Commencement Remarks by the Honorable Edward G. Rendell
Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
Good afternoon everyone. It is a true honor to be the 150th commencement speaker here at Susquehanna University. Although, truth be told, I always wonder why we have commencement speeches at all – why we don’t just bring everybody up, hand out the diplomas and get on with the partying…. But don’t blame me, they invited me.
When I became mayor of Philadelphia and I started to receive invitations to speak at graduations, I thought back to my graduation at Penn in 1965, and I thought long and hard about who my graduation speaker was. And I couldn’t come up with a name. I didn’t have a clue. So I mentioned that at one of the first graduation speeches I made, and some enterprising student went on the Internet, and found out who it was, and sent me an e-mail saying “Your graduation speaker was…” I’ve subsequently forgotten who it was.
In fact, Gary Trudeau, the wonderful cartoonist, said that he believes commencement speeches were largely invented in the belief that graduating seniors should not be let out into the world without being properly anesthetized. So, I will try to make this somewhat memorable, fairly short, and hopefully give you four or five pieces of advice that you can use as the years unfold.
The first advice is perhaps the most practical of all. And that is, until you are in a similar position as your parents are, you can never quite imagine the mixture of relief and joy and pride that your parents are experiencing today. So this would be a very opportune time to ask them for money.
My second piece of advice is a little less practical and a little less immediate but hopefully valuable too. And that is, as you go out and launch into your careers, whether going to further education or getting into the work world, or whatever: Don’t let other people define success for you. It’s very, very important. You know our society today in 2008 mostly define success as the accumulation of wealth or the accumulation of fame and notoriety. To me those are false criteria. In my position of mayor of Philadelphia, chairman of the Democratic party in 2000 and now as governor of Pa. I’ve met some of the richest people in the world and some of the most famous. And I can report to you that many of them are very unhappy. Albert Schweitzer said success is not the key to happiness, happiness is the key to success. If you like what you are doing, you will always be successful.
And I would posit a question to you: Who would you consider more successful, a man or woman who has accumulated several hundred millions of dollars in personal fortune by buying and selling companies, by closing down those companies, by stripping them of their employees and most of their assets, who’s been married and divorced three times and whose four children don’t even speak to them anymore. Or a high school biology teacher who runs a little ice cream shop on the boardwalk over the summer, whose income barely cracks what would be considered middle class, who has a loving wife of 30 years and four children who adore him, who is the most successful person. I think you know the answer to that.
The most important thing is that you don’t let society or anyone else set the criteria of success for you. You set it. You be the judge. You evaluate how you are doing, what your goals are. And if you reach your goals and you are happy in what you are doing, you will be successful at it. Don’t worry about anything else. Don’t worry about what you are going to say at your 10th reunion. Or when the 25th reunion rolls around, am I going to be the biggest contributor to Susquehanna? Sorry, Mr. President, but those things don’t matter. They don’t matter. What matters is being happy in what you’re doing and how you live your life and the type of person you’ve become.
Next, and this is the companion of not letting anyone else define success for you, is to set goals and don’t be afraid to fail. It’s enormously important. Too many people live unhappy lives because they had a goal, they had something they really wanted to do or something they really wanted to accomplish, something they really wanted to see and never got there because they hadn’t tried. You don’t want to be 65 and say “Why didn’t I? What if?” Go for it. Set your goals and don’t be afraid to fail.
Les Brown, who was a great musician – none of you have ever heard of him but your parents may have – Les Brown said, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss you will fall among the stars.” That’s true.
People are always telling us what we can’t do. My successor as mayor of Philadelphia, John Street, in the 10th grade was told by his high school guidance counselor that he was not college material and that he should look at some form of vocational training programs that his school had. John Street told me that for three days he was dazed, that he was stunned, that he was crushed and that his world had ended. And then on the fourth day he decided he was going to prove that guidance counselor wrong. He redoubled his efforts in high school, got good grades his last two years, got into a college, got into Temple University Law School, went on to become a very successful lawyer, the youngest city council person ever elected in the city of Philadelphia, and mayor of the city of Philadelphia for two terms.
People are always telling us what we can’t do. Everybody fails. I’ve run for election 14 times; I’ve lost two pretty big ones. Everyone on this stage, with the possible exception of the president, has failed at something. Don’t worry about it. If you fail, pick yourself off the mat, brush yourself off and get on to the next challenge. It’s as simple as that. Next piece of advice, and I know it’s tough because you’re a generation because of the Internet and because of other things, information comes to you instantaneously. Those video games are instantaneous; you win or lose. But don’t be impatient for success, because success is almost never instantaneous. And if you start out with a job that isn’t what you think you ought to be doing – if they don’t let you run the company right off, don’t be impatient.
