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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

Justice's Commencement speech

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Chief Justice Frank J. Williams
Commencement Address
University of Rhode Island
May 21, 2006

President Carothers, Chief Judge Frank Caprio, Chair of the Board of Governors for Higher Education, members of that Board, graduating seniors, distinguished faculty, dedicated staff, alumni, family members, and guests. Thank you for this great honor – especially the opportunity to say a few words to the members of the Class of 2006.

I asked Professor Craig Overton to survey the students in his Labor and Management class and Professor Craig Berke in his Public Affairs Reporting and Writing class for suggestions for this commencement address. The students of Management 423 also weighed in with their thoughts. All of you agreed: “Be short, entertaining, not the same old, ‘now you are going off into a hard world,’ and try to end with some kind of profound statement or quote that we can long remember after graduation.” A tall order, but I’ll try.

Legend has it that the longest commencement address lasted six hours and was given, where else, but at Harvard College. As if the length wasn’t bad enough, the first half was in Latin, the second half was in Greek.

I assure you that my first three hours will be in English.

But don’t worry, I intend to stop speaking before you stop listening. I am fully aware that after years of classes, professors, and exams, I am the final hurdle between your collegiate past and your professional future.

There were two pieces of advice my Father, URI Class of 1940, always gave me and that I want to share with you: Be honest and be fair. As you move through life, remember there is no real difference between individual values, community values, and corporate values. Good ethics are what make a good society.

As we gather today to commemorate and celebrate your academic achievement, allow me to express my hope that you will leave here fully prepared to live life to your potential.

A year before George Bernard Shaw died, he was asked by a journalist to name a famous person – a statesman, artist, philosopher, or writer – whom he missed the most. Sadly, Shaw replied, “The man I miss the most is the man I could have been.” Don’t let that happen to you.

Embrace your future and stand up and be counted.

The shortest commencement address has been attributed to either Andy Rooney or Woody Allen. It was just two sentences: “We’ve given you a perfect world. Don’t screw it up.” They were wrong. It is not a perfect world.

I am mindful that for many of you, your senior year in high school was marked by the attacks of September 11 and in your senior year here you witnessed the horror brought about by Hurricane Katrina and our unpreparedness to deal with destructive natural forces.

Yet, before you arrived at this great institution, you also witnessed how blessed we are as Americans and how united we can be with all people whose aspirations to freedom and justice are threatened by violence and cruelty. May we never forget that!

All of us recognize that you entered this institution from a changed world.

The terrorists who planned those attacks do not understand the value of liberty. They were cowards who believe that liberty is corrupting, that the right to the pursuit of happiness makes us weak. They hold us in contempt. But they badly misjudged us.

As you continue in the race of life, my hope is that you despise violence and seek to resolve your disputes peacefully, through mediation, with honesty and candor.

Speak up, state your mind and express yourself always, with what Abraham Lincoln called “cold, calculating reason.”

It has been a few years since my own college graduation. And in that time I have had the honor and the pleasure of interacting on a personal and professional level with a wide variety of people. As it turns out, the people I admire most, those whose successes inspire me, are not the people whose resumes are the longest, or who appear on the New York Times best sellers list. They are the people whose dedication and determination are long term—the people who get up every day and “make the donuts,” who endure far beyond the “friction and abrasion” of our culture. They possess a fire in the belly. They demand more: from the people around them, from the world at large, and most importantly: from themselves. I commend to you the words of the great twentieth century Spanish philosopher, Ortega y Gasset: “The person of excellence is the one who demands a great deal of himself. The vulgar person is the one who demands nothing of himself.” My hope and prayer is that each of you will strive to be a person of excellence each day of your lives.

As you contemplate your occupation and set a course for your future, I look again to Andy Rooney—a slightly more substantive speech this time! When he delivered an address in 2000, the deadly Hurricane Katrina had not yet wreaked her havoc on the Gulf coast. And yet his sentiments apply strongly today: We need more craftsmen who take pride in their work. After all, who’s going to rebuild those homes and businesses destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and along the Gulf coast? “An interactive communications network? A virtual meeting? I don’t think so. It’s going to take carpenters, plumbers, and electricians. * * * Don’t rule out working with your hands. This does not preclude using your head. There’s no reason education should be incompatible with craftsmanship.”

There will probably come a time in the future when you feel you’ve “made it” and you’re comfortable with your personal achievements, you’ve achieved the status you deserve and the professional accolades I know a class of this caliber will garner. At that point, most of you will feel the satisfaction of a life well lived. And no one will challenge your right to feel that way. But for some of you, questions will remain even after your fight for survival and personal comfort has been won. “Am I really comfortable? Or is there more I can do—for myself, for this, the country that gave me so much? And if so, should I?”

You don’t have to settle for an America that says, “This is as good as it gets: we can’t do any better.” You have the power to change and improve your world. As Abraham Lincoln said to the Congress and the American people during civil war, “It is not ‘can any of us imagine better?’ But ‘can we all do better?’ . . . The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall our selves, and then we shall save our country.”

To do this one needs to be a leader and I submit to you, leadership leads to greatness.

The great leader is one who is willing to “lead under fire.” Now you may think, “Hey, I am not going to be a soldier, so I won’t be on any battlefield.” But every calling has its battlefields – the courtroom, the classroom, the board room. You will surely find yourself in your chosen profession’s battlefield facing challenges, meeting adversity, setting the example. You will be tested. Remember, a leader must step forward and lead – our ethics demand it and our citizens deserve it. When you leave here today, you will be up to the challenge.

During your years here you have learned the crucial balancing skills of an academic life with an active life. You have hit the books, and gone beyond the books. You have questioned authority where appropriate, challenged the sentiments and politics around you and learned that you can depend on yourself to succeed. It is all these traits together, and all your years of hard work, enthusiasm and dedication to your craft, your peers and your school, that have shaped you. You are now ready to go out and do something about the world in which we all live – to go on the long patrol in the “race of life.”

I know that President Carothers admires good poetry – as do I and undoubtedly as do many of you, too. So let me close my remarks – since I promised you that I would end with a great quote – with the following unforgettable lines from the great Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into the good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I am confident that not one of you will “go gentle into that good night.” I am certain that, by this point in life, a fire in the belly has been kindled in each of you.

You have the spark to ignite that fire and the tools to keep it burning. Don’t let that fire be extinguished.

Since, as you know, I love American history because it shows the way to the future, let me offer a bonus quote well worth taking home with you – and into your future. Abraham Lincoln once told the American people:
Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We . . . will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.

You are the latest generation and you won’t escape history. Now take the future by storm and be amazing.

Thank you and good luck.