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Gettysburg College Commencement

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Remarks prepared for delivery by
Secretary Mel Martinez
Sunday, May 20, 2001

President Haaland, distinguished guests, Gettysburg College graduates� thank you for the invitation to join you on this special occasion. It is an honor to be here with you in this beautiful and historic setting.

Let me say first� congratulations, graduates. You have earned the recognition you receive here today.

While I was considering the message I wanted to share with you this morning, I came across an interesting quotation. "We live in a decadent age," it began. "Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They inhabit taverns and have no self-control."

Was this a quotation from the frustrated parent of one of these Gettysburg College students? No. Did it date back even a generation, to when I was your age? No. The quotation I just read was found inscribed on a 6,000-year-old Egyptian tomb.

My point in sharing it with you is to illustrate just how common the human experience is from generation to generation.... even from century to century. Throughout history, circumstances change, technology changes, and the times change as well.... but the basic, human emotions and experiences of your generation are not so different from mine, and even from those who walked the Earth some 6,000 years ago.

So even though you and I may come from different backgrounds - and yes, even different eras! - I believe I have a message that is worth sharing.

On occasions like this, speakers are often tempted to leave the graduates with an impressive-sounding piece of advice� something you will spend the next few minutes or so thinking about, and then promptly forget. There has never been a shortage of experts - in dozens of fields, including public service, the entertainment industry, the business world, or the scientific community - eager to step up and share their advice with the leaders of tomorrow. In fact, advice is the one graduation present that does not cost the giver a dime.... which probably explains why you are getting so much of it lately.

Since there has been so much of it offered to graduates over the years, I want you to leave this ceremony today not with a bit of advice, but with a challenge. And that challenge is for you to go out into the world and become compassionate, involved citizens!

When you leave here today and walk through the campus for perhaps the last time, you will have the opportunity to begin making choices for your life you might never have considered before. Where will I work? Am I ready to start a family? What do I see in my future? It is your participation in a free society - a free society bought by sacrifices here in Gettysburg and in the mud of countless battlefields around the world - that gives you those opportunities.

Yet, the freedom you are about to enjoy comes with obligations. "Liberty means responsibility," declared a well-known explorer more than 400 years ago. "That is why most men dread it."

Foremost on the list is taking responsibility for yourself.

Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, who wrote "The Power of Positive Thinking," liked to tell the story of a famous trapeze artist who was teaching his students how to perform on the trapeze bar. He finished his explanations and his instructions, and then told the students to prove themselves.

One student was suddenly filled with terror. He looked up at the tiny perch� envisioned himself falling to the ground� and absolutely froze. He couldn't move a muscle. "I can't do it! I can't do it!" he gasped.

The instructor put his arm around the boy's shoulder and said, "Son, you can do it, and I will tell you how." Then he made a statement Dr. Peale considered one of the wisest remarks he had ever heard. The teacher said, "Throw your heart over the bar and your body will follow."

Taking responsibility for yourself means having a goal and reaching for it.... ignoring your fears and insecurities.... and not allowing others to dictate your decisions and choices. As you leave here today, a graduate, it is not necessary to know the entire route your life will take, because for most people, the trail is illuminated only a few steps at a time. But to get anywhere, you have to at least be somewhere on that path. And you must travel it with compassion.

I certainly could not have predicted my own path in life. One thing I do know, however, is that without the love and compassion of others - many of whom came to me as strangers - my journey would certainly have been far different. In fact, it is very unlikely I would be here speaking to you today.

Among these strangers was Monsignor Brian Walsh of the Catholic Diocese of Miami. Thirty-nine years ago, he helped the children of persecuted families escape Communist Cuba at the height of the Cold War.

Yes, I was one of those children� 14 years old, separated from my family, and just plain scared. But Monsignor Walsh, the Catholic Church, and Operation Pedro Pan brought me here safely and delivered me into the waiting arms of a pair of loving strangers named Walter and Eileen Young, who took me in and raised me as if I were their own child. Two years later, June and Jim Berkmeyer extended the same kindness to me until my family was at last reunited in America.

And as a young adult, I would never have gone on to law school without the advice, guidance, and encouragement of mentors.

Knowing that, I am sure you can understand why I believe - in the deepest part of my soul - in the power of compassion to change people's lives. I think it also helps explain why I was so quick to accept the offer of President Bush to serve as his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He is a leader who understands that true compassion isn't built by government, or exemplified by yet another Washington agency or program. It's found inside families� nourished by strong communities� and represented by simple acts of kindness between strangers.

As the President himself said in his inaugural address, "What you do is as important as anything government does."

If you allow yourself to be guided by compassion for others, you, too will change someone else's life� and greatly enrich your own in the process.

In 1968, at Mexico City, the best runners in the world ran one of history's most grueling marathons. Because of the high altitudes that are hard to walk in, much less run in, many world-class athletes grew disheartened and quit the race.

More than an hour after the gold medal winner had been crowned, the lights were turned off and the last spectators began trickling out of the Olympic stadium. Then, a lone Tanzanian runner entered the darkened coliseum. As he plodded into view, some laughed. Their laughter turned to silence as the exhausted runner, legs wobbling, feet bleeding, right knee wrapped in a dangling bandage, slowly moved across the last 400 meters of his race. The stadium lights flashed back on.

As he took his slow, painful strides, the crowd that mocked him a few minutes earlier now cheered him on. Others, seeing even deeper into the man's spirit, began to cry. When he finally stumbled across the finish line, holding his damaged leg with both hands, the crowd roared.

Years later, someone asked the former Olympian why he had continued to run the race, hours after it was clear he had no chance for a medal. The aging athlete replied: "I come from a small, poor country. Many people made sacrifices for me to go to Mexico City to run in the marathon. They did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish it."

It has been a long journey to this point today, as you finish one lap of your great race and begin another. After you accept your diploma and make your way out into the world, I urge you to remember my challenge and travel with compassion for those you meet along the trail. For like the Tanzanian runner, you have not come all this way just to begin the race.... you've come all this way to finish it.

Throw yourself over the bar, and your body will follow.

Good luck to you, graduates. And congratulations.

Content Archived: March 12, 2010

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