doctor of humane letters during the ceremony (above), as did Robert T. Brockman, chair and CEO of Reynolds and Reynolds Company, a leading supplier of auto dealership management tools. He is a former chair of Centre’s board of trustees and a member of the Class of 1963.
2015 Commencement Address
Thank you. President Roush, Trustees, Parents, Families and Graduates, I am truly honored to be here this afternoon.
And, a special thank you to Milton Reigelman, whose teaching and friendship has had a profound impact on my life, and to my dear friend, colleague and Centre classmate, Bob Stewart. I have never received any recognition that means more to me than this Honorary Doctorate from Centre. And, to have it bestowed by these two individuals, is especially meaningful.
Forty one years ago, I walked across this very stage to receive my diploma.
I’m afraid I don’t remember who gave the Commencement address. What I do remember is the mixed feelings of elation at having finished, tempered with sheer panic over what was next—where would I find a job, what direction was the right path for me to begin my adult life and career. Even today, I can still remember how I felt that day, and I am guessing each of you is feeling that same mix of optimism and uncertainty.
What I didn’t know then was that Centre had prepared me to face difficult decisions. Centre had armed me with the confidence to walk through every door of opportunity that opened. And, Centre had taught me to go out and make a difference in the world.
What I also couldn’t know then was the important role my friendships here would play throughout my life.
I have invited several of my Centre friends here to share in this special day.
A small group of women who met here still get together each year for a reunion and share our Centre memories again and again…and again.
But mostly we laugh.
When I was being treated for cancer over a decade ago and beginning to lose my hair from chemotherapy, the Centre girls showed up, each wearing a large, fuzzy, neon-colored wig—with one for me. And, remember, these were 50-plus-year-old women!
We have laughed together and cried together through the years. We have been there for each other through triumphs and tragedies, whether it was celebrating marriages, near marriages, births, the progress of children or mourning the loss of our parents and other loved ones…we have shared all of the ups and downs of life for over forty years.
Living in this small and nurturing Centre community has given you the wonderful gift of friendships that will enrich your life. So, cherish the friendships you have made here. They will be lifelong sources of joy and comfort.
I arrived at Centre with a proud family pedigree and little else. I counted two Kentucky Governors among my ancestors and deep Kentucky roots. But my father died at the end of my junior year in high school after difficult health issues kept him an invalid for nearly 20 years, resulting in financial hardship and tremendous stress on my family. We were a family turned inward, focused on the problems with little time to think beyond each day.
Centre, for me, became a window into the world of possibilities. The faculty here imparted more than knowledge of their subject areas. They showed, by example, the value of self-esteem. They demonstrated each day that a life built on excellence and service could leave an indelible mark on the lives of others.
So the value of the Centre experience has increased for me with each passing decade, in ways that you graduates can’t foresee tonight.
What you should feel today without question is tremendous pride in your accomplishment. You are graduating from an institution with a proud history. Centre was established in the earliest stages of Kentucky’s settlement and is now approaching its third century of changing lives for the better. And it has spawned generations of leaders who have contributed in meaningful ways to Kentucky and the nation.
One of my ancestors was an early president of Centre, Rev. Gideon Blackburn. And I like to think of him as a 19th century John Roush, revered around the nation for his exemplary leadership skills at a highly respected academic institution. The reality is that this was the American frontier, and there were eight students here when Gideon Blackburn became president in 1827.
Though the College we know today has no resemblance to that outpost in early Kentucky, at every stage of its development, each generation of Centre’s leadership shared the capacity to dream. And they shared the knowledge that excellence fuels our dreams.
You graduates will join that proud tradition tonight and I congratulate you on this remarkable achievement. For whatever path you take, you are now prepared to have quality lives and careers but also to be leaders and make important contributions to society.
By every measure, you have received one of the finest educations in the country, thanks to your talented professors whose dedication to teaching helps make Centre a top-50 national liberal arts college.
In rankings, ranging from U.S. News & World Report to the Princeton Review, from Forbes to Kiplinger, Centre continues to rank among the best in the nation for its academics, the quality of its faculty and its value.
And, importantly for you, we remain number one in the nation for “Happiest Graduates,” based in part on an average of 96 percent of graduates being employed or accepted into graduate and professional programs within 10 months of crossing this stage. We, and your parents, hope all of you achieve similar outcomes.
• Eighty-one percent of you who started in the fall of 2011 will graduate today, and this places your four-year graduation rate among the best in America.
• Your class and the College continue to set the national standard for study abroad.
• This class includes outstanding graduates from the Brown Fellows, Posse and Bonner Scholars programs.
• You were involved in the historic hosting of the 2012 vice presidential debate.
• Your class has contributed a remarkable 28,000 hours of community service in the area.
• And, members of this class have received an impressive array of awards and fellowships.
You each have much to be proud of as you walk through these doors to the larger world today.
When I walked through those same doors, I had no idea what direction I would take after graduation.
