Last Updated June 20, 2008

Spring 2002 Commencement

American University
School of Public Affairs/Kogod School of Business
Commencement Address
Lawrence Small, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution
May 12, 2002

Thank you, President Ladner. I'm deeply honored to be here. Along with so many others here in the nation's capital and, indeed, throughout the country and the world, we are truly grateful to you for all that you, the faculty, staff and administration have done to make the American University the tremendous resource that it is today.

Provost Kerwin, Dean Broadnax, Dean Roomkin, my congratulations to all of you.

To all the graduates, my congratulations on a job very well done. I know it is not easy. Today is the day you actually can "rest on your laurels." You deserve the rest.

To all the parents and grandparents, congratulations also on a job well done. A parent's work is never done, but this is a huge step.

Happy Mother's Day to all the moms. You also deserve to rest today.

Having been to many ceremonies such as this, as a student, as a friend, as a parent, as a trustee and in other capacities, I'm aware that you have given me a "bully pulpit" to communicate whatever message I might feel would be advantageous for the program in which I'm engaged at the Smithsonian to deal with the many challenges faced by this 156-year-old icon of American history, art, and science. But frankly, I was hard pressed to figure out how that would be relevant to the graduating students we honor here today.

So instead, I thought I would pass on what is really just one thought: As you leave here and pursue your careers and your lives, as you leave here with degrees in business administration and public policy, as you leave here with hours of training concerning techniques to analyze, to plan, to organize and control, keep alert to the idea that life has a persistent and interesting way of offering people seemingly accidental opportunities to become passionate, and that passion, tempered by common sense, can be the driver of a very interesting life.

You need to be open to accidental opportunities that may excite your passions, be willing to explore them, see where they take you and then decide, as practically as you can, whether the pursuit of the passion is likely to be able to sustain itself over the course of your life.

What do I mean by "accidental opportunities"? The French call it un coup de foudre, which means love at first sight, the lightning bolt. Ask your parents how they met and you'll get the idea.

Let me illustrate with examples from my own life, which is basically how I got from a hockey rink at Brown University to here.

For reasons that still baffle me today, I was recruited by three schools to play ice hockey. I chose Brown University. I can recall packing up all of my hockey gear in August of 1959, almost 43 years ago, and setting off for freshman week with great dreams of ultimately moving from the freshman hockey team to the varsity, winning lots of games and perhaps making some sort of all-star team.

I arrived at Brown, but in my first week there, before classes even started, an accident happened. I was walking up the stairs of my new dormitory, South Slater Hall, and when I got to the landing between the third and fourth floors, I heard music coming out of the room next to mine. It was music I had never really listened to carefully before in my life, but I instantly knew what it was and it hit me like a real lightning bolt. It was a record of flamenco guitar playing by an artist named Carlos Montoya.

At that moment, in the landing between the third and fourth floors of South Slater Hall, as you can only do when you're 18 years old, I made a decision, a really big decision: I decided I wanted to become the world's greatest flamenco guitarist!

It was an accidental moment. I was open to it, and from that accidental moment on, hockey ceased to become as important to me and the flamenco guitar became an obsession. And I hadn't even attended my first hockey practice yet!

Nonetheless, I became the first string goalie of Brown's freshman hockey team and I finished out the season. We lost half our games and won half, and frankly, it was as if I was just a piece of furniture placed in front of the goal. Most of the shots on goal taken by opposing teams were shot into me without me even moving-and enough got around me and into the goal.

I had a good, realistic sense of how I was doing at hockey. But I wasn't really troubled by it because my real focus was on figuring out how to commute back and forth from Providence, Rhode Island to New York City to take flamenco guitar lessons from a great teacher who had emigrated from Spain to the United States.

At the end of the hockey season, I went to the coach and said, "Coach Fullerton, I know plenty of people think coaching is all about winning games but I recognize there's more to it than that. I know it's just as important for you to impart a sense of values to all of us on the team…values concerning sportsmanship, collaboration, hard work and such. Nevertheless, I know you still have to care a lot about winning and now that you've seen me play for a year, I think it's probably totally obvious to you that I'm no damn good."

"To be truthful, I've found other things I want to do instead of hockey, and given how I play, I think you'd be best served by me leaving the team and opening up my slot as second string varsity goalie this coming year for someone else who will have a better chance of succeeding the current varsity goalie when he graduates in a year's time." Coach Fullerton looked at me very seriously and said, "You know, I'm really impressed that someone who isn't even 19 years old yet would recognize that a coach's role is greater than just winning games. That's really quite something. On the other hand, what you said is quite true…you really are no damn good…so we have a deal!"

That, then, left the field wide open for me to pursue my new passion and off I went to Granada, Spain for my junior year abroad. I arranged classes with first-rate flamenco guitar teachers and I took lessons five days a week. I practiced 8 hours each day. For some reason I can no longer remember, almost six months into the year, I made a list of the top 10 flamenco guitarists in the world at that time-and I compared myself to them.

