Gettysburg College Commencement
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Throw yourself over the bar, and your body will follow.
Good luck to you, graduates. And congratulations.
Content Archived: March 12, 2010