Commencement Address to the Texas A&M Colleges of Architecture and Liberal Arts
May 13, 2005
Texas A&M has had a profound impact upon my career, my life and my values, and that is why I consider it a deep privilege to join with you, my fellow Aggies, and your families today.
When Lincoln drafted his Gettysburg address, he wrote, “The world will little note nor long remember what we said here…Actually, I think he must have been thinking about college commencement speeches…
Of all the best-selling books I have read since my own commencement here, I cannot recall one of them being titled, How My Commencement Speaker Changed My Life.
What I do hope is that for a few moments today you will reflect on what your experience here at A&M has meant to you.
We Aggies come from different backgrounds, interests, races, religions and countries. We are architects, engineers, doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and much more.
Yet, there is a special kinship among all of us who wear the Aggie ring. While it is a spirit that can n’er be told, I find that spirit felt most deeply in our revered traditions of Muster, Silver Taps and the 12th Man.
To me the common bond of these three great traditions is the understanding that we are not in this world alone, that life isn’t about our own self but rather about us together.
Three centuries ago John Dunne wrote the now famous words, “No man is an island unto himself…. Think how the world has changed since 16____, but the enduring truth of Dunne’s observations lives on. In a way, that is what Muster, Silver Taps and the 12th Man is all about.
At Muster and Silver Taps, we say in a real sense every person, every life is special. Then, as the symbolic 12th Man, we accept that we must be willing to be a part of making a difference for others.
It took me a long time to realize that the spirit of the 12th Man isn’t just about A&M football, it is about life itself. It is about our being willing, as Aggies, to make a positive difference in the lives of others.
Of all the lessons I learned at A&M, the one that stands out above all others to me is that each of us has a responsibility to make a difference for others.
As I look back on my years at A&M, I realize that the ideal of making a difference wasn’t just expressed in our traditions, it was personified in faculty, staff and students here.
To me, the Aggie spirit was personified by Members of the Corps of Cadets who were willing one day to defend our nation. It was Earl Rudder, who led his Rangers up Point du Hoc on D-Day. It was J. Wayne Stark, a lawyer, who gave up his profession and monetary wealth to teach generations of MSC’ers about the values of leadership and service. It was Congressman Olin E. Teague, Class of ’32 who fought for his country in combat and served his country and beloved alma mater, Texas A&M in Congress.
There’s another person I met here, far less known than the names of Rudder, Stark and Teague, but I will never forget Dr. John Paul Abbott, my first English professor at A&M. He changed my life.
By immersing me in the timeless values and questions of great books—from Don Quixote to Dante’s Inferno, from the Iliad and the Odyssey to Plato’s Republic, Dr. Abbott challenged me to think—about my life and values and about the world around me. He gave me an appreciation for how literature, history and the arts can add a richness to our lives that cannot be measured by modern day monetary standards.
In the business of my post graduate career, I never thanked Dr. Abbott, so I do it now, recognizing that I should have done so years ago but hoping that somehow in his learned wisdom, he understood that he had made a profound difference in a young Aggie’s life.
What took me many years to truly understand was that the most important lesson Dr. John Paul Abbott taught me came from his life, not from his beloved great books. You see, Dr. Abbott, Phd, who taught English at A&M for____ years, probably never made over $40,000 a year in his life, but in my book, his life was an unqualified success. Why? Because he dedicated his life to making a difference for others—by challenging us to think, to question and to savor life itself and the world around us. What a gift he gave me and so many other Aggies, a gift I hope to pass on to my two young sons, and, thus, in a real sense, keeping alive the spirit of my freshman English professor from 34 years ago.
So, this is the one message I share with you today as a fellow graduate of Texas A&M.
Choose to make a difference in the lives of others. How you do that—as a teacher, a lawyer, architect, an entrepreneur or as a public servant, good neighbor or loving parent—that must be your choice, not mine or anyone else’s.
There is much I don’t know in this complex world of ours and studying philosophy, history and literature at A&M taught me, above all, intellectual humility. Yet, there is one thing I feel as certain about as my faith and my life can allow me—your life will be more fulfilling if you live it committed to making a difference for others.
As you face so much that lies ahead in your life, perhaps it is difficult to even think about the end of your life many years from now. But, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad idea, as you begin your careers or families to think what you would want others to say about the life you led.
I can’t help but think it would be sad to think one’s life was like a footprint in the sand at the edge of the beach—washed away with the next wave, as if it has never been there.
When visitors come to Washington and visit the memorials and monuments dedicated to our nation’s historic leaders—Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln—I fear that they might come home with the mistaken impression that history is molded by only the famous few.
In the hallowed grounds of Arlington Cemetery, at the foot of the gravesite of Robert F. Kennedy, the words he spoke in South Africa in 1966, during the height of racial apartheid, speak to us today:
“Human history is shaped by numberless diverse acts of courage. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or strikes out against injustice or acts to improve the lot of others, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. And, crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples can build a mighty current that can knock down the greatest walls of oppression and resistance.”
When Rosa Parks, an African-American woman with no wealth or title living in the segregated Alabama of the 1950’s exercised one small act of courage by refusing to move to the back of a bus, she ignited the Civil Rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s.
My wish here today is that in whatever way you choose, large or small, you, too, will become ripples of hope for a needy child or your family and friends, for your neighborhood or your community and country.
I would never presumptuous enough to believe this commencement speech would change your life, but if you will think about and live out the true meaning of the Aggie Spirit, it will not just change your life, you will make the world a better place.
After all, the 12th Man isn’t just about Aggie football, it is about the deepest meaning of life itself.