And now, serving as the lieutenant governor of Kentucky, I look back on a career that included working on every aspect of public policy with leaders in business, health care and education as well as elected officials at every level.
It was my Centre education here that gave me the foundation for every step of my journey.
For me, it was a path in public service that included appointed and elected positions, but in each job I have held, my commitment was to make a difference in the lives of others.
There were opportunities along the way where I could have changed my path, and had a more financially rewarding career and one not dependent on the outcome of elections.
One such opportunity I was presented would have more than doubled my salary. But at the time I was Secretary of the Cabinet for Governor Paul Patton and we had just successfully passed the historic higher education reforms of 1997.
I remembered standing on the Capitol steps at the signing of the legislation with the Governor, surrounded by school children whose lives would be changed by the work we had done. And I decided to turn down the offer and stay in public service, knowing that if I left, I would never have such a moment again where I could truly know I had made a difference.
I have learned some valuable lessons during my journey—lessons that began at Centre and continued throughout my career.
And I will share three of those lessons with you graduates today.
First, be grounded in integrity, committed to be accountable to those whose trust you hold.
Always stay true to your moral compass and accept responsibility for the trust that is placed in you.
This lesson was never more clear than when I served as state auditor and our work resulted in dozens of prosecutions for public corruption.
I witnessed others in positions of influence, who, though their actions were not criminal, fell from grace because they strayed from that moral compass.
Second, be passionate about your commitment to lifelong learning.
You have achieved a critical milestone tonight in the formation of your educational foundation. Some will continue your formal education. But whatever your path, never stop learning.
Your dreams can only be as big as your ability to fulfill those dreams.
Though I was an art major here, I relied on that strong liberal arts foundation as the springboard to continue to learn. By the time I ran successfully for state auditor, I had the most financial management experience of anyone who had ever sought the office, learning through experience each step of the way as new opportunities were presented.
And third, find good mentors—people you look up to and can learn from.
Reach out to those you respect and don’t hesitate to ask for advice. Here I know you have had faculty and advisors who have filled that role. Later, it may be people you meet in your career, your church or your community who you admire.
Former Governor and U.S. Senator Wendell Ford was an important mentor to me. He told me when I was 22 years old: “In public service you can make a difference.” I carried that advice with me through a forty-year career and he remained my mentor throughout.
This past January, when he passed away, I was asked to say the closing prayer in the Capitol memorial service by his family. I had started fresh out of Centre working in his mailroom, but his mentorship helped chart my path.
So I offer you a challenge today—a challenge to be as involved a citizen leader as you possibly can, and contribute to the greater good, no matter where your career path takes you.
Build your lives and careers on a foundation of integrity and a commitment to lifelong learning, and draw strength from great mentors.
Centre has prepared you for lives of leadership and service. And there is no better preparation than you have received here.
Take seriously the responsibility that comes with the legacy of the Centre experience.
And, take seriously your role as a leader of tomorrow.
I know there are graduates here from around the nation and the world.
For those of you who are not Kentucky natives, consider staying here and being part of our future.
And, I have a special message for those of you from Kentucky, as a majority of you are.
We need you. In fact, the future of this state depends on the best and brightest of your generation leading us forward.
Kentucky’s future is important to me, because I do have deep roots in our state and pride in our people. I know Kentuckians have a strong spirit, resilience and a rich heritage.
Those early pioneers carved a civilization out of the wilderness. And they created an early Kentucky marked by cultural, educational and economic progress. Centre College was part of that early commitment to excellence.
Though often challenged by negative stereotypes, we are a state with a rich history. Our proud cultural heritage includes critically acclaimed performing arts, a strong crafts tradition and poets and authors read around the world, including the state’s newest poet laureate and Centre graduate, George Ella Lyon.
Today, as lieutenant governor, I am committed to help build a new Kentucky for this new century so that you will have more opportunities to stay near your roots, if that is your choice.
Kentucky today is moving in the right direction. We led the nation last year in new job creation and economic development activity per capita. And we are making significant progress in the education and health care of our people.
But, not every part of our state is enjoying the same opportunities. We still face significant challenges.
There is a critical need for your leadership—a need for individuals committing to make a difference with their lives and to help build a better future.
And, if your future is not here, help to build a better future wherever your life’s journey takes you.
In his recent book “The Road to Character,” author David Brooks discusses what kind of life adventures produce goodness, rather than build resumes:
He writes and I quote:
“Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, ‘What do I want from life?’ They ask, ‘What is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?’”
Your hard work and commitment have resulted in a significant achievement this day. And, you are now prepared to be one of the leaders of your community and the world.
You will touch lives.
You will save lives.
You will make peace.
You will make art.
You will heal.
You will dance.
You will lead.
And, you will serve.
Do it with joy and with passion.
Give all of yourself that you have to give to make a difference in the world.
And, always remember that your happiness won’t be measured by how much you get—but by how much you give.
Congratulations, and may you find that happiness.
Delivered by Kentucky Lieutenant Governor Crit Luallen ’74
May 24, 2015