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School of Communication/School of International Service
Donald Graham, Chairman and CEO, The Washington Post Company
May 14, 2006
Well, I got my doctorate a lot more easily than this faculty got theirs, I’ll say that. [applause]
Dr. Broder thank you for that marvelous introduction. I was actually once actually introduced by someone who said Graham you’re entire career has been an inspiration to little boys and girls everywhere whose mother owns a Fortune 500 communications company.
President Kerwin, distinguished faculty, Provost Broder, deans, families of graduates. And above all, graduates. Or, you will be graduates as soon as I quiet down.
Over every college graduation in the year 2006, there hangs a weighty question: how in the world did you guys pay for this place. [applause]
It is fitting as Ben and Kyle both noted in absolutely wonderful speeches that graduation day is also Mother’s Day. I suggest your graduation speaker, a graduation speech of your own for later today: Mom, Dad… Thanks a lot. [applause] This is good advice, but I do not recall making that speech myself.
Dr. Broder noted that I went to Harvard and there are key links between American University and Harvard that stretch back many, many years. And, I do not refer to the fact that both institutions have rather publicly changed presidents recently. The most famous AU and Harvard story is one that all the students knows, but many of you AU parents do not, so I get tell it.
It was early in the 20th century, but Harvard already had a rapacious fundraising department. A great, great grandson of General Artemas Ward was willing to leave a millions dollars to Harvard, but on one condition: that the university would see to it that a statue of General Ward was erected in Washington. Now, General Ward was a pretty obscure Revolutionary War leader, but the truth is her really didn’t do much of anything at all, but Harvard’s lobbyists were up to the task. They won the right to put a statue at Massachusetts and Nebraska Avenues. As I said, this was the early 20th century and the equivalent today would be to be told to put your statue on the other side of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Now, all Harvard had to do was build the statue, but the sharp-eyed finance types at my university were watching. They had taken the money, they had agreed to put up a statue of the general, but they had not agreed to pay for a horse. Every other 18th or 19th century general in who got a statue in Washington is mounted, but thanks to Harvard General Ward stands among all the traffic on Ward Circle looking as if he desperately need a ride. [laugh and applause]
This why Harvard has a $26 billion endowment today.
Harvard also provided AU’s most famous graduation speaker, and we have all been in his shadow since. President John F. Kennedy used this occasion to propose a nuclear test-ban treaty with Russia. I do not think I can top that. But I have read his speech and mine will be much shorter. [applause] Thank you.
So, since I cannot propose any test-ban treaties, I will tell one story from my own life, suggest one thing for yours, and sit down.
Students, graduates, I admire you so much. I know enough contemporary college students to know how much struggle and how much scholarship is represented by your graduation. May of your parents preceeded you to college, but there are many first-generation college graduates among you. The stories of your lives are more interesting than the story of mine. But you are stuck with me for a speaker, so I venture this quick story.
The most important moment in my own college education came two months after I graduated from college. When I had an experience I sincerely hope none of you will have to undergo—I was drafted.
Having lived most of my life in elite a setting, I was now in the ultimate non-elite place. Without asking for it, I then got sent for a year to pretty much a rear-echelon role in Vietnam.
My own service added absolutely nothing to the American military effort. I was sort of a 20th century Artemas Ward, if you will. [laugh] It added quite a lot to me, though. I served with young men who never had a hope of going to a college like this. Some were as undistinguished as soldiers as I was. Some were born leaders; others were level heads, loyal friends or incredibly brave.
Emboldened by my military service and self-consciously seeking a little more education, I then spent a year and a half as a police officer in Washington, D.C. I believe I can say I did not arrest any of the people sitting on the platform with me today. I aced all the tests in the police academy. But, in my platoon at Number 9 Precinct, if someone had needed a police officer who could handle a difficult emergency, I wouldn’t have ranked in my own Top 10. Common sense, experience and street smarts trumped formal education. One of the cops I’d have given high marks to now the chief of a big-city police department today. Two of the very best never got promoted above private.
Education is great—none of you will ever regret for a moment that you studied at this wonderful place. That is for those of you who studied. But, a lot of the most important qualities in life don’t get handed out with college degrees.
My suggestion is primarily aimed at you who want to go as quickly as possible as straight as possible from this wonderful place to other top institutions: law school, business school, medical school, consulting firms, think tanks, university faculties. All great places that will bring you great benefits. But, the rarified of theme will expose you to only a pretty narrow slice of life.
My humble suggestion would be: since you’re not going to be drafted…and no, I don’t think you should be…at some point in your life draft yourself. Send yourself for a year or two to a setting where you’re asked to do something utterly different. This country has enough work to do—this city alone has enough work to that there is plenty of challenge for us all.
Those of you joining the U.S. military through ROTC or through your own choice immediately after graduation, I cannot tell you how much I admire you. [applause] Those of you joining Teach for America, or the Peace Corps, you should already consider yourself drafted. Those of you going on from the School of International Service to international service, when you come back to the reunion, you can tell them you gave something back, but you will also be able to tell them how much you learned from it and how much it meant to you.
Enough, and thanks for your patience.
Today, I do not care about the cloud—the sun is shining brightly. Today, we graduate a class of geniuses and clowns, of teachers and learners, of future leaders and future average Joes and Janes. But, you know what—to hell with the future. It’s a great day, you all deserve it. Students, parents and teachers enjoy it.
And, by the powers vested in me as the chairman of the Washington Post Company, I hereby declare that there will be no bad news this morning. [applause, cheers] In the old days I could say, for one thing we don’t have to publish until tomorrow.
I part with a last word of useful and pointed advice suggested to me by several AU students I met with a month ago planning these remarks: Out in the real world, it is considered very bad form to ring the fire alarm at 2 in the morning. [laugh] Thank you.
President John F. Kennedy spoke at American University's Spring Commencement on June 10, 1963. In this speech Kennedy called on the Soviet Union to work with the United States to achieve a nuclear test ban treaty and help reduce the considerable international tensions and the specter of nuclear war at that time. (text of speech)
Recent Commencement Speakers