I won't bore you with all the details, but I had to ask myself, what is the probability that a 6' 3" guy from the Bronx, who had picked up the guitar for the first time at age 18, was going to be able to make a living in a field dominated by 5' 3" Spanish gypsies who were musical geniuses, and all started as child prodigies? I concluded, in my great wisdom, probably not very high.

The net of it is I fell in love with Spanish music and culture. I still play to this day. I still have the passion. I still get incredible enjoyment from playing, but again it was important for me to realize that I wasn't going to get remotely close to achieving my original goal. But there I was, right where this graduating class is today, but with a B.A. degree in Spanish literature and some well-practiced flamenco guitar riffs in my repertoire-and nothing else. Shall we say "by accident," something else had happened to me when I went to Spain to pursue my dream. I had learned to speak Spanish with great fluency, something that wasn't really very surprising since I was a teen-ager and had a decent enough ear for music. And I not only liked being able to speak Spanish. I loved it, and I enjoyed immensely living abroad and immersing myself in a totally different culture.

So I said to myself, "How can I get back abroad again?" Lo and behold, I discovered American banks were expanding into Latin America like mad and that all I needed to do was open my mouth and say a few words in Spanish and a job as a management trainee was mine. I joined Citibank in 1964 at the princely sum or $6,136 a year.

The personnel department said, "Where do you want to go in South America, we're expanding everywhere." Knowing little about geography, I said, "The jungle, I want to go to Chile-far far away." Of course, there is no jungle in Chile, which along with Argentina and Uruguay, is one of the least exotic, most European countries in South America. So, by accident, I ended up there.

By accident, I met the woman to whom I've been married for 34 years. By accident, I learned that I really enjoyed-and became passionate about-everything that goes into what is today called "management." Over almost three decades, I rose through the company's hierarchy to its senior levels. At the same time, being in a company that had 100,000 people in 100 countries, I was able to realize a lot of my aspirations regarding travel, the study of other languages, and cultures, and in addition to flamenco guitar playing, developed, with my wife, a passion for collecting ethnographic art from the world's rain forests.

In 1991, I was recruited by Fannie Mae, the big housing finance company here in Washington, D.C., to become its president-by accident. But I'm going to deliberately leave that tale out to finish with my final story.

In the fall of 1998, the tenth Secretary in the Smithsonian Institution's then 153-year history announced he was going to retire in a year's time. This was no surprise to anyone since it was in accordance with a plan he and the Smithsonian's Board of Regents had agreed to four years earlier when he had taken the job.

A search committee was formed, chaired by two members of the board. One of the two was the husband of a member of the board of directors of Fannie Mae.

Every year, my wife and I send out holiday cards. Usually, we'll have a photograph taken of one of the pieces in our ethnographic art collection and use it as the cover of the card. In the fall of 1998, we had done just that and sent it out to 1,000 of our best friends.

So in January of 1999, right after the announcement of the formation of the Smithsonian's new Secretarial Search Committee, the co-chair of the committee was sitting in his living room thinking, "Where are we gong to find a new Secretary?" He looked up at the mantel over his fireplace where his wife had displayed some of the holiday cards they had received and he saw a picture of just the type of ethnographic art piece you'd expect to see in the Smithsonian-and it came from guess who?

As they say, "the rest is history," and I can tell you, I couldn't be more passionate about what I'm doing.

There's more to these experiences than just accident or chance. The essence of it all lies in the willingness to be influenced by these occasional bolts from the blue, to recognize that there's nothing quite like passion to really summon up the best from your inner resources, but also to be able to pick the moment to realistically appraise whether you're on the right path.

Without that moment on the landing between the third and fourth floors of South Slater Hall when I heard that flamenco guitar record, I might well have spent three more years freezing on the bench as a second string hockey goalie and then gone on to who knows what? Or, without that holiday card landing on the right mantel at the right time, I might have retired and devoted myself to my personal hobbies instead of devoting the seventh decade of my life to working on the modernization of the Smithsonian. But, in both cases, I just felt the passion and was drawn to something I never dreamed I would or could do.

No matter what, the way it has all worked out would have been out of the question for me to have planned, and frankly, I don't think anyone would have even dreamed it at all possible.

That has certainly been true for many, many people.

Very deliberately, I invite you to come visit the Smithsonian. With the exception of this campus, of course, we have some of the best minds in the country, scholars, scientists, curators and many others, working to make your visit enjoyable, educational, and inspiring. We're open 364 days a year and we have everything from pandas to presidents-including the kitchen sink, and I mean that literally. We now have Julia Child's kitchen on display at the National Museum of American History, Behring Center. So please, come see us.