My dad, who died when I was 14, and people always say what a sin, but I tend to look at it another way, he was here with me for 14 years and he was able to imbue me with so many important values that he thought were important for me to know, he once told me that if in your first job they hand you a broom and tell you to sweep the floor, you be the best sweeper that that place has ever seen and you won’t be sweeping the floor for very long. And that’s right. If that first job is not the challenge you think it should be, do it well, make something of it, make suggestions, keep pushing, work hard and success will come.
All of you are imbued with a great education, great upbringing. You can do virtually anything you want if you are patient and not afraid to fail. And lastly, when you are going out on your career path, take some time to do something to help other people. Now some of you may go into public service or work for a nonprofit, and if you do, you won’t get paid very much, but you’ll get a tremendous amount of psychic income from your job. I graduated from law school some 40 years ago, and in that time I worked in the public sector for 38 years. I’ve never made what our society considered real money and I’ve never missed it for a day. There has never been anything my wife and I really wanted to buy that we couldn’t buy; never been anything we really wanted to do that we couldn’t do. And we’ve had a lifetime of the wonderful feeling of helping people.
When I first arrived on the scene in Harrisburg, I was bound and determined that Pennsylvania was going to step up its support for early childhood learning. We were one of only nine states that gave no money for pre-kindergarten. We only had 24 percent of our students in full day kindergarten. We had huge class sizes K-3 with almost no afterschool tutoring. I fought hard with the legislature that first year and we did not have an education budget until Dec. 21. We were supposed to have it by June 30. There was great panic and disarray in many of the schools in the Commonwealth. But I thought it was worth fighting for and we finally got not the sum of money I was looking for but about 60 percent new money – over $300 million to put into smaller class size, full-day kindergarten, pre-K education, afterschool tutoring.
But the money arrived so late that the schools could not use it for the January semester. The money had to be streamlined and used in September, the beginning of the next year. In a suburban Pittsburgh district, the teachers knew the money was coming for afterschool tutoring in September, so they volunteered to start the program for no pay in the semester from January through June. And when the school year started in Sept., the school had a ceremony to thank the teachers and they invited me and they came. There were 250 people, TV cameras, the superintendent spoke, principal spoke, teachers spoke, parents spoke, I spoke.
Then they chose one child who had been in the afterschool tutoring program to speak. And he came up to the microphone. He was a sixth grader who had been tutored in his last semester of the fifth grade. He was a big awkward kid, almost six feet tall. And he got up to the podium and looked out at the crowd that to him must have looked like a crowd this big. And he didn’t say anything. And he froze at the microphone. He didn’t say anything for 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds 40 seconds, 50 seconds. And I was sitting off to his right. I was just about to get out of my chair to encourage him, when I literally saw him pull himself up by his heels, and then he began.
He said, “Last year, I was stupid. But then Mrs. Palmer began working with me and four other kids four days a week after school.” And then he stopped again. This time there was about 25 seconds of silence. And he stepped up to the microphone again and his whole body language seemed to change, and he broke into a big grin and he said, “And now I’m not stupid anymore.”
And I thought to myself as I looked over at Mrs. Palmer, who makes far less money than she should in this society because she’s an elementary teacher who works in difficult conditions, who must have a hard time on a daily basis, and I thought that one four- or five-minute talk must have made it all worthwhile because she changed his life. The first young man who came up to the microphone and said, “Last year I was stupid,” had no self value, no self esteem, no self worth. He was headed to becoming a dropout. But the second young man believed there was nothing he couldn’t do. The whole course of his life had been changed by just that one teacher.
Not everyone’s going to have the chance to do what Mrs. Palmer did, and not all of you are going to go into public service. But even in the private sector, find some time to tutor a second-grader who is having trouble reading. Your work will help to change that young person’s life, and you’ll feel great about it. The best part about volunteering is not just the good that you do, but how you feel inside. You’ll feel a tremendous jump in your own self esteem. If you can change one life, you’re a very valuable commodity on this earth.
John Wooden, the very famous UCLA basketball coach, said “You can’t have a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you,” and that, to me, is the true meaning of life.
So, ladies and gentlemen of the Class of 2008, I hope you’ll live productive lives and have wonderful careers. I hope you’ll define success for yourself and not be afraid to fail. Don’t be impatient, and build upon what you do each day. And I hope you’ll find the time to give back.
As I was preparing for graduation speeches years ago, I found a wonderful quote that I’d like to give to you in closing. It was from someone who was talking about his own life and what he wanted to accomplish. He said, “I hope my achievements in life shall be these: That I will have fought for what is right and fair; that I will have risked for that which mattered; that I would have helped those in need; and that I will have left this earth a better place for what I’ve done and for who I’ve been.”
So, members of the Class of 2008, go out there and do great things, and I hope that most of you do them in Pennsylvania.